Last Wednesday evening, America tentatively exhaled after a day unlike any other in our country’s history.
Violent pro-Trump rioters had left the Capitol they’d attacked hours earlier. Congress reconvened for the electoral vote discussion that had been interrupted in the morning. After a dizzying day running The Seattle Times’ social media accounts and homepage, I closed my laptop and went to grab a takeout burrito.
But after my workday ended, as it all began to really sink in, there was one image I couldn’t get out of my mind: “Murder the media,” scrawled in capital letters on a Capitol door.
“Murder the media” was carved into the U.S. Capitol today. There are no words to express how disturbing this is. A free press that’s able to hold those in power accountable is what makes our democracy work. I’m proud to be a journalist & I’m thankful for my colleagues on the Hill pic.twitter.com/C3Xke1dEX6
— Samantha-Jo Roth (@SamanthaJoRoth) January 7, 2021
As journalists shared accounts after covering the Capitol, it was clear many saw them as the enemy. Here’s a selection of their experiences from that day:
Erin Schaff, New York Times staff photographer:
“Two or three men in black surrounded me and demanded to know who I worked for. Grabbing my press pass, they saw that my ID said The New York Times and became really angry. They threw me to the floor, trying to take my cameras. I started screaming for help as loudly as I could. No one came. People just watched. At this point, I thought I could be killed and no one would stop them. They ripped one of my cameras away from me, broke a lens on the other and ran away.”
Sarah D. Wire, Los Angeles Times staff writer:
“A member pleaded with colleagues not to do interviews with reporters. They were worried we might accidentally betray our location.
Kimbriell Kelly, my boss, sent me a message asking for a first-person video of what it was like in the room. I said I couldn’t. Lawmakers were ‘panicked that I might inadvertently give away their location,’ I told her. ‘I’ll do in writing if that’s ok?’
That detail ‘just hit me in the gut,’ she wrote back.”
Mike Theiler, Reuters:
“All my professionalism from 50 years of photography kind of takes over. I started shooting, knowing deep down that you can’t make a bad picture in a situation like that. There were maybe 20 of the rioters in the hallway and only a handful of police trying to restrain them. That’s when I saw that the guy with a Confederate flag had kind of moved off by himself. I’m thinking in the context of — we’re in this hallowed hallway, with the gilded framed paintings on the wall, the bust, the kind of thing that speaks to anyone who has ever been to the Capitol, and I kind of isolated him with that in the background.”
Alice Li, The Washington Post:
“There’s sort of the standard insults you get as a reporter that you learn to expect — enemy of the state, liars, fake news. But I think what also makes going into those situations very difficult is when people start throwing personal insults as well, insults that are related to your sex, insults that are related to your gender, your ethnicity.”
Megan Pratz, Cheddar:
“Throughout all of this, people were stopping to criticize the media, calling us fake news and liars, the stuff I’m kind of used to. But after people started leaving the Capitol, it really ramped up. They were calling us communist; they told me that they were coming for me. Then there were 20 to 30 people who started coming into the area, surrounding each journalist and screaming at us, these hateful, hateful things. You couldn’t see a Capitol Police officer anywhere. That was when we decided we were no longer safe.”
What should students take away from this reality journalists faced last week?
A lot of us got into journalism to uphold noble principles discussed in any introductory journalism class: hold power to account, shine light on injustices, inform citizens so they can participate in democracy. But it’s a hard truth that there are plenty of people who don’t want us to do that.
The journalists at the Capitol kept doing their jobs, even as their own safety was threatened. Journalists at statehouses around the country did the same, some while facing threats of their own.
They kept the world informed, and we wouldn’t have known what was going on without them.
So as you prepare to enter the world of professional journalism, know that the job comes with a cost. You might be met with resistance, name-calling and threats. But take heart in knowing your community and your country is depending on your work. Journalism has a long and storied history within American democracy, and with your commitment, it will continue for many centuries to come.
What should journalists call last week’s attack?
A colleague sent me this New Yorker piece from Jill Lepore after I’d written this issue, and it made me go back and check my own word choices. What’s the best, most accurate way to describe last week’s Capitol attack? It’s not a failed coup, she writes, because a coup involves the military.
Journalists should be aware of the history behind “storming” before they use the term, Lepore writes:
“Hitler’s paramilitary called itself the Sturmabteilung, the Storm detachment; Nazis published a newspaper called Der Stürmer, the stormer. QAnon awaits a ‘Storm’ in which the satanic cabal that controls the United States will be finally defeated.”
Ultimately, there’s no perfect description to sum up these events; the piece is most helpful in warning what words not to use. Lepore suggests a more general description like “The Attack on the U.S. Capitol,” or “The Sixth of January.”
One story worth reading
The Indiana Daily Student could run out of money by May, the paper announced in a recent letter from the editors. “The IDS has been struggling financially for years, but the situation has never been this grim,” Caroline Anders and Emily Isaacman wrote.
“If the university refuses to recognize how urgently we need its help in creating a new model, and no one else steps in, we don’t know what more we can do to save our newspaper.”
The IDS’ note is helpful because it explains what the publication’s needs are, why they’re short on money and how supporters can contribute. It’s safe to say nearly every student publication’s finances have been affected by the pandemic. How can you be upfront about your needs and transparent with your readers when fundraising? (Trusting News has lots of great examples to help you get started.)
Opportunities and trainings
- A housekeeping note: I’m no longer updating The Lead’s summer 2021 internship database because Poynter has launched its own! Bookmark this internship database for paid journalism and communications internships around the country.
- High school students, enter The New York Times’ student review contest by Jan. 26.
- Enter your best digital design work in the Society for News Design’s Digital News Design competition by Feb. 1. You can enter in all categories, in addition to the student ones.
- High school juniors, apply for the Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Conference for an all-expenses-paid conference and $1,000 scholarship. Applications are due Feb. 1.
- Take a free Poynter online training on fact-checking and debunking viral information.
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