How Media Outlets Describe the Incident at the U.S. Capitol
Was it a riot? An insurrection? Or was it simply a protest?
The January 6, 2021 incident at the U.S. Capitol was widely covered in news media—however, the type of language used to describe it varied greatly from publication to publication.
Popular news media has a major impact on how society at large perceives major events. To learn more about the language used in recent coverage, we analyzed over 180 articles from Alexa’s top-ranked news websites in the United States. Here’s what we found.
Most Common Descriptions: The Event
From riot to rampage, descriptions used by news media of the incident at the U.S. Capitol were all over the map:
|↓ Event descriptor||Yahoo||CNN||NYT||Fox||WaPo||Breitbart||Epoch Times||BBC||BI|
The most commonly used description was riot, followed by storm. On the other end of the spectrum were the less-frequent terms such as insurrection, assault, rampage, and invasion.
Interestingly, Yahoo News, Business Insider, and BBC used siege, attack, and insurrection more often as compared to Breitbart, Epoch Times, and Fox News. The Epoch Times also described the event as a breach more times than any other outlet.
Most Common Descriptions: The Participants
The participants in the incident were identified in various ways, reflecting the variation seen in describing the incident.
|↓ Participants||Yahoo||CNN||NYT||Fox||WaPo||Breitbart||Epoch Times||BBC||BI|
In alignment with the usage of riot, the most common descriptions for participants were mob and rioters, followed by protesters. The frequency of use of Trump supporters comes as no surprise, especially since many of the participants are known to have attended the ‘Stop the Steal’ Trump rally preceding the event.
While most outlets referred to the crowd as protesters in the events leading up to the storming of the Capitol building, not all used that term to describe the people who entered the Capitol building. Fox News, Breitbart, and Epoch Times used protesters more often than any other news media outlet. In fact, these three outlets account for 28 of the 37 news articles in which the term protesters appeared.
On the other hand, the term pro-Trump rioters—which was used by Yahoo News, Business Insider, and CNN—did not appear in any articles by Fox News, Breitbart, or Epoch Times.
While some media outlets stuck to relatively neutral descriptors, others used unconventional terms to describe both the incident as well as those involved.
The New York Times and the Washington Post, for example, generally adhered to neutral language. They frequently described the event as a siege and a riot, and those involved as the mob and rioters.
The Epoch Times and Breitbart employed terms like protesters and alleged Trump supporters in discussing the individuals involved.
On the other hand, Yahoo News called it an insurrection carried out by militant supporters of President Trump, and Business Insider talked of a pro-Trump assault on the U.S. Capitol.
The British Broadcasting Company (BBC) potentially reflects how the event was perceived outside of the United States. Terms like riot and stormed appeared most commonly in BBC coverage of the incident. The participants were evenly identified as rioters, Trump supporters, protesters, and more often as the mob.
The Impact of Media Coverage
The influence of news media on how the public perceives events is undeniable. In fact, 88% of surveyed Americans consider the news an essential tool to keep informed about public affairs.
From a riot caused by rioters to an insurrection by President Trump’s militant supporters, the way different media outlets analyze the U.S. Capitol incident impacts what their respective audiences take away from it.
Note: Publications that focus primarily on sports, entertainment, and business were omitted from this analysis. We analyzed 20 articles from each publication that related directly to the Capitol situation and resulting coverage.
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33 Problems With Media in One Chart
In this infographic, we catalog 33 problems with the social and mass media ecosystem.
33 Problems With Media in One Chart
One of the hallmarks of democratic society is a healthy, free-flowing media ecosystem.
In times past, that media ecosystem would include various mass media outlets, from newspapers to cable TV networks. Today, the internet and social media platforms have greatly expanded the scope and reach of communication within society.
Of course, journalism plays a key role within that ecosystem. High quality journalism and the unprecedented transparency of social media keeps power structures in check—and sometimes, these forces can drive genuine societal change. Reporters bring us news from the front lines of conflict, and uncover hard truths through investigative journalism.
That said, these positive impacts are sometimes overshadowed by harmful practices and negative externalities occurring in the media ecosystem.
The graphic above is an attempt to catalog problems within the media ecosystem as a basis for discussion. Many of the problems are easy to understand once they’re identified. However, in some cases, there is an interplay between these issues that is worth digging into. Below are a few of those instances.
