Political extremism: 5 ways journalists can improve coverage and mitigate harm

Political extremism presents two major challenges for journalists: The risk of platforming messages of hate and spreading disinformation that threatens democracy. 

“We are concerned so much with being perceived by bad faith actors as being objective that we sacrifice telling objective truths in our journalism. And I think that harms us, and it harms our democracy,” said Wesley Lowery, journalist, author, and correspondent, during a National Press Club Journalism Institute and PEN America program this week. “I think the best of our profession does this the right way. We just have a gulf between the best and the bulk.”

Three journalists covering extremism joined Lowery to discuss how political polarization has impacted their work, how they approach coverage of extremist viewpoints, and how to manage risks associated with reporting on fringe movements.  

“You have to be careful,” said Hannah Allam, a national security reporter at the Washington Post focusing on extremism and domestic terrorism. “You’re not dealing with, you know, a cranky person who’s mad at the crossword puzzles. … These are bad faith actors, bad faith campaigns that will encourage and sometimes incite harm.”

Here are five takeaways from the panel, moderated by Rhema Bland, journalism talent acquisition specialist for McClatchy:

Don’t rush: Take time to understand and provide context behind your story. 

“Like any issue of complexity, coverage of extremism is serviced by rigorous contextualized reporting and is disserviced by rapid sensational reporting,” Lowery said. “Most of our news is: ‘This is what’s happening right now, and we’re never going to talk about it again.’ These are topics that are very difficult to get right in that type of environment.”

Avoid assumptions about how an audience may interpret your work.

For example, if a journalist lands an interview with members of the Proud Boys and publishes a quote, it’s critical not to make any assumptions about how a reader may react to their words. 

“We might be thinking in our heads: Oh, this is so outrageous, everybody will see this as hate-filled. Everybody will understand and that’s why we need to expose it,” said Scott Kraft, editor at large at The Los Angeles Times. “But in fact, if we don’t contextualize it and be very careful with how we use that, those groups may actually use [the quotes] as recruiting tools.”

Quote extremists only sparingly and with ample context.

Including extremist viewpoints in a story should only move the conversation forward and not amplify messages of hate. But that does not necessarily mean eschewing extremists in your reporting. 

“Talking to [extremists] is different from platforming them,” Allam said. “Talking to them gives you an understanding of their goals, their methods, their operational structure.” 

Interviews with extremists can help provide a journalist greater context behind an issue, but reporters should carefully consider what and how they include that information.

Prioritize stories of communities targeted by extremism instead of the extremists.

“A lot of the topics that we’re reporting on are founded in disinformation, misinformation, you know, and racism and white supremacy,” said Natalia Contreras, reporter for Votebeat Texas. “We’ve already seen some [Texas] bills — some very restrictive voting bills — passed, and there’s more that are coming through this legislative session that are guided through, and spurred by, some of these conspiracies.” 

Contreras emphasized the importance of showing how radical conspiracies affect local communities by having conversations early with editors about what your stories are trying to achieve and whose narrative is being advanced.

“Hearing just everyday, real-life impacts of what’s going on is always really helpful,” Contreras added.

“I kind of made an informal promise to myself that for every profile of a guy with a gun, or a group with a gun, that I write, I’m also doing stories about the impact of communities and how extremism is felt, endured, suffered, and fought at the very grassroots level,” Allam said.

Be prepared for how extremists may manipulate or harass journalists.

“We created a media environment where what is incentivized, the way people receive attention, is by saying the most outrageous and unfair things about their political opponents,” Lowery said. “When powerful people say things from big platforms, they can’t control who is hearing those things. And many of those people do take those things literally and see them as calls to action.”

Allam also advises that journalists refrain from using their full contact information when reaching out to extremist groups. Consider using the Burner app or DeleteMe to mitigate the risk of being doxxed. (For other resources on fighting online abuse, click here.)

A recent report published by PEN America, “Hate in the Headlines,” explores how journalists and newsrooms have adapted to this shifting political landscape. Through interviews with 75 reporters, journalists, academics, and other experts, the report highlights best practices for covering extremism.

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