News & Politics

Washington Post: Say Rioters Took Part in Insurrection or Terror, but Don’t Call Them Insurrectionists or Terrorists

"Describe the acts, not the people," the news organization says.

Photograph by Evy Mages

The Washington Post copy operation sent staffers a memo Thursday night that grapples with how to describe the people who took part in Wednesday’s pro-Trump riot at the US Capitol. The animating idea: “Describe the acts, not the people.”

How does that work after an attack on democracy by a right-wing mob? The memo explains, “Putting incendiary devices on Capitol grounds can be categorized as an act of terrorism, without broadly calling people terrorists. We should be sure to not use terrorist as synonymous with rioter or mob.”

The guidance will probably drive some readers bananas, but it’s broadly in line with a school of thought among people who keep stylebooks that the fewer labels a publication applies, the better: It echoes how the Associated Press explained its decision seven years ago to stop calling people illegal immigrants.

The copy operation says it’s “fine with calling what happened an insurrection” but asks journalists to qualify the term. By way of example, it writes, “attempted, abortive or short-lived” all work as modifiers. The guidance on insurrectionists is similar to the guidance for terrorist: “rather than calling them insurrectionists, it would generally be better to say something like rioters engaged in acts of insurrection or the like.”

The term attempted coup “should be used sparingly” and requires signoff from a senior editor. Basically, the copy operation says, “we don’t want to use benign language, but we don’t want things to unthinkingly escalate in such a way that it seems like we are treating protester, rioter and terrorist as synonyms.”

Full memo:

Attack on the U.S. Capitol – Jan. 6, 2021

As both chambers of Congress convened to certify the results of the electoral college and Joe Biden’s win in the 2020 presidential election, a pro-Trump mob breached the U.S. Capitol. One person, Ashli Babbitt, was shot by U.S. Capitol Police and later died. Three other people died amid rioting of unspecified medical emergencies. Be careful about referring to four deaths generally without specifying the circumstances lest we make it seem like four people died violently.

We should be careful in talking broadly about the people involved and instead focus on the acts:

  • Amid the protesters who gathered for the rally and gathered outside the Capitol, those who breached the Capitol can be called rioters or a mob.
  • Terrorism, domestic terrorism, terrorists and domestic terrorists: Describe the acts, not the people. Putting incendiary devices on Capitol grounds can be categorized as an act of terrorism, without broadly calling people terrorists. We should be sure to not use terrorist as synonymous with rioter or mob. The use of terrorist should raise a flag and should be cleared by a senior editor.
  • Attempted coup: This term has been used but should be used sparingly. Consult a senior editor before publishing.
  • Insurrection, insurrectionists: We are fine with calling what happened an insurrection. But its use should be qualified: attempted, abortive or short-lived insurrection.  Again, it’s better to describe the act than the people. So rather than calling them insurrectionists, it would generally be better to say something like rioters engaged in acts of insurrection or the like.
  • In short, we don’t want to use benign language, but we don’t want things to unthinkingly escalate in such a way that it seems like we are treating protester, rioter and terrorist as synonyms.

Other notes:

  • For guidance on militia, see our entry. [Note: memo links to the Post’s internal stylebook]

  • For guidance on white nationalism, see our entry. [Note: memo links to the Post’s internal stylebook]

  • less-lethal weaponsUse this term rather than nonlethal weapons, because they can kill people. For more on the various types of less-lethal weapons, see The Post’s handy graphic: https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2020/06/05/less-lethal-weapons-protests/

  • stun grenade: The preferred term over flash-bang or flash-bang grenade (if used, hyphenate as both a noun or adjective).

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Senior editor

Andrew Beaujon joined Washingtonian in late 2014. He was previously with the Poynter Institute, TBD.com, and Washington City Paper. His book A Bigger Field Awaits Us: The Scottish Soccer Team That Fought the Great War was published in 2018. He lives in Del Ray.