4 Tips for Citizens & Journalists About Covering Extremist Events

Today is the day you learned that yes, it can happen here too. How should you talk about it online and in the media?

For you, “here” might be your neighborhood, your college, or your online community. The event might be a demonstration, scrawls on doors and online forums, or a talk by someone who espouses hatred.

When these events happen, journalists and citizens sometimes ask me about how to report and make media. When deciding what to publish right now online or in an article, your best option is to slow down and think through conversations among journalists and communication scholars (here, here, here) and read reports like the one by Whitney Philips on best practices for reporting on extremists, antagonists, and manipulators (tips for newsrooms).

But maybe it’s happening today, or you’re there right now, in the crowd, deciding what to do. Here are 4 things to think about.

1. Extremists want you to make media about them

Before you post, know that the extremist group wants you to post media. So before you do, think about what they might want you to post. danah boyd describes a common playbook of media manipulation: “Media manipulators have developed a strategy with three parts that rely on how the current media ecosystem is structured.”

  1. Create spectacle, using social media to get news media coverage.
  2. Frame the spectacle through phrases that drive new audiences to find your frames through search engines.
  3. Become a “digital martyr” to help radicalize others.

So before posting, decide if it’s worth reporting (see Whitney Phillips’s tips for newsrooms for a guide).

2. Reporting about violence can be contagious, so focus precisely on the facts

Whitney Phillips writes: that “reporters and editors should treat violent antagonisms as inherently contagious, and in coverage, draw from best practices for reporting on suicide, mass shootings, and terrorism, which are known to inspire copycats when reported.” Here are some of her tips, which I have edited/adjusted for this post

  • keep the story specific to the communities affected
  • specify the number of participants rather than using vague mass nouns
  • avoid seeking/publishing only the worst statements, which rewards and amplifies those with the most extreme views
  • focus on the impact of an event rather than the organizers
  • minimize sensationalist language and headlines
  • reduce antihero framings of extremists
  • do not provide more information about an attack, or the specific attacker, than is needed, especially if that information provides a blueprint for undertaking future attacks

3. Know how your media could be used for harm

If you post photos, video, and audio, you can expect that the extremist groups want you to spread those images and could also download and use your media in their own campaigns. Whitney suggests that you:

  • exercise an abundance of caution when creating and publishing images, especially when the images include material that is dehumanizing and bigoted
  • exercise an abundance of caution when reprinting memes and slogans used during particular attacks, especially when they are dehumanizing and bigoted
  • include captions and/or other contextualizing information within the image itself so it can’t be hijacked and spread by manipulators as easily
  • (my own) before posting images of bystanders or counter-protesters with information about their identities, consider the risks for that person

4. Put the event in context and consult experts

If you create media about an extremist occurrence, inform yourself about the surrounding context and issues. Whitney suggests:

  • be especially conscientious about the histories of identity-based violence, and the histories of the activists who have been working to combat it.
  • foreground expert perspectives, particularly when the expert offers historicizing information, and/or when they warn against problematic editorial framings
  • where stories include, or seem like they may include, polluted information, reporters shouldn’t just quote experts, but should actively consult with experts who have studied computational and/or networked propaganda, and other forms of media manipulation