Charlottesville protests: How blame strengthens the chain of violence
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Charlottesville protests: How blame strengthens the chain of violence

August 14, 2017

The Raw Data

Unspun and unbiased. These are the facts.

Violence in Charlottesville results in one dead, 35 injured

A woman was killed and 19 people were injured, five critically, in Charlottesville, Virginia on Saturday when a car drove into a crowd of counter-protesters. The group was protesting a scheduled rally promoted as “Unite the Right,” which opposed the city’s decision to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

An additional 15 people were injured in fighting that took place between the two groups. Two Virginia state troopers also died in a helicopter crash while assisting with the events, according to police.

Deaths, injuries and arrests

Heather Heyer, 32, died when the gray sports car drove into the crowd, reversed, and then drove away. The driver of the vehicle, James Alex Fields Jr., 20, of Maumee, Ohio, has been arrested and charged with one count of second-degree murder, three counts of malicious wounding, and one count of failure to stop at the scene of a crash resulting in a death, according to Col. Martin Kumer, the superintendent of the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail. A federal civil rights investigation has also been opened, led by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, according to U.S. Attorney Rick Mountcastle.

On Saturday morning, protesters and counter-protesters had arrived at McIntire Park before the “Unite the Right” rally, which was scheduled to start at 12 p.m. Fighting took place between the groups, including punching, throwing water bottles, and using pepper spray, according to Fox News and The Washington Post. At 11:40 a.m. the police declared the gathering an unlawful assembly and ordered people to leave.

Three people were arrested at the events on Saturday, one on charges of carrying a concealed handgun, one on charges of disorderly conduct and one on suspicion of assault and battery.

The helicopter crash took place at 4:50 p.m. on Saturday. Lieutenant H. Jay Cullen, 48, the pilot, and Trooper-Pilot Berke M.M. Bates, 40, the passenger, both died at the scene. The cause of the crash is under investigation, according to Fox News.

Additional Sources: Fox News Aug 13, 2017; Fox News Aug 12, 2017

Distortion Highlights

  • With painful incidents like these, it’s easier to find a culprit than digest the tragic nature of what happened.
  • Blame, which is prevalent in media, played a significant role in the coverage of the protests.
  • We break down how this limits our thinking and can actually further the problem of violence that we try to solve.

Show Me Everything

The Numbers

See how the articles rate in spin, slant and logic when held against objective standards.

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The Distortion

The Knife’s analysis of how news outlets distort information. (This section may contain opinion.)

Top Spin Words

  • Blame

    In his comments, President Trump condemned the bloody protests, but he did not specifically criticize the white nationalist rally and its neo-Nazi slogans, blaming “hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides.” (The New York Times)

    Charlottesville Mayor Mike Signer said he was disappointed that the white nationalists had come to his town and blamed Trump for inflaming racial prejudices during his campaign last year. (Fox News)

    “I place the blame for a lot of what you’re seeing in American today right at the doorstep of the White House and the people around the president,” [Charlottesville Mayor Mike Signer said.] (Fox News)

    Charlottesville white nationalist rally blamed for 3 deaths, dozens of injuries (Fox News)

    But he [Richard Spencer] promised they would return for a future demonstration, blaming Saturday’s violence on counterprotesters. (The Washington Post)

  • Intensified

    The battles have been intensified by the election of Mr. Trump, who enjoys fervent support from white nationalists. (The New York Times)

  • Turmoil

    The turmoil in Charlottesville began with a march Friday night by white nationalists on the campus of the University of Virginia and escalated Saturday morning as demonstrators from both sides gathered in and around the park. (The New York Times)

  • Tragedy

    Chaos and violence turned to tragedy Saturday as hundreds of white nationalists, neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klan members — planning to stage what they described as their largest rally in decades to “take America back” — clashed with counterprotesters in the streets and a car plowed into crowds, leaving one person dead and 19 others injured. (The Washington Post)

  • Tense Dramas

    The violence in Charlottesville was the latest development in a series of tense dramas unfolding across the United States over plans to remove statues and other historical markers of the Confederacy. (The New York Times)

  • Exploded

    But by 11 a.m., after both sides had made their way to Emancipation Park, the scene had exploded into taunting, shoving and outright brawling. (The New York Times)

  • Chaos Boiled Over

    The chaos boiled over at what is believed to be the largest group of white nationalists to come together in a decade: the governor declared a state of emergency, police dressed in riot gear ordered people out and helicopters circled overhead. (Fox News)

  • Blasting

    Elected leaders in Virginia and elsewhere urged peace, blasting the white supremacist views on display in Charlottesville as ugly. (The Washington Post)

Who is to blame? When we encounter painful events like those in Charlottesville this weekend, it’s easier to focus on finding a culprit than to digest the tragic nature of what happened. Finding someone to blame gives us the illusion of being on a path to resolution. Unfortunately, that’s a short-lived cover-up at best. In the short term, assigning blame attenuates the feeling of vulnerability that most humans experience when we witness acts of violence. But it can bring more harm in the long run: it perpetuates the chain of violence and blinds us to solutions.

