Tips for covering anti-democratic extremism in the U.S.

By David Maas and Taylor Mulcahey in Journalist Safety


day after a violent mob of extremists descended on the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. attempting to disrupt the country’s democratic transition of power, it’s important that journalists help their audiences process and understand what transpired.

Yesterday’s events have causes and perpetrators, and reporters must provide comprehensive coverage that captures this context. While the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol has subsided, journalists need to be prepared as similar anti-democratic efforts may yet take place in the country in the days leading up to President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration on Jan. 20, and even afterward.

We compiled tips and resources for journalists covering the anti-democratic extremism in the U.S., and its fallout.

(1) Carefully consider the language you use

Before putting pen to paper, carefully consider what language you use in your reporting. Your coverage isn’t taking place in a vacuum — your word choice should clearly distinguish yesterday’s anti-democratic activity in Washington, D.C. from legitimately peaceful protests.

There is little consensus between news organizations on what terminology is best to use. NPR issued guidance to use terminology like “pro-Trump extremists” and “insurrection.” The Washington Post advised its staff to use “mob” to refer to those who converged on the Capitol. Hearken’s Election SOS resource also advises journalists to use “mob,” as well as “violent extremists” to refer to yesterday’s bad-faith actors. CNN elected to go with “domestic terrorism” to describe the day’s events.

What publishers do agree on is that words matter. Consider the ramifications of the language they decide to use. If you are an editor or newsroom leader, convene with others to carefully choose the language you will use, and then offer guidance to your reporters. Above all, avoid normalizing the anti-democratic nature of yesterday’s events in Washington, D.C., and those that may unfold in the days and weeks ahead.

(2) Don’t “both sides” your reporting

“Both sides journalism” is the idea that every point has a counterpoint that should be given equal attention by the media. It has helped prop up anti-democratic views around the world. Avoid falling for this facade of “balance” when covering the events of Jan. 6, and those that may follow.

While it can be helpful for your reporting to be aware of what anti-democratic extremists  believe, don’t offer these views equal footing in your coverage. Provide your readers and viewers instead with necessary context about the lies and misinformation that fuel their actions — and their consequences — using the language above.

[Read more: Tips to report police misconduct around the world]

(3) Save photos, video footage and other online activity

Save any and all information you come across online, before it is erased. This goes especially for incriminating comments, photos and video footage. Bellingcat has spearheaded efforts for journalists to collaborate on this, having learned important lessons from how those involved in the 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville sought to hide their online footprint.

(4) Learn from experiences in other countries — but avoid lazy comparisons

Draw comparisons to incidents in foreign countries only if you are well-informed about them, and they are both productive for your reporting and helpful for your audience to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the situation in the U.S. Avoid careless language comparing the attempted coup to a “third-world country,” for instance, or one-off references to foreign cities that really only perpetuate attitudes of American exceptionalism.

Consider instead visiting foreign publications to see how they are covering the developments. Their coverage of the events can help offer important perspectives to incorporate in your own reporting.

Instead of making loose comparisons, frame the attempted coup and any events that might follow as uniquely American, rooted in white supremacy, incited by far-right political leaders, and fueled by misinformation and lies allowed to run rampant on Facebook, YouTube and other social media sites.

(5) Learn more about the organizers and how to cover them

Yesterday’s violent coup attempt did not occur spontaneously. Organizers were active online in the lead-up to Jan. 6, spurred on by influential political figures and their surrogates across right-wing media in the U.S. While you may be more familiar with the politicians and media personalities who egged on the insurrection, you might not be so familiar with the organizing groups. Get to know these actors and their backgrounds.

Follow reporters like Hannah Allam, Jared Holt and Christopher Mathias who have spent years covering these right-wing groups. Acquaint yourself with organizations that track white supremacist and far-right activity, like the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Anti-Defamation League and People for the American Way’s Right Wing Watch.

The Journalists’ Toolbox, part of The Society of Professional Journalists, has compiled a comprehensive list of resources to further assist your reporting of extreme right groups and their activity: Covering Hate.

(6) Don’t amplify the conspiracy theories fueling the insurrection

Baseless claims and conspiracy theories about November’s presidential election fueled yesterday’s insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. This disinformation was generated and spread by influential media personalities and powerful political leaders, including the president himself. The extremists that forced their way into the building also show ties to the far-right conspiracy theory QAnon.