Editor’s note: For a full list of sources, please go to the end of this article. If we missed a problem, let us know!
Explicit Bias vs. Implicit Bias
Broadly speaking, bias in media breaks down into two types: explicit and implicit.
Publishers with explicit biases will overtly dictate the types of stories that are covered in their publications and control the framing of those stories. They usually have a political or ideological leaning, and these outlets will use narrative fallacies or false balance in an effort to push their own agenda.
Unintentional filtering or skewing of information is referred to as implicit bias, and this can manifest in a few different ways. For example, a publication may turn a blind eye to a topic or issue because it would paint an advertiser in a bad light. These are called no fly zones, and given the financial struggles of the news industry, these no fly zones are becoming increasingly treacherous territory.
Misinformation vs. Disinformation
Both of these terms imply that information being shared is not factually sound. The key difference is that misinformation is unintentional, and disinformation is deliberately created to deceive people.
Fake news stories, and concepts like deepfakes, fall into the latter category. We broke down the entire spectrum of fake news and how to spot it, in a previous infographic.
Mass media and social feeds are the ultimate Darwinistic scenario for ideas.
Through social media, stories are shared widely by many participants, and the most compelling framing usually wins out. More often than not, it’s the pithy, provocative posts that spread the furthest. This process strips context away from an idea, potentially warping its meaning.
Video clips shared on social platforms are a prime example of context stripping in action. An (often shocking) event occurs, and it generates a massive amount of discussion despite the complete lack of context.
This unintentionally encourages viewers to stereotype the persons in the video and bring our own preconceived ideas to the table to help fill in the gaps.
Members of the media are also looking for punchy story angles to capture attention and prove the point they’re making in an article. This can lead to cherrypicking facts and ideas. Cherrypicking is especially problematic because the facts are often correct, so they make sense at face value, however, they lack important context.
Simplified models of the world make for compelling narratives, like good-vs-evil, but situations are often far more complex than what meets the eye.
The News Media Squeeze
It’s no secret that journalism is facing lean times. Newsrooms are operating with much smaller teams and budgets, and one result is ‘churnalism’. This term refers to the practice of publishing articles directly from wire services and public relations releases.
Churnalism not only replaces more rigorous forms of reporting—but also acts as an avenue for advertising and propaganda that is harder to distinguish from the news.
The increased sense of urgency to drive revenue is causing other problems as well. High-quality content is increasingly being hidden behind paywalls.
The end result is a two-tiered system, with subscribers receiving thoughtful, high-quality news, and everyone else accessing shallow or sensationalized content. That everyone else isn’t just people with lower incomes, it also largely includes younger people. The average age of today’s paid news subscriber is 50 years old, raising questions about the future of the subscription business model.
For outlets that rely on advertising, desperate times have called for desperate measures. User experience has taken a backseat to ad impressions, with ad clutter (e.g. auto-play videos, pop-ups, and prompts) interrupting content at every turn. Meanwhile, in the background, third-party trackers are still watching your every digital move, despite all the privacy opt-in prompts.
How Can We Fix the Problems with Media?
With great influence comes great responsibility. There is no easy fix to the issues that plague news and social media. But the first step is identifying these issues, and talking about them.
The more media literate we collectively become, the better equipped we will be to reform these broken systems, and push for accuracy and transparency in the communication channels that bind society together.
News Explainer: The Economic Crisis in Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka is currently in an economic crisis with over $50 billion in debt and consumer inflation at 39%. So how did they get here?
Explained: the Economic Crisis in Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka is currently in an economic and political crisis of mass proportions, recently culminating in a default on its debt payments. The country is also nearly at empty on their foreign currency reserves, decreasing the ability to purchase imports and driving up domestic prices for goods.
There are several reasons for this crisis and the economic turmoil has sparked mass protests and violence across the country. This visual breaks down some of the elements that led to Sri Lanka’s current situation.
A Timeline of Events
The ongoing problems in Sri Lanka have bubbled up after years of economic mismanagement. Here’s a brief timeline looking at just some of the recent factors.
