After recent mass shootings in California, Texas and Ohio, media outlets have been tasked with covering the attacks responsibly. Often, this means minimizing mentions of the shooter, according to Kelly McBride, chairwoman of the Craig Newmark Center for Ethics and Leadership at the Poynter Institute.
McBride said giving undue press attention to perpetrators of gun violence can contribute to a mass shooting culture.
Similarly, McBride warned that the way the media covers white supremacy can have an impact on the spread of racist views. According to McBride, journalists must be wary about giving extremists a platform.
“It’s been pretty well documented that white supremacists share strategies with each other and one of those strategies is to get the media’s attention by saying really outlandish things because it works as a recruitment strategy for them,” she said.
Jerry Swope, chairman of the Media Studies, Journalism and Digital Arts Department at Saint Michael’s College, said the media must cover the rise of white supremacy without focusing on individuals.
“The media has a responsibility to cover newsworthy events, but at the same time the media also has to be aware of not being manipulated by people,” Swope said. “Journalists have an important role in offering context to any individual and any story.”
While it is important for the media to report when elected officials or community members sympathize with or identify as white supremacists, McBride explained a story in context should warn the public of the dangerous aspects of white supremacy, rather than simply draw attention to the ideology’s existence in the community.
One tip that Hunter College Sociology Professor Jessie Daniels recommended was to focus on racist actions and their impacts rather than perpetrators. Daniels has written several books about white supremacy and said the best journalistic practice is not to name individuals whenever possible.
McBride expressed a similar sentiment.
“There are times when, if you take the name out, there’s no need for a story and that’s a good test because if that’s the case there’s no need for a story anyway,” McBride said.
Daniels explained that white supremacists use the media to build a following and spread their message. For this reason, right-wing extremists often seek media attention, which appears to be the case for a white supremacist from Bennington, who was charged in late July with violating a court order that prohibited him from possessing or purchasing guns.
Indeed, the man’s public defender, Frederick Bragdon, said his client enjoys media attention, so much so that he may be less of a flight risk. VTDigger reported that the attorney said, “I’m sure as long as the press keeps coming, he’ll also be here.”
According to Daniels, journalists commit two common errors when covering white supremacy issues. The first is to dismiss the ideology as a “deviant subculture,” which she said fails to convey the legitimate danger it poses. The second is to normalize white supremacy and focus on the similarities between right-wing extremists and the reader.
“Part of the fascination on the public’s part is we’re not used to thinking about white supremacy as a real problem in the United States, but it is,” Daniels said. “It has been for a long time.”
McBride said another mistake that journalists make is repeating white supremacist terminology. She used the example of the word “incel,” which stands for “involuntary celibate,” a term made popular by white supremacists on the internet.
“This was insider language that reporters picked up on,” McBride said. “In doing so, they validated the word and they created a search term for people who were looking for it.”
However, McBride acknowledged that with newsrooms shrinking, devoting resources to covering white supremacy at the local level has become more challenging.
“You have to spend a lot of time reporting on white supremacy but you need to publish judiciously and infrequently,” she said. “The complexity of covering white supremacy is so difficult that most news organizations are realizing that you really need journalists who are developing expertise in the subject to do it well.”
This debate about how the media should handle white supremacy is fairly new, and according to Jack Gierzynski, chairman of the University of Vermont’s Political Science Department, this is in part because the internet has allowed white supremacy into the mainstream.
“If you go back to the pre-internet era, the flow of information through the news was controlled by the gatekeepers in the media organizations,” said Gierzynski. “White supremacist ideas were really seen as being fringe and therefore not covered and not part of our discourse.”
Gierzynski explained that hate groups have gained power and visibility online, which means journalists have to cover them carefully.
One strategy Swope recommended was for reporters and readers to break the habit of assuming that every story has two sides.
“Often there are more than two sides to any story,” he said. “The media has a role to adjudicate truth. Not only to say this person says this, and this person says that, you decide.”
Tabitha Moore, president of the Rutland County branch of the NAACP, said it is especially important not to frame racism and white supremacy as a legitimate perspective.
“Black people have the right to exist, and white supremacists think that we do not,” she said. When the news presents these two sides as equally valid, Moore explained, it does damage to communities of color.
Traci Griffith, a professor of media studies at Saint Michael’s College, said the media can avoid legitimizing racism and white supremacy by naming it for what it is.
“Pick any kind of unreasonable rhetoric,” Griffith said. “Once it’s identified, it’s the responsibility of the media to speak the truth about it and not hide from it.”
Griffith pointed out that individuals who subscribe to white supremacist ideologies are often open with that fact. This is true of the man facing charges in Bennington.
“I don’t think that he denies who he is, so why would the media be so reluctant to acknowledge that?” she said.
As media outlets grapple with how to cover racist extremists, Swope said that the people participating in those conversations matters.
“It speaks to the need to have diversity in newsrooms,” he said. “Not just racial diversity but more socioeconomic diversity...to talk about these kinds of choices about what’s newsworthy and what will most impact our readers in our community.”