Critical Thinking

Was It Appropriate for the Media to Identify Rioters from the U.S. Capitol Attack?

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Eian Gil, 20, Glendale Community College, Glendale, Calif.

Gil is a journalism and political science student and editor-in-chief of the student newspaper, El Vaquero. Having experience with the college’s newsroom and journalism department, he has found he especially enjoys graphics art and creative writing and showcases that in his work whenever possible.  

No, I don’t believe identifying or asking readers to identify rioters was appropriate. However, my issue is almost entirely with the latter of the two. I consider myself a centrist, but regardless of political orientation, I’m viewing this question from the standpoint of the purpose of the media in general. Journalists and the publications they work for are not another branch of law enforcement. In my opinion, asking readers to identify rioters with the intention of delivering that information to law enforcement is not investigative journalism, or any form of journalism at all.

While I’m sure a great deal of the public would agree that the Capitol riots of Jan. 6 are insulting to our country as a whole, the situation becomes a lot scarier when publications abandon objectivity by asking their readers to get involved. The media is already largely controlled by government and private organizations whether you like it or not, but through this type of cooperation between publications, it’s readers, and the government, we’re setting the stage for the future of political relations within the U.S. We’re paving the way for the media to no longer observe, but to also report and punish.

 As I mentioned, these riots were disgusting. Those who broke the law should be punished accordingly, but I’m not sure that news publications should be able to swing that gavel. There is definitely the argument to be made here asking how we’re supposed to punish these rioters if we don’t know who they are, and to that all I can say is…hindsight is 2020. Maybe next time don’t let them walk in.

Jeff Light, 60, editor and publisher, San Diego Union-Tribune

Light has served in various roles at the Union-Tribune since 2010. He grew up in Buffalo, N.Y., where his father was editor of the local newspaper. He studied poetry and creative writing at Brown University and has an MBA from the University of California, Irvine.  

Our first obligation as journalists is to seek truth and report it. So, the simple answer is yes, we should be trying to find the people who were at the Capitol that day. How else could we hope to uncover what happened, how and why? Asking the community to help is a good start.

But there is another canon of journalism that applies here: Act independently. Journalists are not agents of the police or the courts, nor of any branch of government. We’re not here to report people to the FBI. Our job is to report for our community. That is an important distinction.

Two scenarios that are slightly different than the question at hand can help to illustrate.

Newsrooms typically would report the news that authorities have put out a public call for help in finding a criminal or a fugitive or, in this case, in identifying people who mobbed the Capitol. This is reporting the actions of an official body.

On the other hand, most of us would censure a reporter found collaborating with police-gathering information about crime suspects and sharing directly with detectives, for example. That violates the principle of independence.

When we write stories that identity members of the Capitol mob, we do so journalistically. Our motive is to provide a factual basis for community insight, debate and action—not to aid in a prosecution nor to advance a political agenda.

Much has been said recently on this theme of independence and its sibling, impartiality. Independent doesn’t mean amoral. If we withhold the name of an undocumented child at the border even as we expose a law enforcement officer who is rioting at the Capitol, that says something about our moral compass, not about our independence.

Which brings us back to the question at hand. Journalists who ask readers to help them identify rioters are taking a fine first step in a reporting process. The final step—deciding what to publish about them—will be more complex.

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