Political journalism is a tough job. Politics is, by its very nature, a sensitive and divisive topic, so perhaps there is no area of journalism in which using the correct language is more important. A choice word here or there can totally change someone’s outlook on the situation being reported on, and with it, their political stance. For example, one segment on The One Show a few years back questioned people about certain policy ideas, many of which they liked – until they learnt that they were agreeing with Jeremy Corbyn. All it took was the words “socialist” and “Corbyn”, and suddenly they were horrified. It is why people of different political leanings read newspapers that tend to support their views, as it affirms their stance, rather than challenges it.
But regardless of an outlet’s own biases, there is – or should be – an obligation to report the events as factually as possible. Sometimes there will be errors due to misinformation from the source, for which the reporter cannot be blamed. On the other hand, however, the papers and websites themselves can also be at fault, something which became evident during the horrific events at the Capitol.
What was happening was clear for all to see. Trump had incited a mob of his most devoted supporters, some of whom had traveled there from states as far away as Arizona, to attack the Capitol and interrupt the process which would confirm Biden as the next President. At various points during the siege, we saw one person with Speaker Pelosi’s podium (possibly with the intention of stealing it), more photos of people invading various offices and damaging Government property, and even someone in full combat gear carrying zip-ties, suggesting that he intended to start a hostage situation. Explosives were also found nearby. The whole thing was utterly terrifying and an assault not just on the building, but on democracy itself.
So why, then, were so many media outlets being lenient on those involved? At best, they were rioters and there is a very strong case for them to be labeled as domestic terrorists, something backed up by the FBI’s involvement in bringing the perpetrators in. And yet, throughout the reporting, various outlets including the BBC, ABC, and Forbes labeled them merely as “protesters”.
Let’s be clear: this was not a protest. Most protests are peaceful and those that do get violent are normally limited to hand-to-hand scuffles and perhaps some looting of high street stores. Nobody likes to see any of that but there is simply no equating it to breaking into the Capitol and attempting to destroy democracy as we know it. This was an insurrection. This was an attempted coup.
Yet, the media were reluctant to say that and this is a dangerous route to take. By calling them “protesters”, they legitimised their cause, giving them leeway to plead their case. This, in turn, would allow some readers to see it from the rioters’ point of view; that the election was “stolen” and they are simply trying to save America. By trying so desperately to remain impartial, the media outlets became complicit in their actions and in turn, only helped their cause.
In many ways, you can understand why the media would want to be so careful. Indeed, one rioter graffitied a door of the Capitol with the words “Murder the Media” and multiple rioters stole TV equipment in order to destroy it. Those who were involved in the attempted coup clearly harbour no love for the media and it comes as no surprise that the news corporations wouldn’t want to anger them any further.
But the answer is not to back down and give in to them, in an effort to somehow bring these people back onside. If they’re writing “murder the media” on the Capitol, it’s safe to say they’re not going to be tempted back by some neutral wording. Instead, call them out and ensure that everyone else knows who and what these people are. Call a spade a spade and label them properly, as attempting to be impartial only allows breathing room for the rioters.
There is nothing controversial about reporting the news when it is exactly that – the news. On that day, especially in their headlines, the media let themselves down by showing a lack of backbone in order to try and seem impartial. It’s an issue that spreads beyond the Capitol riots; indeed, the BBC first tried to label record producer and, more pressingly, convicted murderer Phil Spector as a “talented but flawed” man in their original headline announcing his death. If you’re calling a murderer “flawed” in an effort not to anger his remaining fans, you are not doing your job properly.
News outlets need to recognise that they can be strong in their words if the situation calls for it. An assault on democracy is not the time to be coy and shy with the use of language; if an act of domestic terrorism is taking place, say so. To not do so is to give the insurrectionists the benefit of the doubt and we cannot allow for that wiggle room. Backing down is how fascists rise up and good journalism is one of the biggest barriers to that. Give journalism its spine back and then we’ll see how well the would-be fascists get on.
Words by Benjamin Hobson