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How Newsroom Leaders Wrestled With Covering A Tumultuous Year

The Jan. 6 Capitol riot was just one story among many over this past year in which news language evolved to more accurately describe the event.
Brent Stirton
Getty Images
The Jan. 6 Capitol riot was just one story among many over this past year in which news language evolved to more accurately describe the event.

Updated June 9, 2021 at 11:31 AM ET

From the pandemic to racial justice protests, a contested election and a second presidential impeachment: The events of the past year divided the nation, but they also challenged conventional notions held in newsrooms about objectivity and fairly representing diverse points of view.

For NPR's We Hold These Truths series examining what is and isn't working in America's democracy, All Things Considered's Mary Louise Kelly has been pulling back the curtain on how the media works to explain why journalists cover the news the way that they do.

For this installment, she spoke with a trio of newsroom leaders: Terence Samuel, NPR's own managing editor for news; Sara Just, executive producer of PBS NewsHour; and Dawn Rhodes, senior editor at Block Club Chicago, a nonprofit news organization dedicated to ground-level local reporting. The group discussed how they've responded to the events of the past year and whether they've made permanent changes to how they report the news. Listen in the audio player above, and read on for highlights of the interview.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Interview Highlights

On choosing the right words to describe key events

Terence Samuel: We had a huge discussion about whether George Floyd was "killed" or whether George Floyd was "murdered." And that was not just a conversation limited to this newsroom, but literally all the readers and all the listeners felt that they had enough information to weigh in on that conversation.

Even when we said he was killed, some people complained that he was murdered, and suddenly "killed" was no longer a powerful enough word to describe it.

Sara Just: One of the phrases I think that we talked about was "protesters" versus "members of the community" [to describe] people who came out to protest. Sometimes that distinction of remembering that these are people in their community, talking about what they want to see in their community, has a different kind of impact.

The other language distinction that I recall having in real time wasn't last summer but on Jan. 6 when we were discussing whether to call the people outside the Capitol "protesters" or "rioters" or "a mob." I remember that day, [the guidance] just changed as the day went along, minute-by-minute.

Dawn Rhodes: Our language was definitely "they stormed the Capitol" and "it was an attempted coup." We definitely used that language, understanding that [race typically informs these decisions]. I think in news media, we probably wouldn't be wrangling over this so much if the color of the people or the demographics of the people doing something like that were different. And so understanding that, if they were a group of Black supporters or Latinx supporters, people would be calling that "a riot." People would be calling that "a horde of people."

One of the things that we struggled with in that language of describing what happened to George Floyd — what happened to Jacob Blake, what happened to Breonna Taylor and so many people last year — was just using active voice. We tried to make a decision to say "police [shot] Jacob Blake," "police killed George Floyd," "police killed Breonna Taylor," and that was a switch.

On whether their newsrooms have changed how they report on police or treat police sources:

Samuel: For a long time in traditional media, when you said "check it out," in some places what that meant was actually "check with the police" because that was the official source. You wanted to see the police report. Suddenly it was clear, and I think people who have been covering protests and police shootings over the last decade or so have come to understand, that police reports are not as reliable as we made them out to be. And so we have gone beyond just relying on police sources and particularly, police reports.

Rhodes: [Being a local newsroom] definitely informs the way that we write about crime and write about anything involving police. Through our reporters being in the community and neighbors [knowing] to contact them to say "Hey, did you hear about this?", very often, we come across people who have seen a crime happen, and they can give context that the police can't. And sometimes the story ends up being very different.

How the current moment has changed how newsrooms think about balance and objectivity

Just: We don't need to go find someone to come on our program to say "Black lives don't matter," but really understanding that reporting on the community must include people with all different views. And so when we talk to people in a community where a protest has happened, we talk to people who participated in the protest., we talk to people who did not participate in the protest — as much as we can. That kind of balance informs our work, even though it doesn't necessarily lead to an actual debate.

Rhodes: I think that we all mean well when we talk about approaching stories with objectivity; I think the intent behind it is OK. But I think that really glosses over who's being served by these very traditional notions of objectivity and neutrality. Our approach to it isn't so much objectivity in the way that we traditionally understand it, it's about being fair. I think that when we start our stories from a place of understanding that a situation is inherently unfair and it's inequitable and that certain people here, they don't have as much opportunity to tell their story, I think that that helps us achieve a little bit of balance because we're starting from a sense of "things are not balanced."

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Ashish Valentine joined NPR as its second-ever Reflect America fellow and is now a production assistant at All Things Considered. As well as producing the daily show and sometimes reporting stories himself, his job is to help the network's coverage better represent the perspectives of marginalized communities.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Sam Gringlas is a journalist at NPR's All Things Considered. In 2020, he helped cover the presidential election with NPR's Washington Desk and has also reported for NPR's business desk covering the workforce. He's produced and reported with NPR from across the country, as well as China and Mexico, covering topics like politics, trade, the environment, immigration and breaking news. He started as an intern at All Things Considered after graduating with a public policy degree from the University of Michigan, where he was the managing news editor at The Michigan Daily. He's a native Michigander.
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.