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How Should Journalists Cover White Supremacists?

A collection of headlines and photos from the media covering white supremacists
Courtesy of WNYC

The latest episode of WNYC’s “On The Media” takes a critical look at how the press covers white supremacy and neo-Nazi groups. The episode stemmed from questions reporter Lois Beckett asked herself as she was covering white nationalist rallies for The Guardian.

She wondered what the consequences are for giving so much media attention to racists and Nazis, and why this had become a part of her political beat. She saw reporters come under fire for their coverage of these groups, and she realized they were all struggling with the same issues. Beckett approached “On The Media” with the idea, which evolved into a full hour episode that includes journalists who have covered white supremacist events and profiled white nationalist leaders, as well as an expert on how the media covered the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s and an expert on where racist ideologies come from.

Host Frank Stasio talks to Beckett about her personal experience covering white nationalist rallies and some of the issues journalists face with stories about white supremacists and neo-Nazi groups. Stasio also talks to “On The Media” producer Jesse Brenneman.

Interview Highlights

Beckett on the choices journalists can make when covering white supremacists:
Don't just go with the group that's easiest to cover whose leader is showing up in a blazer in a public place and saying: Interview me about white nationalism. Think about where racist extremists are having the most impact and where your ability to publicize them might actually change the way they're being treated and might flag groups that are not getting enough scrutiny from law enforcement, for instance.

One of the first things that you realize as a reporter covering white supremacist groups is how eager they are for media coverage. - Lois Beckett

Beckett on who covers these groups:
I think this is a real moment in which the lack of diversity in American media seems to have actually shaped the coverage, because there are a lot of Americans that you could talk to who don't have a stereotype of a racist just being someone from the South, or someone draped in a Confederate flag, because they're Americans of color. And they have faced racism everywhere in their life … And so I think when we ask: Oh, well don't we have to confront the stereotypes about who racist extremists are,  whose stereotypes are we talking about?

Brenneman on including the voices of those impacted by white supremacist groups:
They are very good at saying the thing in the way that they think it will be most palatable.  And so I think when you read some of these stories that only speak to the figure – to Richard Spencer, to their supporters – they know what the best PR speak is going to be the same way they kind of know how to troll online.

Beckett on why these groups persist in talking to the media:
They think that Americans aren't willing to say, ‘I want to live in a segregated society' out loud, but that a lot of white Americans are choosing to live around only other white people – that our country is still incredibly segregated. And so they feel optimistic, because they say: We're saying out loud the things that other people are living by. And I think that's part of the coverage that we haven't emphasized enough as journalists … And that is something that we have to be honest about is the connection between these fringe racist extremists and ideas that are still really prevalent in our society, and not just in the South, but in New York City, everywhere.


Amanda Magnus is the editor of "Embodied," a weekly radio show and podcast about sex, relationships and health. She's also the lead producer for on-demand content at WUNC and has worked on "Tested" and "CREEP."
Longtime NPR correspondent Frank Stasio was named permanent host of The State of Things in June 2006. A native of Buffalo, Frank has been in radio since the age of 19. He began his public radio career at WOI in Ames, Iowa, where he was a magazine show anchor and the station's News Director.
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