The media plays an important role in assigning blame, or not, in every story. It can communicate in ways that further violence or it can help resolve conflict by fostering responsible, critical thinking. Unfortunately, the Charlottesville coverage contained much of the same thinking that can further it.

Three outlets we analyzed — Fox News, The New York Times and The Washington Post — featured mostly biased sources, which blamed one or more parties in the conflict. The reporters from the latter two outlets also included their own partial opinions on who was to blame. Here’s a condensed view of the main sides and finger pointing — in other words, “who’s to blame”:

  • “White nationalists” and their views

Most of the onlookers, counter-protesters and elected officials quoted in the coverage blamed the “Unite the Right” protesters for the violence. For example, the Post wrote, “Elected leaders in Virginia and elsewhere urged peace, blasting the white supremacist views on display in Charlottesville as ugly.”

  • Counter-protesters

Attendees of the “Unite the Right” rally, in turn, blamed the other group of protesters, with one rally organizer saying his group was “forced into a very chaotic situation,” according to the Times.

  • Charlottesville Police

News outlets and witnesses suggested law enforcement should have done more to stop the violence, and is therefore to blame. For instance, the Times wrote, “Still, officials allowed the Saturday protest to go on — until the injuries began piling up.” At least one protest leader also blamed the police, saying his group had come “in peace, and the state cracked down” on them.

  • President Trump

Protesters cited Trump’s campaign promises as justification for their actions, while others, including Charlottesville’s mayor, said the president was to blame “for inflaming racial prejudices during his campaign,” according to Fox. The Times and the Post also wrote that, in his speech on Saturday, Trump didn’t single out the protesters, implying he should have. The White House later issued a statement on Sunday “condemn[ing] ‘white supremacists’ for the violence that led to one death,” according to the Times.   

  • Confederate relics

Even the statues of confederate generals or, as the Times wrote, “a series of tense dramas unfolding across the United States,” were blamed as the source of the disputes.

Is it fact or fiction? Which outlet presents the most spin?

  • 50% Spun

  • 54% Spun

  • 54% Spun

  • 78% Spun

How can they all be right?

They can’t, and there’s a logical explanation for this. Blame is inherently flawed as a logical construction: it’s partial, telling only one part of a multi-faceted story, and it’s ultimately the product of faulty reasoning. There’s an easy way to test this: Take the statues and assume they’re to blame — they’re what started the problem. What’s an easy fix? Eliminate all the confederate statues in the country. Would that stop people from being violent?

You can apply the same reasoning with any of the subjects in question — protesters on both sides, law enforcement and the president. As tempting as it is to think one person or group is the sole cause of violence, it’s not the case. We all are in different ways. This doesn’t mean it’s acceptable to espouse hate or bigotry, and those who did certainly have responsibility in the violence. But they don’t exist in a vacuum; everyone participates in some way. 

There’s a saying, “Opportunity makes the thief.” One interpretation of this is that opportunity didn’t “turn” the person into a thief, it only inspired him or her to express something that was already there. The same may be true for those who engaged in violence in Virginia.

The more that media promotes blame, bias and similar forms of thinking, the further we get from solving problems like violence. We all face a choice, and the media does too: through our thinking and conduct we can strengthen the chain of blame, or break it.

If we are to break it, the first step is acknowledging our own participation in creating a world where violence exists.


The New York Times

“The violence in Charlottesville was the latest development in a series of tense dramas unfolding across the United States over plans to remove statues and other historical markers of the Confederacy.”

Confederate-era monuments were removed in New Orleans, St. Louis and Frederick, Maryland. Some people protested their removal.

The New York Times

“The city had been bracing for a sea of demonstrators…”

Between 500 and 1000 people were expected to attend the rally.

