Broken windows on doors at the U.S. Capitol

Broken windows in doors at the U.S. Capitol following a violent riot by pro-Trump supporters on Jan. 6, 2020

EDITOR’S NOTE: This essay and analysis on journalistic language was first published by our friends at The Poynter Institute, and is shared with permission.

 

One of my favorite songs by the great Aaron Neville is “Tell It Like It Is.” That could be the anthem of the moment for journalists, along with the lyrics, “Don’t be afraid, let your conscience be your guide.”

The song played in my head as I read a Washington Post story about the attack on the Capitol written by John Woodrow Cox, based on the work of a team of reporters. I have known Cox’s work from his days at the Tampa Bay Times.

In a tweet, Cox shared a four-paragraph lead about what some have called an attempted “coup.” He characterized that lead as “the most astonishing four paragraphs I’ve ever written.”

Here they are:

As President Trump told a sprawling crowd outside the White House that they should never accept defeat, hundreds of his supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol in what amounted to an attempted coup that they hoped would overturn the election he lost. In the chaos, one woman was shot and killed by Capitol Police.

The violent scene — much of it incited by the president’s incendiary language — was like none other in modern American history, bringing to a sudden halt the congressional certification of Joe Biden’s electoral victory.

With poles bearing blue Trump flags, the mob bashed through Capitol doors and windows, forcing their way past police officers unprepared for the onslaught. Lawmakers were evacuated shortly before an armed standoff at the House doors. The woman who was shot by a police officer was rushed to an ambulance, police said, and later died. Cannisters of tear gas were fired across the rotunda’s white marble floor, and on the steps outside the building, rioters flew Confederate flags.

“USA!” chanted the would-be saboteurs of a 244-year-old democracy.

In linking to that story, Poynter media writer Tom Jones agreed with Cox, calling the lead “among the most astonishing four paragraphs I’ve ever read.”

I think both John and Tom are astonished mostly by the events described, amazed that a president would incite an attack on the Capitol.

I am astonished by the way the lead was written, and by an epiphany: That language that pushes the boundaries of traditional neutrality can be used in a responsible news report. Some may argue that such boundary busting is a bad thing, or at least problematic. We should debate, especially in newsrooms, the language required for telling unvarnished truths, for telling it like it is.

When “plain language” overrides other conventions

I am using the word “neutrality” here rather than “objectivity.” Many of us were raised in a tradition of news writing in which words like “disinterested” (not having a special interest) or “non-partisan” guided our choices.

When someone in power spoke and we wrote “said” rather than “admitted” or “conceded” or “boasted,” we were trying to create a veil of sorts. We wanted to cover the news in a way that the reader could not detect which “side” of the issue the journalist was on. The reporter and editor might share a bias, but both had a discipline of verification to guide them to responsible choices.

Throughout 2020, journalists and critics have debated about whether a new social, political and technological order requires an enlarged set of standards and practices. On CNN’s Reliable Sources, Jeffrey Goldberg, editor of the Atlantic, argued for a “commitment to plain language” in moving forward from the attack on the Capitol.

He imagined sentences liberated from traditional constraints. “We have to describe things as they are,” he said. What really happened on that terrible day? “The President of the United States incited a mob to sack the Capitol to lynch the Vice President – his Vice President.”

This essay is not meant as an invitation to abandon neutrality, only to make good choices about when and how to find a necessary distance from it.

In his classic book Language in Thought and Action, S.I. Hayakawa wrote about the crucial importance of neutral reporting in the life of a democracy. He argued that such reporting was the antidote to the kind of vicious propaganda promulgated by the Nazis.

In one famous chapter he argues that reporters should avoid “loaded” language, words that express opinions or draw inferences about whether something is good or bad. And he favored a kind of realistic balance in description, where a good character has some flaws, and a bad one some hidden virtues.

When “neutrality” bows to the language of engagement

While “neutrality” is one standard in journalism, it’s always been clear that journalists need not be neutral about everything.  They need not be neutral, for example, about violent attacks upon the institutions that make democracy and self-government possible, a system in which they play a crucial role.

Establishing the best distance from neutrality is a task for journalists and those who respect journalism, especially in the aftermath of an administration that propagated attacks on evidence-based enterprises like science and the news industry.

I am going to argue that the following passage is neither neutral reporting, nor investigative work in which “telling it like it is” is often used to shine a light on gross injustice.  The language of this lead stands somewhere in between, and I believe it needs a name. It is not neutral; it is engaged.

The word “engage” has many meanings, some contradictory. But the constellation of denotations and connotations includes the ideas of promise, debt, betrothal, agreement, encounter, and readiness for work, as when gears mesh moving from neutral to engaged.

There remains in journalism a thousand uses for neutrality. But a neutral frame is often insufficient for the job of revealing the truth in the public interest, for telling it like it is.  That’s what makes this passage so interesting.

