In his testimony before a U.S. House committee last month, the assistant director of the FBI’s counterterrorism division, Michael C. McGarrity, referred to racially-motivated, violent extremist groups as “domestic terrorists.” He explained that violent white supremacists “have been responsible for the most lethal incidents among domestic terrorists in recent years, and the FBI assesses the threat of violence and lethality posed by racially motivated violent extremists will continue.”
His testimony came weeks after a gunman killed a woman and wounded three other adults at a synagogue near San Diego. As he fled, the gunman called 911 and told a dispatcher that “the Jewish people are destroying the white race,” the Associated Press reported. White supremacists, who believe in the genetic superiority of white people of European descent, often target social minorities based on their race, religion or sexual orientation.
Between 1990 and 2018, more than 217 people died in ideologically-motivated attacks by far-right extremists in the U.S., according to the United States Extremist Crime Database, maintained by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland. More than three-fourths of these deaths were caused by white supremacists.
White supremacists and other far-right extremist groups are among the greatest threats to U.S. domestic security, the FBI and Department of Homeland Security wrote in an unclassified Joint Intelligence Bulletin in 2017.
To help journalists better understand issues around white supremacy and right-wing extremism, Journalist’s Resource interviewed two experts in the field. We collaborated with Joan Donovan, director of the Technology and Social Change Research Project at Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media Politics and Public Policy, which also operates Journalist’s Resource. We also reached out to Jessie Daniels, a sociologist at the City University of New York who has written two books on white supremacy, White Lies and Cyber Racism: White Supremacy Online and the New Attack on Civil Rights. Her next book on white supremacy, Tweet Storm: The Rise of the Far-Right, the Mainstreaming of White Supremacy, and How Tech & Media Helped, is forthcoming.
Below, we outline their 10 most compelling tips.
1. Be aware that journalists play a role in helping white supremacists and right-wing extremists spread their message.
“Journalists do have the power to prevent widespread damage in society,” Donovan says. “Like researchers, journalists see themselves as outside society — observing, describing. [But] journalists are very much part of society. They shape how people see events they weren’t witness to and journalists hold immense power in shaping public opinion on extremely volatile public issues.”
A report worth reading is “The Oxygen of Amplification: Better Practices for Reporting on Extremists, Antagonists, and Manipulators Online,” authored by Whitney Phillips from Data & Society, a New York-based research institute with which both Donovan and Daniels are affiliated. It examines the news media’s role in spreading messages of hate.
2. Investigate the funding sources of white supremacy and right-wing extremist groups.
“The big thing reporters are missing is the money,” Daniels says. She wonders how members of these groups can afford to travel across the country and buy clothing or items such as the tiki torches carried at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in late 2017. “No one has ever reported on who paid for that,” she says, adding that she has not seen news coverage on how these individuals pay for server space for online platforms and living expenses. “Some of these people are not employed, so how are they covering living expenses when spending so much time promoting white supremacy?”
3. Don’t portray race-based extremism — or racism in U.S. politics — as new developments. They’ve been around for many decades.
Both Donovan and Daniels stress the need for journalists to understand the history of racism in America and include that context in their stories. “We get locked in this loop of outrage without any [journalistic] analysis, really, and that just feeds an agenda,” Daniels says.
“People keep using the word ‘unprecedented’ to talk about the current political climate,” Daniels continues. “I think there’s a real kind of cultural, historical amnesia in this country among not just journalists, but all people. There is a very short-term memory when it comes to politics. The country is steeped in white supremacy. To not recognize that and not talk about that speaks to an illiteracy about the place in which we live.”
4. Avoid letting white supremacists use their own terms to describe themselves. Call them what they are: white supremacists.
White supremacist Richard Spencer coined the term “alternative right” as the name for an online publication he created to disseminate his ideas, Donovan says. The term, shortened to “alt-right,” has been used to refer to people who embrace white supremacy. She says the terms “alt-right” and “white nationalism” are used to “soften rhetoric about white power and white supremacy.” Both are part of what Donovan calls the “re-branding” of white supremacy. Some journalists accepted and began using the new terminology without questioning it.
When people started calling themselves white nationalists or members of the alt-right, “journalists were not questioning their belief system, nor were they tying it to any other historical antecedent,” Donovan says. “That lack of history meant that this group could successfully rebrand.”
