Reporting on extremism, from those who have done it best

White supremacists chant at counter protestors at the base of a statue of Thomas Jefferson after marching through the University of Virginia campus with torches in Charlottesville, Va., USA on August 11, 2017. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

After publishing a profile of Nazi sympathized Tony Hovater this past weekend, The New York Times found itself facing an intense backlash for a story that many claimed normalized hatred. Richard Fausett’s piece, as he acknowledged in a first-person explanation, had a hole at its heart. Criticized for focusing on the banality of Tony Hovater’s life without capturing the evil of the ideas he espouses, the piece was pilloried across the industry.

“It is definitely responsible to profile a Nazi as if he’s just an odd curiosity and not part of a violent and dangerous movement,” Slate’s Jamelle Bouie tweeted sarcastically. Splinter’s Anna Merlan and Brendan O’Connor dug up details that the Times missed completely, and national editor Marc Lacey wrote, “we regret the degree to which the piece offended so many readers.”

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The piece obviously missed the mark, but the Times was right to try. Stories on this topic need to be told. Plenty has been written about what the Times did wrong, but there are numerous examples of news organizations—from Vice to The Atlantic—that have undertaken similar assignments and delivered valuable work.

So what’s the right way to cover extremism? CJR asked for advice from  several writers who have succeeded in reporting on Nazis, white nationalists, and those whose views are dangerous.

 

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Luke O’Brien: Be on guard.

In “The Making of an American Nazi,” The Atlantic’s December cover story, O’Brien traces the path of Andrew Anglin from antiracist vegan to racist propagandist for the alt-right. He interviewed dozens of figures from Anglin’s life and captured the events that helped explain how Anglin became publisher of the world’s biggest neo-Nazi website, The Daily Stormer. He believes that magazine journalism might be better suited to these types of stories because of the time and space they provide.

O’Brien recently joined HuffPost’s Highline after covering extremism for a variety of publications. His advice for journalists attempting to report on white extremists includes a heavy dose of caution. “If the person being profiled is actually communicating with the reporter, I would say, ‘Be extremely wary of anything this person says,’” O’Brien warns. “These are propagandists. They are liars. They are dangerous people. They are political extremists who have a very clear-cut agenda, and part of that involves manipulating the media.”

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Searching for the genesis of a subject’s beliefs and the web of connections in their world is important, but it carries risks. “There’s some causatory influence, and trying to get at that is very important,” O’Brien says. But at the same time, reporters must be careful about “not giving them a platform for irrational, hateful views.”

Invariably, that requires deep, time-consuming reporting. “You have to corroborate everything, in triplicate probably,” O’Brien says. “You have to find other sources who understand this world and can help you navigate it.” Ultimately, both writers and editors need to “be on guard with anything that [the subject] says, and with anything you’re writing that it is grounded properly and contextualized properly.”

 

Charlie Warzel: The internet is real life.

At BuzzFeed, Warzel has immersed himself in the dark corners of the internet, reporting on the rise of the alt-right and the pro-Trump media universe. He says that any attempt to understand figures ranging from conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones to neo-Nazis like those who marched in Charlottesville requires a knowledge of the online communities they’ve created.

“These ideas have been honed, incubated, practiced, perfected,” Warzel says. “This ideology has always existed in meeting rooms where these people get together, but those are small rooms; 4chan is a very big room.” 4chan, a series of online forums where anonymous users can post whatever they want with few rules or consequences, has become a meeting place for alt-right and white supremacists. Warzel says that an off-color joke about the Holocaust posted to a forum there “can slowly over time harden into an ideology.”

For journalists who enter into the world of figures like Hovater, any attempt to understand how they came to hold the views they do requires some knowledge of the online world in which they live. “When you’re reporting on this kind of extremism, the best thing we can do as journalists is take whatever person we’re talking about and figure out where they figure into this exact moment we’re living in,” Warzel says. In 2017, that means delving into an online world that is increasingly fueling real-life events. “I don’t think you can have a discussion about extremism without showing the ways in which the internet incubates it and creates communities for it,” Warzel says.