Police guard the U.S. Capitol a day after the Jan. 6 riots

Police stand outside the Capitol after a day of rioting protesters, Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, at the Capitol in Washington.

Four “astonishing” paragraphs analyzed

Here, then, is my take on these four “astonishing” paragraphs, paying attention to both craft and journalistic standards:

As President Trump told a sprawling crowd outside the White House that they should never accept defeat, hundreds of his supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol in what amounted to an attempted coup that they hoped would overturn the election he lost. In the chaos, one woman was shot and killed by Capitol Police.

The first sentence is long for a conventional lead – 41 words.  But it is followed by a short one of 12 words, a pattern and rhythm of long/short that many writers find effective.

Keeping it together is an almost invisible chronology: the president said something, his followers did something, somebody died.

That order corresponds to key news elements, which the writer must organize for emphasis.  It begins with a subordinate clause, not typical of news writing, but it places Trumps language as less important than the chaos and violence it inspired.  The most important news—the attack — is delivered in the main clause. It may feel heartless to say that the loss of life was not as significant as the attack on democratic institutions. That said, the writer finds a dignified position for news of that loss, at the end of the paragraph, an important point of emphasis.

There have been good arguments inside and outside of journalism on what to call the attack on the Capitol, and what to call the attackers. Even the words attack and attackers will be seen as biased to radicals, especially those who might side with those “patriots and freedom fighters” trying to “liberate the people’s House.”

The verb “storm” has been criticized as romanticizing the action, as in what happens in movies when the heroes storm the castle. But it also contains connotations of the Nazi storm troopers. It seems fair to me.

“Attempted coup” is up for argument, especially among scholars who have studied the different types of actions described by the term “coup d’etat,” literally a “blow against the state.”  Observers and critics have used the word “insurrection,” defined in the American Heritage Dictionary as “The act…of open revolt against civil authority or a constituted government.”  That feels closer to what I think I saw.

The violent scene — much of it incited by the president’s incendiary language — was like none other in modern American history, bringing to a sudden halt the congressional certification of Joe Biden’s electoral victory.

So much is happening in this second paragraph, a sentence of 32 words.  It contains four elements of news: 1) a violent scene at the Capitol 2) ignited by the President 3) the strangeness of the event 4) the background of the electoral count.

The word “incendiary” is not neutral, but among reasonable people an expression of cause and effect. The word “riot” is not used here, but its ghost is lurking behind the word “incited.”

With poles bearing blue Trump flags, the mob bashed through Capitol doors and windows, forcing their way past police officers unprepared for the onslaught. Lawmakers were evacuated shortly before an armed standoff at the House doors. The woman who was shot by a police officer was rushed to an ambulance, police said, and later died. Cannisters of tear gas were fired across the rotunda’s white marble floor, and on the steps outside the building, rioters flew Confederate flags.

This third paragraph comprises four sentences filled with sustained action.  From a craft perspective, they constitute a kind of narrative, as if the reader were flying over the scene.

Although writers say they prefer verbs in the active voice, this passage proves that the passive can offer its own form of vivid and visual language.  A phrase like “the mob bashed through Capitol doors and windows” is as active as you can get.  So is “rioters flew Confederate flags.”

But look at those places where the subject received the action: lawmakers were evacuated, the woman who was shot was rushed to an ambulance, cannisters of tear gas were fired.  Active verbs can be vivid, but so can passive ones.

“USA!” chanted the would-be saboteurs of a 244-year-old democracy.

This is my favorite sentence in the passage, perhaps because of its brevity. It’s a narrative sentence with the kind of engagement that comes where two things are juxtaposed that don’t really belong together. It may not feel like it, but “USA!” has the same effect as dialogue.  It’s not a quote, but spoken language overheard by the reader, transporting the reader to the spot.

What to call those who attacked the Capitol? They are domestic terrorists, and in particular guises, Trump supporters, white nationalists, neo-Nazis, and so on.  The phrase “would-be saboteurs” stands out as distinctive.  It’s been a long time since I encountered the word “sabotage,” with its French etymology related to the word for “shoe.” As I remember it, disgruntled workers might throw shoes into the machinery to gum up the works.

What the writer has to say

That’s my take, which is significantly longer than Mr. Cox’s lead.  He was gracious and helpful enough to submit to some of my questions.

You Tweeted that your lead was the most “astonishing” thing you had ever written. What astonished you?
The language that the moment demanded: “stormed the U.S. Capitol”; “attempted coup”; “violent scene… like none other in modern American history”; “armed standoff at the House chamber’s entrance.” This was a work of nonfiction, but here I was, writing those words. And they astonished me.

I see more than a dozen reporters credited. It seems that you played an old school journalism role – that of “re-write” man or woman. In the old days, reporters would phone in the details and a designated writer would shape it into a story. How did it work in this case?
No one in journalism is better at managing major news events than Mike Semel, the Post’s Metro editor. I’ve seen him do it dozens of times, including week after week this summer as he oversaw coverage of the Black Lives Matter demonstrations. With guidance from our protest expert, Marissa Lang, Mike deployed 18 reporters (by my count) into the field and assigned them where to go and when, along with instructions on what we were looking for and how to stay safe.