Donovan suggests journalists use their own words to describe these groups. “I don’t think they should err on the side of letting participants self-describe,” she says. “Call it white supremacy.”
5. Consider taking a stance of “strategic silence.”
Far-right groups rely on the news media to help spread their message and recruit new members. For many years, they have held rallies and staged controversies specifically to gain journalists’ attention and set media agendas. “Even the machines of the PR [public relations] world are not as good at gaining attention as white supremacists are,” Donovan explains, adding that journalists are sometimes duped by these groups because they don’t expect them to be as sophisticated as they are. “Some journalists don’t understand these groups run on charisma.”
Donovan recommends newsrooms consider taking a stance of “strategic silence” — avoiding covering white supremacist events and ideas — to reduce public harm. She thinks reporters should even avoid interviewing white supremacists. “I, for instance, will not allow myself to be quoted in an article that quotes white supremacists,” she explains. “They [journalists] shouldn’t be seeking out new material or seeking out the explanations of these white supremacists.”
6. Record your interactions with these sources.
If you do seek out interviews with white supremacists, assume you’re being recorded when in their presence, Donovan says. Journalists also should keep in mind that anything they say or do might be used against them — and presented out of context. Extremists want to be able to embarrass reporters and their news outlets, Donovan says. To defend against this, reporters should make their own recordings.
7. If you must cover the statements of far-right extremists, always paraphrase.
If you interview a white supremacist or other far-right extremist or want to include part of a speech or statement in a story, Donovan recommends paraphrasing. That’s because members of these groups often use code words or numbers in their remarks to signal their ideology to other extremists. Reporters who don’t recognize this coded language might unknowingly include it in their coverage.
Donovan points to a widely criticized New York Times story as an example of what not to do. The reporter, Donovan says, was “quoting the white supremacist and allowing him to shape coverage without critique or examining the language he was using … He [the white supremacist] was using terminology such as ‘Hail Victory’ that nodded to the rest of the neo-Nazi subculture from the New York Times. What’s worse is the Times linked to his website that included a series of conspiracy-laden racist articles and podcasts.”
8. Investigate the role technology plays in amplifying racist messages. Don’t link directly to white supremacist websites and content in your news articles.
Racists have taken advantage of new technologies, including social media and other online platforms, to communicate, coordinate and recruit. Daniels says journalists must realize that extremists have become quite sophisticated in their use of technology to promote their ideology and spread misinformation, including conspiracy theories.
“Understand technology, but also the history of racism to understand the current moment,” Daniels says. “What’s happening with technology and what’s happening with white supremacy — if you only look at one, you’ll miss what’s actually happening.”
Donovan says that technologists who eschew the need for content moderation underestimate the role platforms play in seeding white supremacist content across new audiences.
For example, search engines prioritize returns by the amount of times a website is linked to other sites. Other factors such as click-through rates and the optimization of keywords matter, too. Like other content creators, white supremacists have learned the trade of online marketing and depend on amplification by other influential groups — including news outlets — to ensure their content spreads.
Donovan suggests journalists avoid linking to white supremacist websites as that can unintentionally lead audiences to white supremacist content.
9. Familiarize yourself with the efforts of organizations that advocate on behalf of racial and religious minorities.
To counterweight news stories on extremism and violence, Donovan suggests journalists cover ongoing efforts to fight racism and other forms of hate. “We need to not focus on violence and reactions to it,” she says. “We need to bring attention to the fact that people are always organizing and it’s not just the street fights that are newsworthy.”
Donovan recommends building sources within organizations such as Color of Change, MediaJustice and Muslim Advocates.
10. Understand that white supremacists who perpetrate violence want notoriety. Don’t give it to them.
White supremacist groups use violence to draw attention to their ideas, Donovan explains. Their goal is to inspire others. Before perpetrating mass violence, some will litter the internet with a manifesto and other posts loaded with keywords and references to white supremacist content. To limit the reach of this ideology, some newsrooms have adopted a policy of only publishing the perpetrator’s name once — and never in a headline. These newsrooms also don’t link to manifestos directly.
Looking for more resources on racism and white supremacy? Check out our tip sheet on when journalists should use the word “racist.” We also spotlight research on how “racially conservative” attitudes led white Southerners to leave the Democratic Party. If you have questions about Donovan’s research and the Technology and Social Change project, please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.