Some journalists have stopped hoping for the best — and are just preparing for the worst around the Nov. 3 election.
News outlets in Pittsburgh and across the U.S. are quietly preparing for Election Day turmoil that could include protestors taking up violence — and in some parts of the country, for a worst-case scenario that involves armed militia groups. That could happen, some say, if people are angry about the outcome of the election or more likely, if the outcome is uncertain.
This seemed farcical to me at first, but then I started thinking about recent history: An angry reader killed five journalists at The Capital Gazette in 2018; a former reporter killed two journalists on live TV in Roanoke, Va., in 2015; President Trump has repeatedly called journalists “the enemy of the people.”
Locally, we saw peaceful demonstrations this spring quickly explode into violence with protesters beating KDKA photographer Ian Smith. Another time, WESA reporter Bill O’Driscoll ended up in the crossfire and getting hit with a rubber bullet.
“This is a time when good journalism, accountability and transparency of the process really matter,” WPXI news director Scott Trabandt told me. “We will be working harder than ever to provide those things to the community, and we will take the necessary precautions so our journalists can do their jobs safely. The safety of our crews and the people they interact with is of paramount importance.”
Potential scenarios, Trabandt said, include people taking to the streets to celebrate the result, to protest the result, or because the results are unclear and they want some transparency or action.
Nationally, a couple of nonpartisan groups have formed to help journalists navigate the voting process — and to help journalists do a better job of providing context rather than amplifying dangerous rhetoric.
The American Press Institute’s Trusted Elections Network has been working with journalists to head off misinformation that threatens a fair election. Election SOS, meanwhile, has put out a report helping newsrooms prepare for possible scenarios. After all, what could possibly go wrong this year?
Potential threats to the election, Election SOS warns, include the global pandemic, economic stress, Black Lives Matter rallies, the Supreme Court vacancy, militias, wildfires, hurricanes — and, oh yeah, “a president known for gaslighting,” or psychological manipulation.
The recent arrests of a dozen militia members charged with plotting to kidnap the governors of Michigan and Virginia serves as a reminder that what seems ludicrous might actually be possible.
Journalists have a key role to play amid all of these crises to help the public understand a complex situation that could be very confusing and that could be used to justify extreme actions. They must report stories with context, so it’s clear whether street demonstrations are widespread or just in small areas. Starting now, they can lower the public’s expectations about learning the presidential winner on election night.
On a safety level, newsroom leaders should be thinking about ways to protect reporters in the field. The best advice is sending reporters out in pairs, but few outlets have the luxury of deploying that many people. Instead, during this summer’s protests, journalists from competing news organizations started informally keeping an eye out for each other.
Beyond that, few Pittsburgh journalists wanted to talk on the record about defensive measures they are taking. One TV news director said he fears that talking about potential crisis scenarios could foster self-fulfilling prophesies.
Ryan Deto, a Pittsburgh City Paper reporter who has been deeply involved in local protest coverage this summer, flat out said he has not heard anything that would make him fear any kind of armed violence by militia groups in Pittsburgh around the election.
“I haven’t heard any hint of that at all,” Deto told me. “We aren’t really preparing for anything like that. I think it would take an extraordinary situation for that to really go down.”
A more likely scenario than a coordinated armed insurrection, Deto said, would be people latching onto peaceful demonstrations and turning them violent.
Colin Deppen, director of The Incline, worries that a period of uncertainty after the election could lead to a situation, inflamed by President Trump, that serves as a catalyst for violence. This strange year already has sort of lit the fuse for another bizarre outcome, he said.
“I’m worried how Americans might react to a contested election capping this year of crisis,” Deppen told me. “I’m worried about how ‘rigged’ accusations and claims of stolen votes will further enflame things and tap into that existing wellspring of righteous outrage. Pessimistically, I don’t think there’s much catalyst needed at this point.”