Our reporters sent in hundreds of feeds that day. Ideally, everyone files to me through Slack and I cherry-pick what I want to use, but because the cell service was so bad that day, we had some backup systems, the mechanics of which are beyond me, that allowed people to file other ways.

Just after the Capitol was breached, my longtime friend and colleague Peter Jamison called me, because he couldn’t get good enough internet service to file a feed. I could hear people screaming in the background. He sounded out of breath.

“Someone’s been shot,” he shouted. Then the line went dead. I’ll never forget that call.

With a firehose of information coming from so many reporters, how did you decide what to use in the lead?
I’d written quite a bit, pre-publication, when it suddenly became clear early in the afternoon that our story needed to focus on the Capitol riot, which meant I had to start from scratch. I’ve anchored maybe three dozen “ledealls,” as we call them, since I came to the Post, and my boss, Lynda Robinson, has edited nearly every one. We’ve developed a great rhythm, often under intense pressure, and we needed it Wednesday. We decided right away that it needed to open with a line that married Trump’s words at the White House with the attack at the Capitol.

Then I took a couple deep breaths and started to sift through the stream of short, frantic feeds coming in. I had a sense of the sweep I wanted to deliver, so what I was looking for were specific, compelling details — the sort that would let me zoom the camera all the way in. Rebecca Tan and Rachel Chason, two of the extraordinary young journalists the Post has hired in recent years, were among the first to report back on the assault. Their dispatches were stunning. I remain in awe of their bravery.

A few minutes later, I got the call from Peter, about the shooting. After that, I messaged him and Rebecca directly and asked them to step away for a moment and send me fuller accounts of what they had seen. They responded within minutes.

I define news judgment as deciding on behalf of the reader what is most interesting and most important. How did you sort out the news elements and how to stack them in your lead?
The structure of the top came to me almost immediately, which I’m thankful for because it often doesn’t go that way. I talked Lynda through my vision for it, and she agreed. I don’t write much of anything (whether it’s 50 words or 5,000) before detailing it for her. This story had to be written with authority. Knowing that an editor you trust implicitly supports your approach gives you the confidence to do that.

I think of endings as destinations, and l like to write toward them, so after we settled on the first paragraph, I focused on the fourth. In this case, “USA” being chanted by a group of violent insurrections ravaging the citadel of American democracy had to be the concluding beat of that opening thought. It wasn’t the nut graph, in the way we traditionally define them, but it was the essence of the story I hoped we would deliver.

The second paragraph needed to tell, not show. We had to put this event into historical context, while tacking on the news that the riot had stopped the election’s certification.

I wanted a robust third paragraph loaded with arresting detail that would set up the absurdity and horror of the fourth. By then, I didn’t have time to go back through the feeds, so I went with what stuck out in my memory. Years ago, when I was a cops reporter at the Tampa Bay Times and on a tight daily deadline for a narrative, an editor told me to put down my notebook (until fact-checking, of course) and write what I remembered. The best material would surface in my mind. It was great advice, and I think the best material surfaced again Wednesday: the bashing through doors, the armed standoff, the woman shot, the tear gas on the Rotunda’s white marble. The words “Confederate flags” had to come last (I still remember your 2-3-1 rule) to create that juxtaposition with the next word: “USA.”

This was an ongoing story, so how did you update it for the website as more information came in?
The first version we posted was probably 700 words and it ran in print at 1,900. We updated it at least a dozen times, with the last coming a bit before 1 a.m. Our reporters just kept breaking news and unearthing astounding detail. Carol Leonnig learned that a Capitol Police officer had shot Ashli Babbitt, the woman who died. Meagan Flynn talked to lawmakers who thought they might never escape. Peter composed (through a text to me, because he still couldn’t get Slack or email to work) a vivid description of Babbitt being rushed to an ambulance.

It feels as if you were blending reported information with some story telling. That third paragraph has lots of narrative action. How do you think about the mix of information and story elements?
I want everything I write to read like a story, not an article. Scene, dialogue, tension, a kicker worth waiting for. I do my best to thread the obligatory information into those elements rather than taking big pauses that could halt the momentum. It helps, of course, when you’re taking feeds from such a talented group of reporters who can spin together textured vignettes under pressure.

Anything else you think other journalists would be interested in?
I wrote this story, sure, but there’s a reason my byline came last — and if we were allowed to add a dozen more bylines, it still would have come last. My colleagues risked their lives to tell the world what was happening. That’s not hyperbole. A member of the maskless mob surrounding them carved “MURDER THE MEDIA” into a door. But they were undeterred. I’ve never been prouder to be a journalist or to work at the Post than I was that day.

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Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at The Poynter Institute since 1977 and is the author of 19 books on journalism and the writing craft.

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