First Aid Kit: Messaging on Violence

Election SOS First Aid Kit: Messaging on Violence

UPDATE: January 13, 2021

After a very helpful conversation with Dorothy Tucker, the President of NABJ (the National Association of Black Journalists), we have adjusted this guide in the following substantive ways:

  • We added a note for journalists to “consider the source” of these recommendations (in this case, peace-builders) when deciding which pieces of advice apply to their practice as journalists.
  • We removed a paragraph that recommended journalists contextualize the root causes of violence and attributed root causes to economic angst.
  • We added the recommendation for journalists to ask people participating in actions against the outcome of the 2020 elections why they are participating and let them speak in their own words.

The version of this piece published on the night of the insurrection (Jan. 6) failed to directly point to white supremacy as the driver of inequalities that often lead to violence, and how those inequities disproportionately affect Black people and other marginalized groups. For additional advice from experts in our Elections SOS Expert Network, please see this write-up.

News organizations have the weighty responsibility to help the public understand the events of January 6 in the U.S. Capitol and around the country. It’s tricky, but crucial to strike the balance of not fanning the flames and creating further division, and not normalizing what occurred.

The following recommendations for journalists are pulled from the experience and insights of more than 70 people who met on the evening of January 6, 2021. The people on that call identify as peace-builders (not journalists), who have experienced contested elections internationally, who study the spread of violence and misinformation, and who work in a variety of roles to support stable communities, democracy and the peaceful transfer of power.

Please note: these are suggestions from experts who bring perspectives from fields outside of journalism. You and your editor(s) should discuss if and how these recommendations may or may not align with your journalistic practices, roles, and newsroom mission.

How to Describe and Contextualize the People Who Were Involved in Violent Acts:

There are a variety of words being used right now for the people who stormed the Capitol today. While some may have been there to protest or take part in the historic day, the folks who were involved in violent acts today should not be called protestors. Instead, consider language that describes their activity:

  • Violent extremists
  • Mob
  • Insurrectionists

Do not independently label people or groups as terrorists unless they have been listed or labeled as such by someone else. Using the word “terrorism,” typically associated Black and brown people in the minds of the audience, detracts from the point you are trying to make.

Contextualize the fact that more than 74 million U.S. citizens voted for Donald Trump, and the 10,000 or so people gathered at the Capitol, and those inciting violence do not represent everyone who voted for Donald Trump. Be careful not to lump all “Trump supporters” together with those who partook in these actions.

Also, contextualize that Donald Trump is not a sole actor, there is an entire system and apparatus that supports him.

Additional resource: If you need to brush up on your understanding of various extremist groups — ADL has a database of profiles with key points, tactics, origins and history.

What to Name the Acts of January 6:

Reasonable people can disagree about the use of words like insurrection, coup, sedition, treason, etc. about the Acts of January 6 and immediately preceding. Be aware that all of the terms above (except for coup) have specific legal meanings. Just as journalists don’t use the word murder casually because it’s a legal term, so too are these.

Ultimately it’s up to your editors and colleagues about how your newsroom would like to describe the situation and the acts perpetrated by those involved. Just remember: today’s actions at the Capitol were not a “protest.”

Regardless of the name you give the acts of January 6, they are unquestionably a threat to our democracy. And whatever words you choose, it’s crucially important to define what those words mean for your audiences. Don’t assume people know the definition and history of those words. Check out this #ElectionSOS Twitter thread to see examples of how you can define and illustrate what these terms mean.

How the Acts of January 6 Intersect with Race in America:

When positioning your coverage, it’s essential that you center it through the lens of U.S. residents of color. If you are in charge of writing or editing coverage and do not come from a marginalized group which has experienced the effects of white supremacy culture, take the time if possible to get eyes on your work from someone who has.

  • It’s important to acknowledge that People of Color have been experiencing the violence and threats of January 6 for centuries.
  • To label these acts as “Un-American” is debatable — there’s a long, violent history behind today’s acts that have deep roots in white supremacy. Call these actions Un-Democratic instead.
  • If you are interviewing people who are showing up to protest, riot or advocate for the overturning of the U.S. election results, ask them why they are showing up and let them answer in their own words. (Note: we acknowledge that not every journalist can safely interview people motivated by white supremacy, fascism, and hate groups. Also: if people’s responses to why they are showing up contain misinformation, you must provide a fact-check in the article or challenge it in some way.)
  • Do not draw a false equivalency between the people who have gathered to protest peacefully and support the Black Lives Matter movement and the people at the Capitol and elsewhere who incited violence and threatened the safety of other U.S. residents. The Constitution protects the right to peacefully assemble and protest, but there is no right to overthrow the government. Do bring up the double standard in law enforcement’s reaction to the violence when applicable in your coverage. Also: comparing the reasons as to why people are showing up to be heard at Black Lives Matter gatherings and why people are showing up to be heard contesting the 2020 results will provide additional key differences between these actions and actors.

Keep in mind that these events can trigger trauma for people who have experienced acts of violence related to their race, ethnicity or “otherness” according to a white supremacy culture. Consider how you can pair your coverage with resources for trauma support and self-care. (See resources from the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma)

Messaging Tips for Supporting Peace

Again, note these recommendations are from practitioners whose primary focus is on peace.

  • Do not call this a Civil War and do not use or amplify militarized language which positions U.S. residents as enemies against one another in battle.
  • Violence is a behavior that can be prevented; make your coverage about the violence, not the actors.
  • Do not use dehumanizing language for anyone involved; dehumanization leads to more violence.
  • The hallmark of American Democracy is a peaceful transfer of power — remind your audiences of the values and ideals Democracy is built upon and the history and legacy of the transfer of power.
  • Prepare for the very real possibility there will not be a forthcoming peaceful transfer of power because of the actions of January 6.
  • Do emphasize your credibility when possible. Explain why people should trust and listen to you. Check out Trusting News for great tips.
  • Praise people in power who are calling to stop the violence.
  • Hold those public figures accountable who incited violence or spread misinformation on the integrity of the election.
  • Resist using a convenient label for people, instead prioritize nuance. Remember otherness can be weaponized.
  • Do continue to listen and ask questions of all involved.
  • Do make room for your audiences to ask your newsroom questions. This moment creates extreme anxiety, and having access to your ear and fact-checked reporting will help them navigate this crisis.

The actions that violent extremists took in Washington D.C. were echoed in gatherings around the country — at various statehouses and beyond. These events and actions did not occur in a vacuum and did not come as a surprise to those paying attention. Those involved have been planning these actions for weeks, out in the open. You can expect to see more actions like those on January 6 between now and inauguration — and even beyond.

The root causes of today’s actions at the Capitol run deep and will take tremendous energy, intention and time to begin to reverse. Do not position the day’s activities as though they are a shock, or that we should expect relations between divided U.S. residents to subside post-inauguration.

Additional Resources

Special thanks to +Peace for organizing the call that surfaced much of these tips, the TRUST Network, Mediators Beyond Borders International and the National Association for Community Mediation for their contributions to this resource, as well as to Dorothy Tucker for her feedback and insights on the original article.