‘Domestic terrorist’ better term than ‘militia’ for Michigan style group, experts say
A local TV station’s
decision to describe a thwarted plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer
as “domestic terrorism” revived a long-running debate in journalism circles about how such acts are labeled.
discussion in our newsroom, we’ve decided that moving forward, we will be using
the term ‘domestic terrorism’ or ‘domestic terrorist,’ rather than militia. We
feel these words better define the subjects of the investigation,” WDIV, the
NBC-affiliate in Detroit, tweeted Oct. 9..
referred to one conducted by the F.B.I. on a domestic terrorist group who plotted to kidnap Whitmer.
Fourteen members of the terrorist group have now been charged in the case.
WDIV’s tweet has been
retweeted over 31.5 thousand times, liked nearly 150 thousand times and
commented on approximately 3,700 times, all of which are very high volumes for
Prominent attorney and
legal TV personality Adrienne Lawrence responded
by saying, “Some newsrooms are getting
it,” and “we need more of it.”
Kim Voet, the news
director at WDIV, said several people in the newsroom approached her about
using “domestic terrorist” instead of “militia.”
To Voet, the decision
was simple. The station “decided to go with what was in the federal
documents,” she said. “Which was an alleged domestic terrorist
The issue of how to
frame largely, if not entirely, white, right-wing, domestic terrorist groups has long been debated in the journalism community. How to cover terrorism, since the
Sept. 11 attacks, has been up for debate in many newsrooms. But the politically
charged society Americans live in today is shining a brand new light on the
The Black Lives Matter protests that started in late May led to counter-protests that broke out across the country—leading to white terrorists’, who call themselves patriots, reemergence in the news.
Whitmer was clear on
her view on the issue, saying in a tweet, “They’re not ‘militias.’ They’re
domestic terrorists endangering and intimidating their fellow Americans. Words
She also has been very
critical of President Trump’s rhetoric for empowering these types of terrorist
organizations, something the president rejected.
Voet agrees that there
shouldn’t be much debate, saying, “I don’t know if there are any
Jeffery Blevins, head
of the journalism department at the University of Cincinnati, agreed.
“News media need
to do a better job minding their nomenclature in how they describe groups of
people who use threats, intimidation, and unlawful violence,” he said.
He continued to
discuss a “double-standard” that many of the news media have.
A double-standard has
led to terrorist attacks from Muslims being covered, on average, 4.5 times more
than non-Muslim terrorist attacks. according to a study published in Justice Quarterly. For perspective, far-right groups were
responsible for 67% of terrorist attacks in America this year, according to the
Center for Strategic and International Studies report.
often seem to describe people of color who engage in that kind of activity as
‘terrorists’ while white people doing the same thing get the softer moniker of
‘militias,'” Blevins said.
Columnist Arwa Mahdawi
brought up the same point in an opinion she wrote for the Guardian.
Terrorists are often
portrayed as “evil brown people” and thugs as “violent black people.”
In contrast, a
“militia” is defined as “misunderstood white men.”
“Much of the
media coverage of Whitmer’s would-be kidnappers referred to them as members of
a Michigan militia group called Wolverine Watchmen,” she said.
Blevins also noticed
this in his following of the news coverage of Whitmer’s kidnapping.
“For crying out
loud,” he said. “New York Times headlines described the group of men
who plotted to kidnap Michigan’s governor as “militia” and an
The headline he refers to was,
“F.B.I. Says Michigan Anti-Government Group Plotted to Kidnap Gov.
Gretchen Whitmer,” which was the New York Times’ original article
reporting on the story.
They would later
change their choice of words, referring to the group as “domestic
terrorists,” in a different story published later.
Blevins wants journalists
and news organizations to treat every case of terrorism the same.
Priya Dixit, professor
of political science at Virginia Tech who specializes in terrorism research,
said the media should be “consistent” in how they label violent attacks while
remaining “cautious about making broad claims,” and “provide context regarding
events under discussion.”
She said journalists
should be especially careful with the word “terrorist” in any context, pointing
out that “labeling individuals/groups as ‘terrorist’ can have legal
consequences that, for example, ‘extremism’ does not.” So, she thinks seeing a
“call for nuance” in the coverage of these attacks is “a good thing.”
amongst coverage is at the forefront of the discussion.
Blevins posed the
question, “Were the men who plotted to kill Americans on 9/11 ‘militia’ or
His answer: “Of
course not, they were ‘terrorists’ and so were the men involved in this
Zachary Jarrell is an Ohio-based
correspondent who is majoring in journalism at the University of Cincinnati
(UC). Along with his work at Gateway Journalism Review, he is a Staff Reporter
at The News Record, an independent student newspaper at UC, the editor and lead
writer of The Blazing Chronicle newsletter and a freelance writer. Find him on