"A Tourist Visit This Was Not": Forensic Journalism and the U.S. Capitol Riot

Curator's Note

Six months after a mob of Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol building on January 6, 2021 to try to stop the ratification of electoral ballots, the New York Times published a 40-minute documentary feature, titled Day of Rage: How Trump Supporters took the U.S. Capitol.[1] The film is framed as a factual counterpoint to the whitewashing campaign that followed the riot from Trump and the Republicans. One Republican congressman is shown in the film on a video call claiming that it looked like just “a normal tourist visit.” His statement is then contrasted with video of rioters fighting with police and narrator Malachy Browne stating: “A tourist visit this was not, and the proof is in the footage.” 

Day of Rage is an example of a new form of investigative journalism in which forensic techniques play a central role in how accounts are assembled, how information is presented, and how the news conveys meaning and credibility. This form of reporting resembles and relies on the techniques of open-source investigations, but its production values closely align with the conventions of journalistic storytelling. Forensic journalism is one response to the epistemic chaos of the contemporary media landscape, and as a genre is especially suited to the documentary treatment of violence.[2] 

Acts of mob violence against the Capitol police, and the threat of violence to lawmakers, are the obvious focus of the forensic analysis in Day of Rage. More implicit but no less significant is the role of the building as the scene of the crime, and the damage inflicted on it by the rioters. The Capitol building is the architectural and symbolic center of everything that took place, and it plays a key role in the forensic analysis and stylistic display of forensic techniques. Architectural diagrams of the building and maps of the area are used to locate the actions seen in cell phone and other video fragments. This use of maps and building diagrams exhibits what Lisa Parks calls “vertical mediation,” offering top-down, satellite perspectives of the locations and spatial dimensions of the scene. Additional architectural source materials include footage from the Capitol’s security cameras, which function in the film as the eyes of the building, silently witnessing the riot unfolding from multiple internal vantage points. 

These uses of surveillance footage, architectural diagrams, and forensic techniques are central to the epistemic credibility of this documentary form. But no matter how well presented the material and media evidence, forensic productions like Day of Rage must compete for credibility under the same conditions of epistemic chaos that led the rioters on their rampage into the building. Forensic journalism offers a compelling form of investigative reporting, but it is little match for the weaponized digital influence machine of surveillance capitalism and the damage it is inflicting on democratic institutions.[4][5] 



[1] Dmitriy Khavin, Haley Willis, Evan Hill, Natalie Reneau, Drew Jordan, Cora Engelbrecht, Christiaan Triebert, Stella Cooper, Malachy Browne and David Botti, Day of Rage: How Trump Supporters Took the U.S. Capitol, New York Times Visual Investigations, June 30, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/video/us/politics/100000007606996/capitol-riot-trump-supporters.html.

[2] On "epistemic chaos," see Shoshana Zuboff, "The Coup We Are Not Talking About." The New York Times, January 29, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/29/opinion/sunday/facebook-surveillance-society-technology.html

[3] Lisa Parks, Rethinking Media Coverage: Vertical Mediation and the War on Terror. Routledge, 2018.

[4] Anthony Nadler, Matthew Crain, and Joan Donovan. "Weaponizing the Digital Influence Machine: The Political Perils of Online Ad Tech," October 17, 2018, https://datasociety.net/library/weaponizing-the-digital-influence-machine/

[5] Shoshana Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future a the New Frontier of Power. Public Affairs, 2018. 


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