As to why the Times’s piece struck such a nerve, Warzel feels that at least part of it is because many Americans are playing catch-up with a movement that’s been building for some time. “We’re all very anxious about this thing that’s happening in America that we sort of understand but don’t know everything about,” he says. “When an institution like the Times shows that it’s struggling to catch up with the rest of us, that makes people nervous and angry. We’re in this period of flux right now, but we’ve got to treat this like covering any other extremist group. Just because they’re on the internet doesn’t mean they’re less real.”

 

JJ MacNab: Trust the experts.

MacNabb has studied extremist movements for almost two decades as both an academic and writer at Forbes. She’s seen media attention shift from anti-government groups to an emboldened white supremacist movement, and laments that journalists covering both topics sometimes find themselves out of their depth.

“I think the problem with journalists who don’t have this as a particular beat is they don’t really know the movement, so they don’t recognize the clues they’re being handed by the person they’re interviewing,” MacNab says. Citing a glancing mention in the Times piece of Hovarter’s increased political awareness following the Trayvon Martin shooting, MacNab says that an expert on the subject could have added the context that the 2012 event was a turning point for many extremists, including Dylann Roof.

“There are plenty of experts out there who do know this stuff who are happy to just give you information,” MacNab says. “I talk to reporters all the time before they go out [to report] to say here’s what I know, here’s what to look for, here’s what to listen for.”

 

Rukmini Callimachi: Go to the groups, and know your stuff.

Callimachi is The New York Times’s point person for covering a different kind of extremism. She’s earned widespread praise for explaining the inner workings of ISIS to an audience that isn’t always familiar with the way it operates.

“There’s enormous value in going to the group itself,” she says of her time reporting on both al-Qaeda and ISIS. “I collect their documents, which involves going to areas they’ve recently been pushed out of. I have tried online, through social media and encrypted apps, to speak to them…and I’ve tried speaking to them in person.”

For reporters entering hostile territory by interacting with extremist groups, Callimachi argues the best armor is a deep knowledge of the movement. “They hate me,” she says of the individuals she reports on, “but they always end up being impressed with how much I know about them. If I’m able to break through the initial cordon of just getting access, then they’ll often come around.”

That knowledge is drawn both from experts in the field and personal interactions with terrorists themselves, and it’s not the result of a cursory study. “You need to know the lingo, you need to know the symbols they use,” Callimachi says. “What does the flag mean that they’re using? What are the slogans they scream out? What books do they refer to? Having that textual background helps determine your knowledge and your credibility and makes it harder for them to discount you.”

If [journalists] are prioritizing the humanity of those who have always been prioritized, they’re not adding anything new.”

Ijeoma Oluo: Get your priorities straight.

Amidst the furor over the Times’s piece, several people pointed to Ijeoma Oluo’s April profile of Rachel Dolezal as an example of how to write about a dangerous figure in a manner that was both compassionate and devastating. Oluo’s ability to approach a story that had been covered by dozens of other journalists in a novel way earned plaudits across the industry, and she says that’s in part because she was willing to give up on it if she couldn’t add anything new to the conversation.

“I was really nervous that I would do [the reporting] and I would come out with nothing of use to add to the conversation,” Oluo says. “I actually went in fully prepared to cancel the piece, and I think that’s a responsibility that I wish a lot more writers and journalists took seriously.”

Reporting on extremist groups and individuals has often focused on the lives of those who hold racist, anti-democratic views rather than those who are on the receiving end of that hate. Oluo argues that the emphasis has been misplaced. “When your only goal is to understand the dehumanizing, and not understanding the impact that this is having on the people who are being dehumanized, you’re continuing that cycle of dehumanization,” she says.

Part of that problem stems from America’s racial history, in which white narratives have always held prominence. “Anyone going into these conversations with Nazis has to understand that our entire history has always prioritized white people,” Oluo says. “Even in discussions of slavery, even in discussions of police brutality against black people, it has always prioritized [questions like whether or not] white people are better than they used to be, whether or not white people eventually did the right thing. There is absolutely no excuse for adding to that.”

Instead, she thinks that journalists should flip the perspective, focusing more on issues like, “What must it be like to work with this people? What must it be like to live in a neighborhood when these marches come through? What do parents of color tell their children?….If [journalists] are prioritizing the humanity of those who have always been prioritized, they’re not adding anything new.”

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Pete Vernon is a CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter @ByPeteVernon.