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WCPO News Director: Every word we use to describe DC events matters

Electoral College Protests
Posted at 3:42 PM, Jan 07, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-09 16:37:07-05

Words matter.

I’ve written columns in the past about the words we use and why they matter so much. One simple word choice can change the meaning or feel of a news story.

That is why we are so careful about our word choices.

But what words are appropriate for the unprecedented events that took place on Wednesday in Washington?

Our newsroom and journalists across the country have struggled with what words to use to describe the storming of the Capitol. We spent hours discussing and debating how to characterize what was happening.

We started with the definitions we used throughout 2020:

Protest: A group of people gathering to advocate against a particular action.
Demonstration: An organized group of people gathering to express a political opinion.
Riot: A large gathering of people in which widespread violence – either against people or property – occurs. This does not have to be tied to a political movement or anything like that. For example, there are sometimes riots after sports teams win or lose.

We have used these definitions for reporting on protests and gatherings all year.

Much like the protests that took place in the wake of George Floyd’s death, there were different people involved and different parts of the crowds behaved in different ways. Some portions of Wednesday’s events were peaceful.

However, at some point, a large group of President Trump supporters in Washington pushed their way into the Capitol building. There was trespassing, property destruction and a significant delay in government proceedings; a “chemical irritant” was used by Trump supporters, 25 police officers were injured and one woman was shot and killed.

How can we sum up what happened in just a word or two that accurately connotes the scope of what happened without sensationalizing it?

We started by calling the people there protesters. Just as I think the events began as a protest. But quickly part of the group began to exhibit actions that go beyond simply protesting. People damaged property and broke laws.

Our solution was to be clear about the language our journalists used and focus on the facts.

Here’s what Senior Real-Time Editor Pat LaFleur wrote about the situation (keep in mind this was written at 4:37 p.m. Wednesday): “What began as a protest against Congress' expected move to certify President-elect Joe Biden's victory on Nov. 3 quickly escalated to violence as people in the crowd began shoving their way past law enforcement barricades. Ultimately, police deployed tear gas in the rotunda, and one person remained in critical condition Wednesday afternoon after being shot during the incident, according to multiple news outlets.”

Rather than use words that can be interpreted in different ways or evoke sensational imagery, we are choosing to focus on facts.

Meanwhile, we have a responsibility to report the opinions of others about Wednesday’s events.

Here are three examples of leaders with ties to our region and how they described what happened:

Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said: "The US has faced greater threats than the unhinged crowd we saw today. They tried to disrupt our democracy; they failed. This failed insurrection only underscores how crucial our task is."

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear said: "When you try to use force, intimidation to get what you want, to overthrow an election, to stop the business of Congress, yes, you are acting as a domestic terrorist.”

Ohio Senator Rob Portman said: "The right to protest peacefully is protected under the Constitution, but the actions by violent mobs against our law enforcement and property at the U.S. Capitol building today are not."

Sometimes we only have room for a few words to describe a situation. It isn't always possible for our team to offer multiple-sentence explanations of what happened. But we always will do our best to be accurate and avoid sensationalizing.

As always, feel free to share your opinion of our coverage with me.

Mike Canan is the Senior Director of Local Media Content at WCPO. Contact him at mike.canan@wcpo.com. Follow him on Twitter or Instagram at @Mike_Canan.