In 2009, a decades-long civil war in the country ended and the government’s focus turned inward towards domestic production. However, a stress on local production and sales, instead of exports, increased the reliance on foreign goods.
Unprompted cuts were introduced on income tax in 2019, leading to significant losses in government revenue, draining an already cash-strapped country.
The COVID-19 pandemic hit the world causing border closures globally and stifling one of Sri Lanka’s most lucrative industries. Prior to the pandemic, in 2018, tourism contributed nearly 5% of the country’s GDP and generated over 388,000 jobs. In 2020, tourism’s share of GDP had dropped to 0.8%, with over 40,000 jobs lost to that point.
Recently, the Sri Lankan government introduced a ban on foreign-made chemical fertilizers. The ban was meant to counter the depletion of the country’s foreign currency reserves.
However, with only local, organic fertilizers available to farmers, a massive crop failure occurred and Sri Lankans were subsequently forced to rely even more heavily on imports, further depleting reserves.
In early April this year, massive protests calling for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s resignation, sparked in Sri Lanka’s capital city, Colombo.
In May, pro-government supporters brutally attacked protesters. Subsequently, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, brother of President Rajapaksa, stepped down and was replaced with former PM, Ranil Wickremesinghe.
Recently, the government approved a four-day work week to allow citizens an extra day to grow food, as prices continue to shoot up. Food inflation increased over 57% in May.
Additionally, the increasing prices on grain caused by the war in Ukraine and rising fuel prices globally have played into an already dire situation in Sri Lanka.
The Key Information
“Our economy has completely collapsed.”
Prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to Parliament last week.
One of the main causes of the economic crisis in Sri Lanka is the reliance on imports and the amount spent on them. Let’s take a look at the numbers:
- 2021 total imports = $20.6 billion USD
- 2022 total imports (to March) = $5.7 billion USD
In contrast, the most recent reported foreign currency reserve levels in the country were at an abysmal $50 million, having plummeted an astounding 99%, from $7.6 billion in 2019.
Some of the top imports in 2021, according to the country’s central bank were:
- Refined petroleum = $2.8 billion
- Textiles = $3.1 billion
- Chemical products = $1.1 billion
- Food & beverage = $1.7 billion
Of course, without the cash to purchase these goods from abroad, Sri Lankans face an increasingly drastic situation.
Additionally, the debt Sri Lanka has incurred is huge, further hampering their ability to boost their reserves. Recently, they defaulted on a $78 million loan from international creditors, and in total, they’ve borrowed $50.7 billion.
The largest source of their debt is by far due to market borrowings, followed closely by loans taken from the Asian Development Bank, China, and Japan, among others.
What it Means
Sri Lanka is home to more than 22 million people who are rapidly losing the ability to purchase everyday goods. Consumer inflation reached 39% at the end of May.
Due to power outages meant to save energy and fuel, schools are currently shuttered and children have nowhere to go during the day. Protesters calling for the president’s resignation have been camped in the capital for months, facing tear gas from police and backlash from president Rajapaksa’s supporters, but many have also responded violently to pushback.
India and China have agreed to send help to the country and the the International Monetary Fund recently arrived in the country to discuss a bailout. Additionally, the government has sent ministers to Russia to discuss a deal for discounted oil imports.
A Foreshadowing for Low Income Countries
Governments need foreign currency in order to purchase goods from abroad. Without the ability to purchase or borrow foreign currency, the Sri Lankan government cannot buy desperately needed imports, including food staples and fuel, causing domestic prices to rise.
Furthermore, defaults on loan payments discourage foreign direct investment and devalue the national currency, making future borrowing more difficult.
What’s happening in Sri Lanka may be an ominous preview of what’s to come in other low and middle-income countries, as the risk of debt distress continues to rise globally.
The Debt Service Suspension Initiative (DSSI) was implemented by G20 countries, suspending nearly $13 billion in debt from the start of the pandemic until late 2021.
Some DSSI and LIC countries facing a high risk of debt distress include Zambia, Ethiopia, and Tajikistan, to name a few.
Going forward, Sri Lanka’s next steps in managing this situation will either serve as a useful example for other countries at risk or a warning worth heeding.
Note: The debt breakdown in the main visualization represents total outstanding external debt owed to foreign creditors rather total debt.
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