National Media Are Platforming Domestic Extremists, Leaving Local Journalists to Deal with the Fall Out. Here’s How We Can Do Better.

Two young boys look on as boogaloo and other far right groups rallied in Richmond, Virginia, on January 18, 2021. The second amendment event in the capital drew almost as many members of the media as participants. Photo: Chris Jones/100 Days in Appalachia

Anyone who’s worked in local or regional newsrooms knows what it’s like to have a national news outlet publish irresponsibly inaccurate reporting on something happening in your community. At best, these reports result in additional work for local journalists who now have to push back against this top down misrepresentation. But at a time when local reporting is focused on the actions and rhetoric of violent extremism, misleading and sensationalized coverage can intensify the divide and violence our communities are experiencing and make the job of local reporters exponentially more difficult.

There are plenty of examples of how national news coverage has consistently failed to accurately and responsibly cover extremism. It happened in the wake of Charlottesville, in the aftermath of mass shootings committed by a far right extremist in New Zealand, and during the 2020 election season. It continued after the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol when a New York Times article that suggested veterans that participated in the attack on the Capitol were equivalent to Capitol Police officers who happened to be veterans because, “both felt they were doing their patriotic duty in a fractured country.

The role of the media in platforming violent extremists is well documented at this point. But as Whitney Phillips, an expert on misinformation at Syracuse University, explained in an interview with the Columbia Journalism Review, if the goal is to undermine a violent ideology like white supremacy, Phillips says, you don’t do that by only talking about white supremacists. Someone should probably mention this to national outlets who consistently frame stories around interviews with white supremacists

In a rush to feed audiences riot porn and uncritical amplification of fringe extremists, national news outlets often reach out to local newsrooms and reporters asking for access to people who embody their predetermined idea of what the story should be. In Appalachia, there’s a clockwork consistency to the biannual requests from cable news producers and national editors to hand over contact information for “a poverty stricken family that lives in a trailer deep in a holler.” In 2016, it was the “laid-off coal miner who was going to vote for Trump.” Now, it’s “militia” members and attendees of MAGA rallies. 

In 2020, 100 Days in Appalachia was approached by four different national news outlets who asked for access to people involved in militia groups to interview. None were interested in the regional complexity of why extremist groups seemed to be prevalent in northern Appalachia. While some patiently listened to explanations of context or the danger in platforming a self-styled militia member, it was clear that they saw 100 Days in Appalachia as a means to access something for themselves – they wanted us to hand them a subject that confirmed a narrative set by elite news organizations at the national level. They do not understand the complexity of this issue for our communities. And it appears they don’t care to.

In the coming years, local reporters need to be focused on covering far right extremism and extremist activity in their own backyards more than ever — not just because they’re killing more Americans than in recent years, but because national news coverage has failed to inform America about the dangerous and evolving reality of extremist violence. Meanwhile local and regional journalists wear many hats and cover a variety of beats simultaneously, while also struggling with minimal resources, budget cuts and layoffs.  

In an effort to assist local newsrooms on the front lines of community political violence and extremist activity, 100 Days in Appalachia has compiled some insights and developed suggestions based on our experience covering this beat. While larger news outlets can afford to hire full time extremism reporters and employ digital and physical security experts, smaller regional and local news outlets will face the same challenges with a fraction of the resources and at much higher risk – because after all, the threat is close to home, not in cities and towns we visit briefly to extract pre-determined narratives. 

While these suggestions are hardly comprehensive, we hope that they can provide a useful and effective starting point for regional and local reporters and to help ensure that our coverage of extremism does more good than harm to the communities we serve. And we hope to help build a community of practice for local and regional outlets facing similar threats and challenges in their coverage areas. 

Tips for Covering Extremism in a Local Newsroom:

Foster newsroom wide conversations and consensus about how political violence and extremist activity will be covered. If possible, local and regional reporters should have a frank conversation with their editors about how these stories will be covered in the future. From syntax to sources, the more proactive your newsroom is ahead of the story in knowing how you plan to describe and report on extremist groups and activities will help ensure your reporting is consistent, informed and doesn’t confuse readers or platform harmful ideologies. Resources like First Draft News’ reading list for journalists covering extremism is a great place to establish a baseline understanding of the beat and how it impacts your readership. 