As journalists, we have a responsibility to provide truth, which often requires correcting misinformation. However, it is imperative to approach this directive with care, so as not to amplify the misinformation we set to correct.

Before doing anything, determine whether reporting on the misinformation spreading in far-right circles is actually newsworthy, and has reached what First Draft calls “the tipping point,” meaning that it has been widely heard beyond conspiracy circles. At this stage, correcting it benefits the wider community.

If you have determined to correct it, lead with and highlight the truth. “Never ever repeat a false claim or misinformation in a headline,” Over Zero importantly advises in a briefing. Instead, create a sandwich for the misinformation. Start with the truth, issue a warning, repeat the false information and end with the true statement again.

[Read more: When covering conspiracies and disinformation, avoid adding credibility]

(7) Stay on the important stories behind the violence

What happened on Jan. 6 isn’t a standalone story, and journalists shouldn’t treat it as such. No matter how long the riots continue, journalists should keep up the story even after insurrection subsides, following the important stories behind the riots.

Here are a few to get you started:

  • The role of Big Tech and social media in fueling disinformation and extremism

    On the evening of Jan. 6, Twitter temporarily blocked President Trump for violating their guidelines. This morning, Facebook did so indefinitely. Much damage has already been inflicted, however, and many have long criticized Facebook especially for its role in spreading hate. Many of the insurrectionists at the U.S. Capitol yesterday planned their activities online, and the relationship between extremism and social media is an ongoing story that requires robust reporting far beyond this week, month or even year.

  • Far-right extremism

    Far-right extremism has been on the rise around the world in recent years, and it has found a welcome foothold in the U.S. A November 2020 report found that white supremacists and similar extremist groups were responsible for two-thirds of terrorist plots and attacks in the U.S. One of these was a thwarted plot by far-right extremists to kidnap sitting Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer. Far-right extremism is a growing threat, and reporters need to report it with care. Journalist’s Resource has tips for reporters on the beat.

  • How this story relates to race in America

    Many have noted the difference between how law enforcement approached yesterday’s pro-Trump rallies and how they clamped down on the Black Lives Matter protests during the summer using full riot gear, rubber bullets and pepper spray. The riots also put on display white supremacist violence that Black and brown people in the U.S. have long called attention to. These stories, and the many other intersections Jan. 6 has with race in America, should continue to be explored. For more, see Hearken’s Election SOS resource.

  • Report on those responsible for inciting violence and spreading misinformation

    The president, members of Congress and influential media personalities spread misinformation that ultimately led to yesterday’s violent events. Journalists should continue to report on the actions of those responsible for the events, even after tensions die down.

(8) Reiterate democratic processes

Yesterday’s events were an attempt to stop Congress from certifying a fair, democratic election. Journalists should emphasize U.S. democratic processes, especially as they happened this year.

“Emphasize that the voters decided,” states a press brief from Count Every Vote. “Use the striking, visible early voting in both the national election and Georgia’s runoffs to remind people of the big picture and contextualize conservative complaints and actions as the desperate attempts of people who are losing and in the minority.”

Reiterate for audiences that U.S. democracy is founded upon a peaceful transfer of power, and prepare for the possibility that one might not occur so smoothly later this month.

(9) Focus on building trust with your audience

Your readers and viewers may be  confused, anxious and uncertain about where things go from here. Create avenues for them to ask you questions and prioritize providing answers. “Having access to your ear and fact-checked reporting will help them navigate this crisis,” states Hearken’s Election SOS resource.

Emphasize you and your organization’s credibility as reporters, and focus on building trust with your audience. For tips and resources on where to start, check out Trusting News.

[Read more: Tips for coping after reporting distressing and traumatic stories]

(10) Stay safe and bookmark these resources

The insurrection on Jan. 6 included numerous threats to the media. The phrase “murder the media” was etched into the Capitol door. A crowd of extremists smashed journalists’ equipment.

Wherever you may be based while you report on these events, prioritize your safety and mental health, and that of your colleagues. Here is a list of resources to assist you:

David Maas is the director of IJNet. Taylor Mulcahey is the managing editor of IJNet. 

Main image CC-licensed by Unsplash via Andy Feliciotti.


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