Fact Comparison

  • Facts in only 1 source
  • Facts in 2 sources
  • Facts in 3 sources
  • Facts in all sources

White nationalists were protesting the removal of a confederate monument. (CNN)

CNN states “protesting the removal” of the monument as if it were already done or in progress; however, the statue remains. The City Council voted earlier this year to sell it, but the move is awaiting a judge’s ruling. Fox News makes a similar statement in its article, and also provides the aforementioned context, whereas CNN does not.

The Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation have launched a civil rights investigation into the deadly crash. (The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN)

Fox doesn’t mention the launch of the civil rights investigation jointly announced by Justice Department and the FBI. Without this, readers may have an incomplete understanding of the situation and its possible implications.

None of the outlets elaborate on what a “civil rights investigation” entails. The Justice Department’s website states its Civil Rights Division “prosecutes criminal violations of Federal civil rights statutes.” The FBI’s website lists some federal civil rights statutes, including, for instance, hate crime prevention.


An article’s headline can direct how the news is understood. Compare and contrast how different outlets present the story through their headlines.

Imprecise about what happened between the groups — what’s a “clash” in this case? How did the person die?

Call it like it is — some of the protesters fought. The death the headline mentions, however,  wasn’t caused by face-to-face fighting, but by a single individual, with unconfirmed affiliations, who used his car to hit a crowd of people.

Implies the three deaths happened because of the rally.

Strictly speaking, the timeline is correct, but the headline suggests the rally caused the deaths, which isn’t supported by the information in the articles.


Access information and historical data that provides a more comprehensive understanding of the story.

Trump’s statement

On Saturday, Trump spoke about the incidents in Charlottesville. He spoke from Bedminster, N.J., where he’s on vacation, saying, “We are closely following the terrible events unfolding in Charlottesville, Virginia. We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides. It has been going on for a long time in our country — not Donald Trump, not Barack Obama. It has been going on for a long, long time. It has no place in America.”

The media reported that Trump’s statement was “criticized” and met with “rebuke,” as he did not specifically condemn the “white nationalists” at the “Unite the Right” rally.

White House statement

On Sunday, a White House spokesperson said, “The president said very strongly in his statement [Saturday] that he condemns all forms of violence, bigotry, and hatred, and of course that includes white supremacists, KKK, neo-Nazi, and all extremist groups … He called for national unity and bringing all Americans together.”

Virginia governor’s statement

Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe said at a press conference on Saturday, “I have a message for all the white supremacists, and the Nazis who came into Charlottesville today. Our message is plain and simple: Go home. You are not wanted in this great commonwealth. Shame on you. You pretend that you’re patriots, but you are anything but a patriot. You came here today to hurt people. And you did hurt people. But my message is clear: We are stronger than you.”

“Unite the Right” organizer

Jason Kessler, a local “Unite the Right” rally organizer, attempted to give a press conference on Sunday. Counter-protesters at the event made noise, using horns, ringing bells and yelling, according to USA Today. Kessler attempted to leave and was tackled before police escorted him away. Later on Twitter, Kessler posted a 12 minute video speaking about the events from Saturday and the failed press conference. With respect to Saturday, he said “all of the carnage was because the Charlottesville city government would not recognize our right to free assembly. They told the police to stand down and people died because of that.”

The General Lee statue

In February, Charlottesville city council voted 3 to 2 to remove and sell the statue. In May, a judge granted an injunction, declaring that the statue could not be removed for six months. The Robert E. Lee monument in Charlottesville was finished in 1924, according to a National Register of Historic Places Registration Form.

Removal of statues and monuments in other cities

The Times reports the following monuments from the Civil War era were removed in other U.S. cities:

1). New Orleans, LA: Four monuments were removed by May 2017, including a statue of Robert E. Lee. Hundreds of people gathered for and against the monument, and there was some violence including fist fights and shouting.

2). St. Louis, MO: A confederate monument was removed from Forest Park in June 2017. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported some vandalism and protests of this monument prior to its removal.

3). Frederick, MD: A bust of Roger B. Taney was removed near City Hall in May 2017. Taney was a U.S. Supreme Court chief justice who wrote the 1857 Dred Scott vs. Sandford decision, which denied blacks citizenship.

Additional sources: CNN Aug 12, 2017; Reuters Aug 13, 2017; The Washington Post Aug 13, 2017; The New York Times Aug 13, 2017; BBC Aug 13, 2017; St. Louis Post-Dispatch May 24, 2017; St. Louis Post-Dispatch June 27, 2017.