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5 tips for reporting on anti-democratic extremism

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  • Demonstrations of anti-democratic extremism fueled by disinformation are becoming more and more common in the world.
  • In this article designed for journalists we recommend some examples that can help you to make the best coverage you can of these insurrections.
  • This article is part of a special with recommendations for journalists on how to cover the elections by Chequeado, IJNet, ICFJ and Factchequeado.

Anti-democratic extremism, fueled by mis- and disinformation around elections, is on the rise globally. 

Most notably, on January 6, 2021, supporters of former U.S. President Donald Trump attacked the Capitol to disrupt the peaceful transfer of power to President Joe Biden. In Brazil, videos from what is now known as the January 8 insurrection, during which supporters of former president Jair Bolsonaro stormed the country’s Supreme Court, presidential offices, and legislature, closely mirror the attempted coup on January 6, 2021 in the U.S. 

Less violent, but still severe, attacks on democratic institutions have also recently occurred in Mexico and El Salvador, among other countries.

As anti-democratic extremism grows, journalists across countries must answer many of the same questions. How will those who instigated insurrections in Brazil and the U.S. be held accountable? How do we fight the vast amounts of disinformation surrounding anti-democratic events? How can we best communicate to readers the severity of threats to democracy?

To answer these questions, I spoke with Meg Kelly, a video reporter on the Washington Post’s video forensics team, and Ryan Reilly, a justice reporter at NBC News, who both reported on the events of January 6 in the U.S. and their aftermath. Here is their advice:

1. Create a visual timeline of events

Events such as January 6 in the U.S. and January 8 in Brazil happen suddenly and often unexpectedly, and can set journalists back when it comes to communicating to their audiences what exactly happened. 

One way to overcome this is by creating a visual timeline of events, as Kelly’s video forensics team did following the January 6 coup attempt. Kelly used footage posted online and taken by reporters to sequence developments, verifying video timestamps to see exactly when rioters breached the Capitol and how close they were able to get to lawmakers. 

Kelly and her team later created visual documentation of more complex issues, such as how law enforcement attempted to contain the riot. In one follow-up story, Kelly sought access to police communications on the day of the insurrection, which revealed planning failures that allowed rioters to breach the Capitol. 

Being able to point to concrete evidence can also reinforce your reporting, especially with people who have less trust in the media. “Relying on video evidence with specific time stamps and relying on photos that have clear metadata – being able to put all of those pieces together for people in a way that isn’t someone’s recollection [or] something that an intelligence source told you [can help improve trust],” Kelly explained. 

“Using those pieces of really concrete evidence, I have found in my own work, can be a way of really connecting with people.”

2. Keep an eye on criminal proceedings

At NBC News, Ryan Reilly focused on the justice system’s response to January 6. “One of the things from the early days that’s become clear, which I would keep in mind if I were looking into what was happening in Brazil, is that we didn’t really know the full extent of how many people a potential criminal investigation could involve,” Reilly said.

For example, in the initial days after the insurrection, Reilly said, it was estimated that around 800 people had entered the Capitol, when in reality the numbers were above 2,000. In Brazil, the scale was even larger: estimates by the Brazilian government of the number of rioters that breached government buildings at around 5,000.

Reporting on criminal proceedings can also help determine who is and is not being held responsible for the events. Are the organizers and instigators being tried, or is it only those with less power and responsibility being tried? 

The majority of those charged in the U.S. with breaching the Capitol were found guilty only of misdemeanor offenses like disorderly conduct. Meanwhile, congressional and special counsel investigations into the coup’s masterminds and instigators have yet to lead to any criminal charges.

3. Pay attention to the role of the military and law enforcement

Journalists should look into the role played by law enforcement and the military. Many of the U.S. rioters belonged to one of these two groups. “We’ve had active duty Marines who went to the Capitol. We’ve had police – current and former retired police officers – who were involved in this attack on January 6th,” Reilly said. 

Likewise in Brazil, many police officers simply stood by as rioters attacked the Supreme Court and Capitol building. “I think that that’s certainly something I would be interested in – [police] downplaying the threat due to politics, or basically siding with the people who stormed the Capitol because they shared the same political point of view,” Reilly said. 

In Brazil highway police were accused of staging illegal roadblocks to block access to the polls in the country’s northeast, traditionally a stronghold for President Lula’s Workers Party. Meanwhile, high-ranking members of Brazil’s military, which is ostensibly nonpartisan, openly campaigned to reelect Bolsonaro, and permitted anti-Lula protesters supportive of a military coup to camp outside the army’s barracks between the election and presidential inauguration. 

Despite this, there have been no moves in Brazil to root out members of the military who were involved in the January 8 riots.

4. Use accurate language to fight disinformation

Disinformation inspired the January 6 coup attempt in the U.S., and also proliferated online in the insurrection’s aftermath, seeking to create confusion about what actually happened. “What we call January 6 [was because of] those conspiracy theories,” said Reilly. “And now there’s a bunch of conspiracy theories about January 6 itself.”

False allegations that so-called “deep state actors” such as the FBI, were responsible and insinuations the insurrection was actually staged by antifa, were common in the days and weeks that followed. Similar efforts occurred in Brazil, with pro-Bolsonaro TV networks such as Jovem Pan giving airtime to figures pedaling disinformation about those responsible for the January 8 insurrection.

One step journalists can take to combat disinformation around anti-democratic extremism is to correctly label rioters and insurrectionists according to the actions they carried out that day. “We felt comfortable saying that people who entered the Capitol building engaged in the riot,” said Kelly. 

Being specific with language is just as important, she added: “I don’t think that we could say every person who entered the Capitol building held those types of extreme beliefs. So we would often say something like ‘a Trump supporter’ or ‘a person who thought the election was falsified.’”

5. Focus on those most responsible

Preventing future anti-democratic actions requires holding those responsible for organizing the insurrections accountable. Journalists can play a key role in this. “The underlying forces in terms of social media rhetoric [leading] up to the day before is definitely something that I would suggest Brazilian journalists keep an eye on,” said Kelly. “Start to think about who were the leaders of the different groups that were involved in pushing forward the protests [as in Brazil in the U.S.] and some of the more violent moments.” 

Finally, keeping the public’s attention on the risks that the insurrection organizers pose to democracy is paramount to avoid the situation of what Reilly describes as a “frog in boiling water,” in which increasingly antidemocratic events quickly fade from public view. 

“There’s this temptation to sort of move on,” Reilly said. “But it also just shows you sort of what power can do. It is the people who are on the low end of the totem pole, who are bearing the brunt of the consequences of what happened that day.”


This resource is part of a toolkit on elections reporting and how to spot mis- and disinformation, produced by IJNet in partnership with Chequeado and Factchequeado, and supported by WhatsApp.



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