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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

What’s in a Name? Solidarity Journalism Initiative and Reframe Deliver Journalism Workshops

Lev Radin/Sipa via AP

The words journalists use matter, as do their story frames and sourcing decisions. Last week, the Solidarity Journalism Initiative (Markkula Center for Applied Ethics) partnered with Reframe (Resolve Philly) to offer three free workshops to journalists, editors, journalism educators, and journalism students across the country. “Covering Insurrection: News Frames, Word Choice, and Deciding Whose Story to Tell” attracted more than 100 participants from across the country, all of whom participated via Zoom.

Anita Varma, PhD, assistant director of Journalism & Media Ethics watched the events of January 6 unfold with deep dismay, and immediately recognized a need for discussion among journalists, editors, journalism educators, and journalism students about coverage decisions.

“By the end of January 6th, I had been following the news for hours which left me knowing more about Senator Josh Hawley than I ever thought possible,” Varma remarked. “What I didn’t learn that day, and I don’t think this was unique to me, was how people in DC were affected, what kinds of conditions of increased fear and terror BIPOC communities were experiencing, and whether the attack was truly over.”

“I also noticed that very few news outlets were calling the events of the day terrorism, and instead were oscillating between protest, mob, coup, and insurrection,” she said. “Thinking about the distinction between these terms and why news outlets were unsettled in the terminology prompted me to reach out to Aubrey Nagle, who is an expert in journalistic language and its significance.”

Nagle, Reframe project lead at Resolve Philly, had previously collaborated with Varma on a series of workshops in June that focused on covering coronavirus and emerging protests for racial justice.

“The choices journalists make about how to describe and frame breaking news events impact how we all interpret history, and I saw plenty of conflicting discussions playing out in real time on air and online that day,” said Nagle. “Making those calls is not easy, but too often decisions about the words we use rely on outdated notions of objectivity and authority. That's why it was so important to make space for these discussions: we can't predict the future, but we can step back and analyze how we make informed choices going forward.”

Each workshop began the hour with an opening exercise in which Varma and Nagle asked participants to characterize the events and coverage of January 6 in a few words using the chat function. Then, Varma gave a brief overview of a solidarity approach in contrast to an elite-focused approach to reporting insurrection.

“Elite-focused news amplifies the views of people who already have power and a platform,” Varma explained. “In contrast, a solidarity approach means amplifying the lived experiences of people living in conditions not of their own making – people like essential workers in DC, aides and custodial workers in the Capitol, and BIPOC communities in DC and across the country living in heightened conditions of fear due to white supremacy.”

Nagle then offered a timely synthesis of data on trends in word usage, including shifting usage of “protest,” “mob” and “insurrection.” Walking through the differences in meaning and who has definitional power, Nagle noted that waiting for legal charges to come forth before journalists make linguistic decisions is a faulty strategy, given that perpetrators may never be charged through a legal system that unevenly applies its standards. Instead, she called for journalists and their editors to recognize their own power to name verifiable and observable events without delay.

“Solidarity/Reframe workshops offer a valuable opportunity for journalists to reflect and assess everyday practices with deep ethical implications,” Varma said. “White supremacy has not ended with the start of a new presidential administration, which makes it even more important for journalists to be well-prepared for what may lie ahead.”

If you are a journalist or journalism educator and would like to participate in an upcoming digital workshop on implementing solidarity approaches to reporting, please contact

Jan 27, 2021


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