Expert Commentary

Covering pro-Trump rallies and far-right groups: 4 tips from disinformation scholar Joan Donovan

There are several things she says journalists can do to minimize harm and keep rumors, lies and other forms of bad information out of their coverage. Here are four of them.

(James McNellis/Wikimedia Commons)

Hours before a mob of President Donald Trump’s supporters broke into the U.S. Capitol Wednesday to disrupt the certification of the 2020 presidential election results, researcher Joan Donovan tweeted a warning.

Donovan is an expert on right-wing extremism and misinformation campaigns at Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, where Journalist’s Resource also is housed. She has spoken out with concerns about Trump’s base being primed to believe election conspiracies — baseless conspiracy theories that Trump himself promotes as truth.

The New York Times reported that the chaos that erupted had “no parallel in modern American history, with insurgents acting in the president’s name vandalizing [House] Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office, smashing windows, looting art and briefly taking control of the Senate chamber, where they took turns posing for photographs with fists up on the dais where [Vice President Mike] Pence had just been presiding.”

Five people have died, including a woman shot by police inside the Capitol and a police officer who was injured during the insurrection.

On Thursday, Donovan told Journalist’s Resource she expects far-right extremists to continue to rally and circulate misinformation about the election in the days leading up to President-elect Joe Biden’s swearing in on Jan. 20. But there are several things she says journalists can do to minimize harm and keep rumors, lies and other forms of bad information out of their coverage. Here are four of them.

1. Avoid doxing Capitol staff members and government employees.

Doxing is a slang term that means publishing someone’s private information online without their permission, including home addresses, phone numbers, photographs and videos. While journalists gather and post a wide variety of information online as a regular part of the reporting process, Donovan urges them to use caution when sharing personal information about Capitol staff members and other government employees. Trump supporters and others can use that information to find and harass them.

Donovan notes that some election workers have been harassed so severely in recent months they have left their homes.

“Reporters, right now — they should be really mindful of doxing and understand there is a separate media ecosystem of Trump supporters who are angry with police and staff at the Capitol,” she says. “Be careful about sharing pictures and stories about any of the Capitol staff or security who were able to remove Trump supporters from the Capitol. Those people’s lives might become in danger.”

2. Understand the ramifications of covering pro-Trump rallies and protests leading up to Biden’s swearing in ceremony.

Before deciding whether to report on these events, Donovan suggests journalists try to determine the size of the gatherings and the type of information that will be circulated.

“We are going to see many Trump rallies at governors’ houses and statehouses over the next couple of weeks,” Donovan says. “The mere fact of receiving media attention might draw out more protesters or more Trump supporters. And you don’t want to further spread the lies that the election was rigged.”

She also says journalists should realize that including the names of pro-Trump and far-right extremist organizations such as Women for America First and Stop the Steal in their stories also comes with consequences. By giving them publicity, journalists are helping them raise money, recruit volunteers, market their ideas and generate interest in their cause, Donovan maintains.

“These people are profiting off of this,” Donovan says. “We shouldn’t reward them with further attention.”

3. Fact-check statements made by far-right extremists and be leery of offers to help.

Right-wing extremists have become experts in manipulating and misleading news outlets. That means journalists should take extra care to verify their claims before reporting on them. Donovan offers this example: a journalist tweeted Wednesday that some rioters thought they had a right to be inside the Capitol, even though it had been closed to the public.

Joan Donovan Research Director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy
Joan Donovan, research director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy

“Mindless parroting back their claims is amplifying misinformation,” Donovan says, adding that so is repeating false and unsubstantiated statements about the identities of people appearing in real and altered photos of the mob attack. “In the midst of all of this chaos and momentum, when people are trying to sort out the facts, there’s misinformation and forgeries being left for reporters to find.”

Donovan stresses that journalists should be skeptical when a pro-Trump supporter or far-right activist offers to share information to be helpful.

“It’s not uncommon for these people to reach out with a ‘tip’ to gauge reporters’ interest in their story,” Donovan explains. In this case, they likely are trying to coordinate favorable coverage to repair their public image, she says.

4. Read research on political protests and political violence.

Donovan recommends studying the work of scholars such as Erica Chenoweth, a professor of human rights and international affairs at Harvard Kennedy School who co-directs the Crowd Counting Consortium, a public interest project that tracks data on U.S. political gatherings such as protests, strikes and riots. She includes links to her work, including books, on her professional website.

Chenoweth and her colleagues have found, among other things, that news coverage of protests opposing social distancing and lockdown measures amid the coronavirus pandemic has been blown out of proportion in terms of number and size.

A piece she co-wrote for Vox last year explains that these #ReOpen protests, which Trump encouraged, have attracted fewer attendees but drawn much more attention from national news outlets than have anti-Trump rallies.

Looking for more journalism tips related to this topic? Check out our other tip sheets on improving news coverage of presidential transitions and reporting on white supremacy.

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