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How can journalists responsibly cover neo-Nazis? A media scholar gives his advice.

“Journalists can't afford that superficiality and they can't afford that credulousness anymore.”

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA - AUGUST 12:  White nationalist Richard Spencer (C) and his supporters clash with Virginia State Police in Emancipation Park after the "Unite the Right" rally was declared an unlawful gathering August 12, 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia. Hundreds of white nationalists, neo-Nazis and members of the "alt-right" clashed with anti-fascist protesters and police as they attempted to hold a rally in Emancipation Park, where a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee is slated to be removed. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
White nationalist Richard Spencer clashes with police at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images North America

After the New York Times published an article depicting the life of an Ohioan neo-Nazi on Saturday, the newspaper was met with public outrage. The piece, originally called “The Neo-Nazi Next Door” and later changed to “A Voice of Hate in America’s Homeland,” faced criticism for its gentle portrayal of neo-Nazi Tony Hovater. Journalist Richard Fausset included details of Hovater’s love of Seinfeld, his favored household appliances on his wedding registry, and what he buys at the supermarket.

In response, critics and journalists cast the article as normalizing members of a fast-growing movement that promotes hate. Others argued that the media has provided too much coverage of the growing neo-Nazi movement instead of focusing on its victims or other fringe ideological groups in the country.

In response to the uproar, the Times felt the need to explain why it published the piece. “The point of the story was not to normalize anything but to describe the degree to which hate and extremism have become far more normal in American life than many of us want to think,” wrote Marc Lacey, the paper’s national editor. “We recognize that people can disagree on how best to tell a disagreeable story.”

So how should the press cover neo-Nazism in today’s media environment? I posed the question to Tom Rosenstiel, a media scholar and executive director at the American Press Institute. The conversation has been edited and condensed:

Karen Turner

What was your initial take on that New York Times's article about Tony Hovater?

Tom Rosenstiel

The challenge that you have whenever you are writing about hate groups is trying to create understanding and provide context without being promotional. And what's particularly challenging today is that these groups have become quite media savvy.

They are not trying to operate in the shadows. They are trying to operate in public. They're trying to get mainstream attention. In effect, they've taken off their hoods, and they want people to see their faces and believe that they are mainstream. There is an explicit strategy.

Karen Turner

So given this current movement, how do journalists cover that responsibly?

Tom Rosenstiel

We're learning, I think, in the age of social media, this is more challenging than journalists thought. For one thing, if a story is produced about a group like this, it can be repurposed in social media and plastered all over the place and viewed to say, "Look. Look at us. We are not a fringe group. We are written about."

And contrary to the notion that people are in these filter bubbles on social media, where they're seeing only things they agree with, part of the strategy of fringe groups and hate groups is to use social platforms to take [ideas] out of those filters, out of those narrow channels, and gradually widen the boundaries that secede them. Social media makes that easier to do, not harder.

To go back to your question of what journalists do about that, I don't think it means you ignore things that are important. But you have to cover them in a way where the context is clear and that material can't be appropriated and repurposed in the raw and misused.

Karen Turner

So journalists have to cover it, but it's kind of like damned if you do, damned if you don't.

Tom Rosenstiel

You're damned if you do it the wrong way. But in an earlier era, when people really had very few choices about where to go for their news, there were higher levels of trust. Everything you got was from one or two news sources.

Today, stories are atomized. They're broken up so that the one story you read from a source might be the only story [on that topic] that someone sees. So you put the burden on writing that story in such a way where readers are getting a complete picture just from that one story. So if I don't know much about neo-Nazis, I need to get enough context to understand what I need to know about them just from that one story. So the burden on any given story is actually a lot higher.

Karen Turner

What kind of context do journalists need to provide in these stories?

Tom Rosenstiel

They need to be aware of the fact that getting major publicity is an explicit tactic and part of the strategy of hate groups. If they are not aware of that, if they don't understand that, they are not going to fully appreciate their responsibility or the risks that are involved in covering a group like that.

And then talk to experts about what is behind that strategy of attracting attention. And why they are out from under their hood and how these movements have grown or not grown. Simply taking your camera and shooting the event and then saying, "Wow, there is a protest here," or, "There's this march here. Wow, look at how many people there are." Journalists can't afford that superficiality and they can't afford that credulousness anymore.

Karen Turner

Do you feel like, in aggregate, the media has been doing a good job of covering this movement?

Tom Rosenstiel

I think that the cop-out answer is yes and no. You can point to pieces — and I've seen pieces on network television that I thought, "Oh, my God, this piece, it lacks critical sensibility." It's just like sitting down and interviewing a Nazi about his views, and they're not challenging him and they're not contextualizing who he is and why he's saying these things. There's nothing there except an interview, as if he was just a man on the street.

I've also seen pieces that I thought were quite sophisticated and created real understanding. The Charlottesville march coverage, arguably, has helped us learn some things about the rise of these people and their tactics. The Vice documentary that was on HBO, that reporter got really close to these guys and they let their hair down. She was asking them pretty tough questions. And they were answering them pretty candidly. That, I think, was a pretty good example of how to do that on television.

More than a hundred years ago, the New York Times used to cover lynchings and would find people who would defend lynchings and feature them. Then they decided, "No, we don't need to do that anymore." There is no other “side” to lynching.

Karen Turner

Is it okay to depict hate groups as being normal? I think in some ways, you could argue that an article like this does a service by showing that your friendly neighbor could also have all of these deeply racist and horrifying views.

Tom Rosenstiel

Yeah. I mean, I think it gets very close to that line of mainstreaming hate. And one of the things that the Times was aware of, I think, in the last year or so is that it's a national publication, but it's produced by people who live primarily in the heart of New York City. And if you produce that with the sensibility of a West Side Manhattanite who is just kind of alarmed or amazed at who attends a Trump rally — or if you suggest somehow that the whole rest of the country is a shock to you— you're undermining your ability to be a national or international publication. And that's a deep cultural challenge for any publication that is located in one place and is trying to cover everything.

There's no easy outs here. Ignoring the phenomena isn't really a solution. But when you cover the subject and these groups, you've got to do it with a level of sophistication that we probably don't see as much as we should.

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