Reporting extremism without feeding the beast

The far-Right uses media stunts to spread its message. Responsible journalism requires careful language, contextualisation, and strategic silence.

Far-Right groups actively seek to generate media attention in order to promote and amplify their political agenda.

In an internal handbook of a prominent Australian white supremacy group, leaked in 2021, a large section was dedicated specifically to media baiting. The document called for ‘staging media provocations to make the organisation itself better known and recruiting suitably committed people into the organisation.’

Members of the far-right group are even called upon to contact media outlets themselves (using a fake name and email account, possibly even masquerading as a person of colour) and alert journalists to an offline stunt of the group such as stickering, leafletting or postering or other public actions.

Offline actions amplified by media reporting significantly increases public interest in the far-Right groups and individuals. In 2017-18, research conducted at Victoria University in partnership with Moonshot CVE found, for example, that Google searches for the far-right white nationalist group that organised several street rallies in Melbourne in the mid to late 2010s, had increased by well over 2,000% (compared to a neutral baseline), immediately after the street rallies and the extensive media coverage.

While not everyone who performs an online search or starts following a far-right social media account is necessarily a far-right sympathiser, it is safe to assume that some of them are, which indicates that media coverage can indeed increase the public reach of these groups and help in their attempts to attract new members and supporters.

Reporting or not reporting?

Given the interconnectedness of far-right mobilisation and recruitment and media reporting about far-right groups, actions and narratives, editors and journalists face complex challenges when making decisions as to whether and how to cover these topics.

In addition to the usual criteria of newsworthiness, journalists and editors need to take into account the risk of potentially causing harm by amplifying certain ideological messages or of providing the tool for ‘an audience to use the story to cause harm’.

To avoid this risk, experts have encouraged newsrooms to consider ‘strategic silence’.

However, news media are expected to report what is in the public interest, which means there might be a journalistic responsibility to cover the incident, despite the risk of platforming socially harmful actions or ideologies or of playing onto the hands of far right groups.

This raises the question as to how to cover such incidents once the editors – after weighing up public interest and risks of amplification – decide to report.

Precise language and caution with generic labels

Providing a short description of the group’s core ideological positions, instead of simply using such generic labels such as ‘far-Right’ or ‘extremist’, can offer more transparency and clarity.

The article should generally avoid using the same terms that the group itself uses to describe itself, which often reflects their attempt to make their agenda sound more appealing or less aggressive. For example, openly antisemitic, white supremacy or neo Nazi organisations may refer to themselves euphemistically as “nationalists” or “patriots”, but such terms should not be used in the media coverage to describe these groups.

Accurately describing the ideological background of the groups and people involved requires extra work and it’s not always easy, especially when a multitude of different actors are involved in a certain event, such as larger public protests.

The anti-lockdown and anti-vaccination protests in several Australian cities are a good example: While some far-right actors were certainly present, seizing this opportunity for their political purposes, the protests themselves could not be accurately described as a ‘far-right’ events or closely associated with the far-right.

This framing, which was used in some media coverage, made such events falsely appear like a massive far-right mobilisation success – something many within the far right unduly took credit for.

It is also good practice to refrain from naming the groups, showing their symbols, or linking to their social media channels or websites, as this raises their profile and helps recruitment.

Avoiding replicating far-right narratives

How can a journalist, for example, report on a far-right stunt at a Gay Pride or public Drag Queen event without reporting on the far right’s transphobic and other anti-LGBTIQ+ messaging?

One way to approach this is to focus the media coverage of such events on the broad picture of what the far-right group is trying to achieve through that public action and how the event is part of their attempt to raise their public profile and pursue their larger ideological agenda.

Rather than reporting on far-right allegations of paedophilia or their claim to ‘protect our children’, a report should emphasise the group’s broader agenda such as antisemitism or white supremacy.

This would also require journalists to refrain from including images of placards, flyers, or banners, directly quoting those involved or using their ideological terminology, memes and buzzwords.  

(Not) interviewing far-right actors

News media in Australia seem to have realised that far-right actors should not be treated as ordinary voices in debates on broader topics of public interest. But the more challenging question how to engage with them, interview them or include their comments in news coverage of far-right events they were involved in.

Odette Yousef, an US journalist and National Security correspondent focusing on extremism at NPR, highlights the risks and urges journalists to be well prepared: “Extremists don’t go into these interviews in good faith… They’re going into the interview because they are getting something out of it. I think that’s where some journalists have been caught flat-footed. They don’t understand that going into an interview with an extremist is not on the normal terms of engagement.”

If journalists decide to go ahead with such an interview, they should avoid as much as possible using direct quotes and refrain from showing footage or soundbites of the interview itself in order to minimise the risk of platforming far-right figures and amplifying their ideologies.

Instead, statements should be paraphrased and contextualised. Journalists should take into account that far-right statements that may vilify or dehumanise groups of people based on certain attributes (e.g. racial, ethnic or cultural identity, religion, gender identity) can affect the psychological safety of these targeted communities.

This article is an edited extract of Media reporting and far-right extremism in Australia: Between strategic silence and harmful amplification published by the Centre for Resilient and Inclusive Societies and Victoria University.

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Photo: Neo-Nazi protesters face-off with transgender rights supporters outside Parliament House in Melbourne, Saturday, March 18, 2023. (AAP Image/James Ross)