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  • Katrina James

Terrorism in the US Capitol: How Has the Media Responded?

Updated: Mar 1, 2022

A terrorist attack on the US government should not be political. The president inciting this violence is.

How have different news outlets reported on Trump protesters’ attack on Congress, and how does the language and imagery used affect readers’ perceptions of the events?

Trump supporters invade Capitol Hill in Washington in a terrorist attack on American democracy

A quick disclaimer: we have made the conscious decision to label this violence as terrorism. On a linguistic level, terrorism is the use of violence and intimidation for political gain. Armed Trump supporters breaching US government buildings during the affirmation of a president they did not vote for - to intimidate political opponents- certainly qualifies as terrorism.

Here are the facts

On Wednesday 6th January, armed supporters who had been protesting the 2020 election result broke into the Capitol building, resulting in a lockdown of the site during a debate about Biden’s election victory.

They looted and caused damage to official property while taking photos of themselves across the site.

One woman was shot dead by police while three others died of “medical emergencies”.

Trump tweeted, telling the mob to “go home” but showed his support, saying “we love you, you’re special” and repeating false claims that the election had been “stolen”.

Several members of the Trump administration have stepped down from their roles and distanced themselves from him.

Twitter, Facebook and Instagram have since frozen his accounts and prevented previous posts from being shared. Twitter is requiring him to delete three tweets before his account will be reactivated.

Here’s how three major US news outlets’ homepages looked this morning.


CNN coverage of the pro-Trump mob at Capitol Hill

CNN’s homepage highlights the confirmation of Biden’s election after the events of last night with a large banner and a lead article on this subject.

The second article covers the violence that took place at the Capitol. It makes no mention of the rioters’ backgrounds, but highlights that Trump initially resisted bringing in enforcements.

The third article draws a direct comparison to the security enforcement protecting the Capitol during the Black Lives Matter protests last year.

The New York Times

The New York Times coverage of the pro-Trump mob at Capitol Hill

The New York Times highlights Trump’s role in inciting the violence at the Capitol in its headline.

The confirmation of Biden’s election takes second place and is framed not as a victory like in CNN’s coverage, but as a rejection of the challenges made to the election wins in two swing states. The quote at the right of the page from Sen. Josh Hawley indicates their respect of the traditions of inaugurating new presidents.

Other lead articles include stories from those inside the Capitol building as the building was breached. They also have an article with a fact-checked account of the congressional debate.

Fox News

Fox News coverage of the pro-Trump mob at Capitol Hill

Fox News’ presentation of yesterday’s events are mixed with other reports about challenges to Biden’s election success, as well as sensational quotes and videos from well-known right-wing commentators.

Fox News, known for being heavily pro-Trump, leads with a gloomy picture of Congress with the headline, “Challenge rejected”. In smaller text below, there are articles about the violence, notably the first saying that “Trump’s legacy ‘in tatters’ after supporters riot at Capitol”.

Other mentions to it include 5 of the “exclusive clips”, the first of which is a link to a clip from one of Fox’s hosts, Tucker Carlson, claiming that the violence will be used to “strip us of basic freedoms”. Quotes such as this are not only false but are likely to incite fear among Fox viewers, as well as mistrust of US democratic systems.

The violence is primarily described as a “riot” or “chaos”, with only one notable mention of terror as a quote from a Democratic representative, highlighting his blaming of Republican lawmakers for “inciting this domestic terror attack”. While this alone seems harmless, given the context of Fox News regularly attacking Democratic representatives, it is likely to cause further divisions.

We’ll be going into further detail about Fox News soon, so keep an eye out for it.

Trump supporters invade Capitol Hill in Washington in a terrorist attack on American democracy

The differences between these three news outlets’ reporting are stark. This politically motivated terrorism is highly divisive and will likely be used by both sides of the political spectrum to fuel further division as we move closer to Biden’s inauguration.

Now, let’s take a look at how the events have been presented in UK digital media…

BBC News

UK media coverage of the pro-Trump riot in Washington

With some minor differences, these four major UK news outlets have taken a similar approach to reporting the violence at Congress. Each of them mentions the attackers’ support for Trump and uses shocking images and emotive language to describe how the Capitol was breached: the BBC used “ransack” to highlight the looting that took place, The Times and The Telegraph described Congress as being “under siege” while The Guardian likened it to an “invasion”.

The use of language on each of these websites is harsh and shows the gravity of the situation, likening it to a war. This is reiterated through the use of photography: the BBC shows a Trump supporter carrying the Confederate flag, commonly used by white supremacists to show their allegiance to the far right. The Guardian shows Congress people celebrating Biden’s victory in the House of Representatives after his election was confirmed, and The Times and Telegraph show armed security and enforcements during the attack.

Each of the UK outlets shows the extremity of political division in the US, with less focus on the politics behind it and more on the events that took place.

To stay up to date with the events unfolding in Washington, head to our dedicated US Politics section and make sure to follow us on social media at @ANewsEducation

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