There is also an uncomfortable reality that some local and regional newsrooms in America are led by people sympathetic to extremist ideologies and groups, which further complicates the challenge of addressing this community threat.

Understand the Media Manipulation Life Cycle. Extremist groups and conspiracy theorists have spent generations perfecting their ability to manipulate news media and influence how their activity is perceived. News outlets provide a vital bridge between fringe ideologies and the public that can, intentionally or not, normalize these views and allow them to influence public discourse and define the narrative surrounding political events. By understanding how local and regional news outlets factor into this process, you can ensure that your coverage is not falling into the trap of platforming fringe beliefs as normalized political activities.

Report on actions over words. If a local militia group holds an armed public rally, the newsworthy aspect is not the rhetoric, but the fact that members of a community are bringing firearms to political discourse. Extremist groups will go to great lengths to depict themselves as reflecting the ideals of their community, or describe themselves as simply “concerned citizens,” but this is a deliberate tactic used to normalize their behavior. If a trusted local or regional news outlet says that armed men standing across the street from a peaceful Black Lives Matter rally are “concerned citizens” without noting the absence of any violence or threats from those BLM activists, your coverage implies that there is a valid reason for citizens to be concerned. 

A useful interviewing technique is to probe extremist activists for their information sources used to justify their public activity. If an armed activist cites social media and national media as proof of a threat to their community, your reporting should explicitly note that there is no real evidence of an acute threat to justify their activities, simply unsubstantiated social media rumors or online mis/disinformation campaigns. 

Ensure that those victimized by extremist violence and harassment are the primary focus of your reporting. When covering the impact of a tornado, you don’t interview the tornado, you interview those who’ve lost their homes and livelihoods. When documenting far right and white supremacist groups and activities, it’s imperative that your reporting not just include but center the perspectives of those in your community that are historically or potentially targets of their violence. Listening to communities as they respond to extremist activity that primarily impacts and threatens them ensures incidents that may not seem threatening to white, cisgendered Americans are not diminished or brushed away as isolated incidents. Developing a relationship with your local NAACP chapter, LGBTQ+ organizations, immigrant community leaders, Black Lives Matter organizers, as well as religious leaders from targeted faiths like Judaism and Islam is a far more crucial tool for enabling effective reporting on this subject than getting to know local militia leaders or Proud Boys. 

Developing persistent and equitable connections with those in our coverage area that have historically been and are currently targeted for violence and intimidation will provide your newsroom with vital sources that can inform your reporting by providing evidence and information on extremist activity that otherwise may go under the radar. This will also ensure your coverage of extremism is a useful source of information for those who monitor extremism in their communities closely as a matter of survival, rather than intermittent journalistic attention. 

You may encounter skepticism or resistance if you’re reaching out to these groups or communities for the first time after an incident or harassment occurs. When any community has been attacked, it’s legitimate for new faces now asking questions to be met with distrust or suspicion. And extremist violence is, obviously, not the only newsworthy issue that targeted communities experience. Incorporating full and diverse community perspectives into your reporting across beats will exclusively improve the scope and scale of the information you provide to your community. But as the saying goes, the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago and today. This is the first order of work.

Another strategy is to develop deep reporting around the local and regional history of communities who’ve been affected by extremist violence for generations. While the danger of domestic extremism and white supremacist violence may seem new and unprecedented to many, for affected community members, it has been hiding in plain sight for decades in our country. You’re likely to find that people in your coverage area have been speaking openly about this for generations, and their insight will root coverage of extremism and extremist violence in a localized and relevant historical context.

Hold law enforcement and local politicians accountable in your reporting. Local and regional newsrooms often have close and mutually beneficial relationships with local law enforcement and elected offices, as the ability to get pertinent and useful information to communities makes journalists a vital partner in public safety. However, this relationship can make documenting and reporting on extremism difficult in light of evidence of how far right extremists have penetrated law enforcement and the pro-law enforcement community, as well as a documented rise in extremists or conspiracy theorists who now hold elected office. 

