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The Weight Of Words: How Should We Talk About What Happened At The U.S. Capitol On Jan. 6?

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Protest against the certification of the 2020 U.S. presidential election results by the U.S. Congress, outside the U.S. Capitol in Washington
Law enforcement officers face supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump attempting to enter U.S. Capitol during a protest against the certification of the 2020 U.S. presidential election results by the U.S. Congress, in Washington, U.S., January 6, 2021. REUTERS/Jim Bourg

Pro-Trump extremists laid siege on the U.S. Capitol last week, interrupting proceedings in the House and Senate as members of Congress tallied President-elect Joe Biden's Electoral College victory.

The events of that day have been criticized by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, including several prominent Texas Republicans, with many blaming the president himself for inciting his supporters to violence and other unlawful acts.

How should we frame conversations about what happened at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6? What words are we using and why does it matter?

Was it a mob? A riot? A siege? A coup? An act of war? Were they acts of insurrection, sedition, treason, or domestic terrorism?

These terms have been criticized by some as misrepresentations or hyperbole — are they wrong? Who gets to decide? Can there be any consensus?

How do news organizations decide what words to use when reporting on contentious issues?

How will this event be remembered, considering the misinformation and divisive opinions about what happened, and what it means for the country?


  • Ruth Ben-Ghiat, historian and fascism expert; professor of history and Italian studies at New York University, and author of "Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present"
  • Jeffrey Barg, "Angry Grammarian" columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, which looks at how language, grammar, and punctuation shape our world
  • Shirin Sinnar, professor of law and John A. Wilson Faculty Scholar at Stanford University

"The Source" is a live call-in program airing Mondays through Thursdays from 12-1 p.m. Leave a message before the program at (210) 615-8982. During the live show, call 833-877-8255, email thesource@tpr.org or tweet @TPRSource.

*This interview was recorded on Wednesday, January 13.

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