A few weeks ago, after the racial violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, our journalists got a note from me.
The Associated Press and Poynter Institute, a journalism training center, had sent out reminders about handling racist words and images.
Frankly, the guidance they offered is how we approach nearly every story, every video and every photo whether we are writing about skinheads or school boards: Use precise language. Don’t generalize. Describe what happened. Put it in context. Don’t overplay. Don’t underplay. Make sure readers understand what labels mean. Ask challenging questions. And report, report, report.
Consider this discussion from the Poynter article:
“Finding language to describe the violence in Charlottesville is also tricky. The words ‘riot’ and ‘melee’ aren’t quite right. But this was more violent than a ‘civil uprising.’ Generally, ‘riot’ describes an unruly mob engaging in violence, involving mayhem. Inciting a riot is a crime and it includes a legal description. ‘Civil uprising’ is a phrase that we usually associate with a justifiable action against tyranny or injustice. Sometimes, one thing can turn into another.”
Whew, that’s a lot of fretting over a few phrases in just one story. Imagine that kind of contemplation over nearly every word in the many stories we publish each day.
But that’s what we are trained to do.
For the most part, the reminders that came about covering extremist groups were pretty much theoretical.
We’ve been busy reporting on recent community celebrations — Exhibit Columbus and the movie “Columbus.”
But then a group that believes white people should be given their own nationalist homeland marched into our city on a beautiful Saturday night. They carried a flag, wore black shirts and arm bands, handed out fliers and described their march on Washington Street as a training opportunity.
You, no doubt, understand the journalistic balancing act that has gone on for centuries when it comes to hate groups: Ignore them, and they will go away. Write about them, and it gives them oxygen.
I wish life and issues were that simple. We live in complicated times, with automated bots and social media sites pushing out misinformation often in attempts to ignite simmering flames and promoting confusion and uncertainty.
Now more than ever, you have a right to know what is going on in your community. Our job has always been to tell you about the good, the bad and the unsettling and uncomfortable.
You cannot change, counter, support or fix what you do not know. Learning that even the most disgusting ideas and rhetoric are in our midst, be it from five people or 500, gives you the opportunity to take action if that is what you want to do. Rather than being shielded, we know you and communities can work through even the most upsetting issues if given solid information.
The problem is that in today’s world, it’s hard to tell when you are getting accurate details. We have a dizzying array of information being pushed at us from everywhere — social media where little legitimate reporting is done, television where news personalities pander to the lowest common denominator and operations where fake news is coming at us from countries far, far away.
That’s why the guidelines we follow in covering extremists and everything else in our community are more important than ever. You deserve to get accurate information, to know where it is coming from and how it has been verified.
So when you read our story about this group that waved its black flag in our town, you also noticed how we handled it.
We precisely noted the number of people involved and their ties to other leaders. That’s context. We talked to police, asking them about the legalities of the march. That’s reporting. We interviewed the group’s leader to try to understand exactly what he believes and wants to happen. That’s avoiding generalizations. We looked at pictures from the march. That’s allowing us to accurately describe what happened. We sought out other voices. That’s more reporting.
With good information, you can talk to your kids about the flier they might have come across on a downtown street. With good information, you can understand when a social media post you come across tells just one part of the story or is misleading.
And with good information, you have what you deserve — the power and knowledge to stand up to hate.
Scarlett Syse is group editor for The Republic. She can be reached at email@example.com.
The Associated Press issued these reminders in writing about various groups:
The events in Charlottesville are an opportunity to take another look at our terminology around “alt-right” and the way that we describe the various racist, neo-Nazi, white nationalist and white supremacist groups out there.
At AP, we have taken the position that the term “alt-right” should be avoided because it is meant as a euphemism to disguise racist aims. So use it only when quoting someone or when describing what the movement says about itself. Enclose the term “alt-right” in quotation marks or use phrasing such as the so-called alt-right (no quote marks when using the term so-called) or the self-described “alt-right.”
Another recent area of confusion is the degree of overlap between the terms “white nationalist” and “white supremacist.” For many people the terms can be used almost interchangeably. Both terms describe groups that favor whites and support discrimination by race. There is however a subtle difference, at least in the views of the groups involved.
White nationalists say that white people are a distinct nation deserving of protection, and therefore they demand special political, legal and territorial guarantees for whites. White supremacists believe that whites are superior and therefore should dominate other races. Depending on the group and the context, AP writers are free to determine which description most aptly applies to a group or an individual in a particular situation.
Finally, a new term has emerged recently – an umbrella term for the far-left-leaning militant groups that resist neo-Nazis and white supremacists at demonstrations and other events. The movement calls itself “antifa,” short for anti-fascists, and emulates historic anti-fascist actors in Europe. Until the term becomes better known, use it in quotes at first and with a definition included the copy.
For reference, here is the guidance on this topic:
A political grouping or tendency mixing racism, white nationalism and populism; a name currently embraced by some white supremacists and white nationalists to refer to themselves and their ideology, which emphasizes preserving and protecting the white race in the United States.
In AP stories discussing what the movement says about itself, the term “alt-right” (quotation marks, hyphen and lowercase) may be used in quotes or modified as in the self-described “alt-right” or so-called alt-right. Avoid using the term generically and without definition, however, because it is not well-known and the term may exist primarily as a public relations device to make its supporters’ actual beliefs less clear and more acceptable to a broader audience.
Depending on the specifics of the situation, such beliefs might be termed racist, white supremacist or neo-Nazi; be sure to describe the specifics. Whenever “alt-right” is used in a story, include a definition: an offshoot of conservatism mixing racism, white nationalism and populism, or, more simply, a white nationalist movement.
When writing on extreme groups, be precise and provide evidence to support the characterization. Report their actions, associations, history and positions to reveal their actual beliefs and philosophy, as well as how others see them.
Some related definitions:
The broad term for asserting racial or ethnic discrimination or superiority based solely on race, ethnic or religious origins; it can be by any group against any other group.
A subset of racist beliefs that calls for a separate territory and/or enhanced legal rights and protections for white people. Critics accuse white nationalists of being white supremacists in disguise.
A term sometimes used as a synonym for white nationalism but differs in that it advocates a form of segregation in which races would live apart but in the same general geographic area.
The racist belief that whites are superior to justify political, economic and social suppression of nonwhite people and other minority groups.
Combines racist and white supremacist beliefs with admiration for an authoritarian, totalitarian style of government such as the German Third Reich to enforce its beliefs.