Closely examining the social media profiles of local and regional law enforcement and politicians may reveal connections to extremist groups or fringe beliefs, which may be an uncomfortable story to report on. Ensuring that your editorial staff are supportive of this reporting and prepared to mitigate any backlash is an important issue that should be discussed openly before publishing.

It’s also important that reporting on extremist activity engage law enforcement directly. If armed activists congregate in a public space, reach out to local law enforcement. Were they notified in advance of this event? Who contacted them? What steps have local authorities taken to keep the public safe? Local reporters who think they may cover extremist activity (even if outside the scope of their beat) should preemptively reach out to the media liaison for their local Department of Justice office, FBI and ATF, who are often involved in investigating extremist activity and are almost always involved in investigating extremist violence after the fact. Going through Department of Justice press releases is a useful resource for seeing what type of criminal activity associated with extremism is being prosecuted and investigated in your region. 

Context is key. When it comes to situations like protests, rallies and other media-oriented examples of extremist activity, it’s vital that local and regional coverage does not reflect the narratives established by national media outlets who have no understanding of local dynamics. Instead, our coverage should compare and contrast the local experience to national trends. 

For example, when covering BLM protests in Appalachia, we focused on the fact that at the time of publishing there had not been violence associated with BLM activism in the region. At a time when national media – especially cable television stations – was hyper focused on cities where property destruction and police violence against protestors was common, there was a broad misunderstanding in our coverage area that all BLM activity was violent, when in reality an overwhelming majority of Black Lives Matter protests were peaceful. It was important for our coverage to push back against the misconception as we documented these protests, as well as give examples of how Appalachian communities worked to come together around highly divisive political debates, rather than resort to bloodshed. 

There are many ways that communities across the country prevent extremism from boiling over into outright violence amongst neighbors, and as journalists, we should always be on the lookout for these solutions at play in our coverage area and look for opportunities to highlight them. 

Avoid false equivalency. When national news trends develop, they are often reduced to a binary representation: A vs B. This year, “antifa” and various far right groups like the Proud Boys, the Oathkeepers and others were often described as oppositional forces who violently acted out their political affiliations in streets across the country. This helped create a false idea that armed right wing groups who showed up to protests or other public events were justified in their need to defend themselves and their community from violent far left activists. 

In reality there was no such threat. As news outlets, it’s imperative that we do not employ these types of binary depictions. They can justify further violence and intimidation against peaceful protests and community members, such as when a heavily armed mob threatened a handful of peaceful local Black Lives Matter marchers—including an elected official—in Kingwood, West Virginia because they were convinced by social media that BLM protests were inherently violent and focused on property destruction

Prepare for harassment after reporting critically on far right and white nationalist extremism in your community. Extremist groups have been very effective in weaponizing the internet against institutions and individuals that critique them. Journalists have been a consistent target for harassment, doxxing and sometimes direct violent threats. 

It’s also important to be open and upfront about the dangers that non-white colleagues face when covering this subject. Beyond safety equipment like helmets, masks, and other PPE, newsrooms should ensure that reporters who are demographically targeted by white supremacists and other extremist ideologies have the resources and support needed to do the work. Women journalists are more likely to experience online harassment for their reporting than their male colleagues, and that harassment is more likely to translate to real life threats and violence. Journalists of color are more likely to be assaulted by far right extremists and law enforcement during volatile protests. Being upfront about these realities when preparing your newsroom for future coverage of extremist activity will ensure you are preparing for potential threats.

All newsrooms should develop a culture and process around digital and physical safety, but we recognize that few local news outlets have the resources and expertise to do this. 

Trollbusters provides excellent resources and training opportunities, some tailored specifically for individual journalists and smaller newsrooms. The International Women’s Media Foundation also provides excellent training programs and resources against digital harassment, as well as the Columbia Journalism School’s DART Center for Journalism & Trauma.

Chris Jones is a Report for America corps member covering domestic extremism for 100 Days in Appalachia. Click here to help support his investigative reporting through the Ground Truth Project.

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