January 5, 2021

New York Magazine straight out called it a coup attempt. Bloomberg called it a coup in the headline of an opinion piece, as did The Atlantic. CNN’s Brian Stelter argues journalists have to call it a coup. And that was before The Washington Post released the recording of the president and his team trying to intimidate Georgia election officials into changing the results.

The New Yorker has been using the word “coup” in headlines since before the election, sometimes in a speculative manner, more recently without speculation.

The language journalists use to describe President Donald Trump’s actions, particularly in headlines, is critically important to the conversation the American public is having about a peaceful transfer of power.

And that, frankly, makes the stakes higher in choosing the right words. One of the dark turns of American democracy is the perversion of language, where words don’t mean what they are supposed to. Even the word “coup” has been corrupted by this president, who described the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election as a coup. It wasn’t. Nor was his impeachment.

Phrases that once had meaning, like “fake news” (which for a brief moment meant made-up news) and “enemy of the people” (which, until Trump used it, was a signal that the speaker was abusing his power) have been turned on their head. And we’ve argued over whether to call things a “lie,” or call him a “racist.”

In his essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell said of language: “It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”

Trump’s actions, as revealed by the recording of Trump’s Saturday phone call to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, is indisputably startling, though journalists have been suggesting it might happen — and asking him about it — for months.

Which is why now, if journalists find that he has crossed some definitional line and are going to directly report his actions as a “coup,” they have to say why in the story — show their work. And if there is a decision that it is not, explain that too. A few extra words to show precision in reporting always help. I’ve seen reporters use “abuse of power,” “unconstitutional,” “bullying,” “illegal,” “outrageous,” “shocking” and “ominous.”

So is this a coup, or an attempted coup? It’s actually hard to say. You can find very smart people to argue both sides.

Arguments against calling it a coup

Baybars Örsek, a journalist from Turkey, my Poynter colleague and director of the International Fact-Checking Network, says no, this isn’t a coup. He’s been through a few of them. No one is being arrested, the military is not involved and no one is mysteriously disappearing.

“As someone coming from a country with a long history of coups, I strongly believe that what Trump is trying to do doesn’t qualify as one. He is a demagogue and an authoritarian politician, but his actions, to me, are basically an attempt to use his political capital among Republican party circles and dispute the results of the election and communicate his loss to his constituency as a rigged election. Coups on the other hand involve force of the military or armed groups and aim either to overthrow a democratically elected government or to block transfer of power. I don’t see any of those in this case.”

Al Tompkins, a Poynter senior faculty member who works with broadcast news stations across the county, advised caution as well.

“Brevity can be the enemy of clarity,” he said. “If you use the word ‘coup’ in a story and especially in a headline, then you owe the public an explanation of why you published/broadcast/repeated the word and what it means. I would not adopt or ban the use of the word ‘coup’ when referring to the Electoral College count, but I would set a high bar for its use. And when you use it, explain why. If you refuse to use it even in a quote, explain why not.”

Arguments for calling it a coup

David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, who also lived through an attempted coup in Russia in 1991, says the reporting bears out the use of the word.

“This is the illegal attempt by the president of the United States to alter the results of an election,” Remnick told me.

“The biggest obligation and purpose of the press is to put pressure on power,” Remnick said. “To hold a lens, even a magnifying lens, up to that power to see what is true.”

Another of my colleagues, Cristina Tardáguila, assistant director of the IFCN and another coup veteran (throughout Latin America), fears that if we don’t use the word “coup,” journalists are downplaying the gravity of the situation and leaving Americans unprepared for the risk ahead.

“I guarantee that if this call from Trump had happened in other countries, U.S. media would be calling it a coup attempt,” she said.

Remnick said the same. Imagine if we had a recording of Russian President Vladimir Putin saying to a governor in Siberia, “I just need 11,000 more votes.”

How to make the decision

Weighing heavily on the minds of newsroom leaders across America isn’t just whether you can justify calling the behavior of Trump and fellow Republicans a coup. It’s whether their audience can hear the message.

Whatever you call it, don’t underplay the story. Use the tape, publish the transcript, provide expert analysis. But also include key context, annotate the lies and misinformation.

Stephen Fowler, a reporter for Georgia Public Broadcasting, has been intensely covering the Georgia election process for two years. He also received a leaked copy of the tape on Sunday and published his story for GPB and for NPR on Sunday afternoon.

It’s critical to point out that Georgia is a solidly Republican state and that Secretary of State Raffensperger is a deeply conservative Republican, he said. Every story he’s done for NPR’s national audience has included a review of the three times Georgia officials have counted the 5 million ballots cast in the November election, including once by hand.

As a political reporter, he is hyper-aware of the confusion that many news consumers face. Most of what Trump said on the one-hour phone call was false. “It’s not enough to just say, ‘That’s not correct,’” Fowler said. “You gotta say, here’s what is correct and here’s how I know it’s correct.”

Reporting is the key to clarity, he said. He takes care to point the audience to primary evidence and to slow down the story. (Fowler got trained as a poll worker just so he could explain in detail how Georgia’s new election system worked.)

The details of Trump’s call to the Georgia secretary of state offer valuable information for how we understand what is happening in our public life today, and for journalism’s still vital role to document for the record of history.

You only really know a coup in hindsight. Failed ones often seem comical. Successful ones seem tragic. Whether this is a coup, the precursor to an attempted coup, or merely an illegal or unconstitutional abuse of power, it’s critical journalists show the audience the evidence we are providing to help citizens, ultimately, come to their own judgments.

Support high-integrity, independent journalism that serves democracy. Make a gift to Poynter today. The Poynter Institute is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, and your gift helps us make good journalism better.
Kelly McBride is a journalist, consultant and one of the country’s leading voices on media ethics and democracy. She is senior vice president and chair…
Kelly McBride

More News

Back to News