NEW YORK – At first, viewed from a distance, it was a rally or protest. Then it became an assault, a riot, an insurrection, domestic terrorism or even a coup attempt. The language used by the American media to describe last week's Capitol siege proves one thing whatever your perspective: Words matter.
The coverage has sent Americans scurrying to the dictionary and news organizations carefully considering terminology.
The use of “riot” as a descriptor is almost universally accepted, even though the word has become fraught with racial connotations and despite the relatively gradual way the story unfolded.
“Some stories evolve and reveal themselves over the course of hours and days and this was one of those stories,” said Al Ortiz, vice president of standards and practices at CBS News.
The first images most people saw on Jan. 6 were from above, with attendees at a rally where President Donald Trump spoke who eventually moved, like sea water in a tsunami, toward and around the U.S. Capitol.
So, initially, they were called protesters. But it became clear, as many breached the Capitol and lawmakers fled for safety, that more was happening. The Associated Press told staff members that protest was too mild a word. Phrases like “mob,” “riot” and “insurrection” were appropriate, noted John Daniszewski, vice president and editor at large for standards.
“Don't call them protesters,” CBS' Gayle King said during coverage the next morning.
Initially, Ortiz warned CBS journalists against going out of their way to use overly dramatic labels like terrorist attack or attempted coup in a story that had enough drama on its own. But that advice changed as more images and reporting became available.
“It was a lot more sinister than it first appeared,” he said.
Five people have died and more than 70 arrested for their actions that day, with the FBI expecting more arrests. The House voted to impeach Trump on Wednesday, citing his role inciting the siege.
Earlier this week, the conservative website RedState posted an article headlined “Enough! There was no riot, insurrection or storming” at the Capitol. Author Mike Ford described it as a “peaceful rally and a largely peaceful protest that was marred by some bad acts by a very few people.”
The next day, editors retracted Ford's piece and scrubbed it from the site. Editors, who did not return messages seeking comment, explained to readers that “many details, opinions and analysis contained in the piece were either incorrect or inappropriate.”
“For RedState to keep maintaining that there wasn't a riot or storming of the Capitol on that day would land the website on a very lonely island,” said Howard Polskin, who publishes The Righting newsletter about conservative media.
While the conservative website Big League Politics said it was “a historic civil rights march by President Donald Trump’s supporters,” it was in a distinct minority.
The New York Times, Washington Post, CBS, NBC, ABC and CNN have all used riot to describe the day. So have outlets with appeal to conservatives, like the Wall Street Journal, Fox News, Newsmax and the Washington Examiner.
The National Review tried to make a partisan point: “Your rioters are worse than our rioters,” was one of its headlines.
The near unanimity came despite riot sometimes being a loaded term, and a subject of debate for how it was applied last summer to unrest following George Floyd's death and Black Lives Matter protests. Some feel it is too quickly applied to situations involving Black Americans.
During the past week, “I think that people in the media have been circumspect about their language and have been choosing their words carefully,” said Ben Zimmer, a linguist and a columnist on language for the Wall Street Journal.
News organizations have been careful not to use words like rebellion, revolt or uprising, which could cast those who stormed the Capitol in a heroic light, he said.
In its coverage, the Times has called it a “mob attack,” “deadly riot” and “violent assault,” and said Trump supporters “laid siege” to the Capitol. The Post has talked of a “horde of rioters” and “terrifying attack.”
“It's hard to overstate what happened,” said Al Tompkins, a faculty member at the journalism think tank Poynter Institute.
The past week has brought phrases not commonly seen into use. One is insurrection, defined as “an act or instance of revolting against civil authorities or an established government.” Another is sedition, or “incitement of resistance to or insurrection against lawful authority.”
Merriam-Webster said the top words looked up in its online dictionary on Wednesday were: insurrection, fascism, impeach and sedition.
“If the times call for these words, they should be used, even if not everybody has a perfect handle on their meanings,” Zimmer said.
The phrase “attempted coup” has been more controversial. It often has military overtones that were absent last week. The AP advises against it, absent evidence that the specific aim was to take over the government. Ortiz has allowed it, reasoning there was clearly an attempt by the executive branch to thwart the legislative branch.
Fiona Hill, a former national security adviser who testified in Trump's first impeachment trial, argued in Politico that it was a “self-coup” done in plain sight on Trump's behalf.
Heading into next week, it will be worth watching if the Capitol riot affects a phrase so commonly used during a presidential inaugural to be almost a cliche: peaceful transfer of power.
“That ship has sailed,” said CNN's Jake Tapper. “We have already been denied a peaceful and orderly transfer of power.”