Word choices scrutinized in coverage of Oregon standoff

Since a small group of armed activists late Saturday began occupying a federal building in an Oregon wildlife refuge, the words used by media outlets to describe them have fluctuated -- and fallen under scrutiny, as some have found coverage of the predominately white group inconsistent with that of past protests and sit-ins undertaken by minorities.

Beyond the land rights debate at the center of the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Oregon, a side story has examined media portrayal of the protesters. Much of the early coverage referred to them as "militia," along with "militants," "occupiers," "peaceful protesters," "anti-government group," and "jamokes."

The Christian Science Monitor asked, "Are these patriots or domestic terrorists?"

Others have asked if these were Muslims or urban-core African-Americans would the media be seeing the occupation of a federal building through a different lens -- and different words.

The protesters, naming themselves on Monday the "Citizens for Constitutional Freedom," have occupied the refuge in response to a federal appellate court’s decision that two ranchers, who already served time in prison for lighting federal land on fire, required additional imprisonment. The Citizens for Constitutional Freedom have contested the judges’ decision as unconstitutional, in addition to the larger issue of opposing governmental control of public land. The lawyer for the ranchers, who planned to report to prison on Monday, said the protesters do not speak for them.

According to The Oregonian, roughly 20-25 people are at the refuge, operated by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, and have encouraged others, armed or not, to join them. Several of the groups’ leaders are known for previous stands in recent years against the federal government. Ammon Bundy told reporters the group is prepared to remain at the center "for years" and until the people can use the land and its resources "as free men."

He added that despite being armed, the group "poses no threat to anybody." Earlier comments from the activists said they would kill if necessary, but later toned down their language, saying violence is possible but they won’t provoke it. So far, local police or federal authorities have largely monitored the situation from a distance.

Some have suggested the media, too, are keeping a distance. Writing for the Washington Post, Janell Ross noted the restraint of media peers in using terms like "terrorists" or "insurrection" and "revolt."

"When a group of unknown size and unknown firepower has taken over any federal building with plans and possibly some equipment to aid a years-long occupation -- and when its representative tells reporters that they would prefer to avoid violence but are prepared to die -- the kind of almost-uniform delicacy and the limits on the language used to describe the people involved becomes noteworthy itself," she said.

In contrast, she posited that had the group been black or Muslim Americans such restraint would be unlikely, pointing to common descriptions of protesters with the Black Lives Matter movement as criminals, looters and thugs. Ross also acknowledged that the Oregon occupiers have so far been true to their peaceful claims -- though schools in Harney County have closed for the week in precaution -- and that deliberate language usage "are always a wise and reasonable move."

Still, Ross wrote, "The descriptions of events in Oregon appear to reflect the usual shape of our collective assumptions about the relationship between race and guilt -- or religion and violent extremism -- in the United States."

The Oregonian said it settled on referring to the group as militants, finding "militia" less accurate given it was unclear what, if any, military training they had. In a separate post, the newspaper recapped much of the race and Oregon occupation discussion on social media.

"If 150 armed Muslims took over a chicken coop there’d be a worldwide terror alert. But 150 armed white folk seize a federal building & meh," said author and Harvard fellow Qasim Rashid, on Twitter, a comment retweeted more than 3,200 times. [Early news coverage referred to the group’s estimation of as many as 150 people at the refuge, but follow-up reports have found far fewer.]

Wajahat Ali, writing for The Guardian, was just as blunt:

If, in a vacuum, I told you that a bearded man with his head covered had posted a video on social media calling on his followers to leave their homes with weapons, migrate to a new area, take over government property "as long as necessary" and use violence if confronted by law enforcement, you’d probably assume that I was talking about the latest propaganda video released by Isis, filmed in Iraq or Syria and intended to recruit violent Muslim extremists.

[Bundy has a beard and has worn a cowboy hat while appearing before the media.]

Ali said we must not racially profile those who look like the Oregon protesters, but instead acknowledge domestic threats, pointing to a New America Foundation report that "far right wing attacks" have been more responsible than "violent jihadist attacks" for deaths on U.S. soil since 9/11.

"To be clear, it's not that critics necessarily think the Oregon militiamen should be subjected to the same wild, unfounded accusations as black or Muslim people. The complaint, instead, is that the media seems to be quick to treat minority groups as violent, while giving a predominantly white group a pass even when it's heavily armed," said German Lopez at Vox.com.

"Extremism comes in different colors, ethnicities, beards and head coverings -- which is why racial profiling cannot protect us from all extremist violence," Ali wrote. "Maybe it’s time for politicians and law enforcement to acknowledge inconvenient truths and confront the extremists with 'American' names and grievances as they would any other."

[Brian Roewe is an NCR staff writer. His email address is broewe@ncronline.org. Follow him on Twitter: @BrianRoewe.]

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