Managing Editor Zack Abrams attended the IIJS and Journalism School’s panel, Don’t Panic, Don’t Ignore: How to Report on Hate, last night about the duty of journalists to report on hate and the difficulties and pitfalls that lie therein.
Hate is having a moment. For three consecutive years, the number of hate crimes, most of them vandalism and harassment, has risen. With the swell of smaller crimes, several of them here, came a few that garnered the attention of the national media. The attack in Charlottesville following an alt-right rally. The murders in the Squirrel Hill synagogue. And, most recently, the mass shooting in two Christchurch mosques.
Hate crimes aren’t new territory for the media; the history of America is littered with the blood and pain of slaves and their descendants, immigrants struggling to assimilate, gender and sexual and religious minorities, Jews like me. However, the media has a troubled history with reporting on hate. Ida B. Wells, who was born into slavery and became a pioneer of investigative journalism and co-founder of the NAACP, exposed the fraudulent justifications of lynchings in the south at the same time national newspapers fanned the flames of white supremacy. Innocent Muslim men have been blamed by the media for the Oklahoma City and Boston bombings. Outrage swelled over the New York Times’s coverage of a small-town Neo-Nazi in November of 2017.
The modern media landscape presents several more challenges to reporting on hate. News organizations have spectacularly failed to match the diversity of their staff to the diversity of the country as a whole. The Internet- and Twitter-driven era of news have put pressure on journalists to be first to the story, even if all the facts or context aren’t immediately apparent. Being informed constantly also means the onslaught is largely unavoidable; the emotional toll of hate has weighed upon journalists, victims, members of the community, content moderators.
And me. I watched CNN’s coverage of the Charlottesville rally, and then the murder, for hours, hardly able to move. I left my bed once the day of the Squirrel Hill shooting. I couldn’t sleep the night of Christchurch. And I had a part to play of my own; Bwog was the first news organization to report on Julian von Abele’s racist rant on the steps of Butler Library. All of the sudden we were forced to decide whether or not to identify him right away, what details to include, even whether or not we could put “racist” in the headline without risking a lawsuit. Later, I scoured the comments, deleting doxxes and slurs thrown left and right. Then I watched Inglorious Basterds.
The hate is right here. It’s here on campus, sure, but it’s also on social media, easily accessible through the same channels we rely on to connect with our friends or chosen communities. A copious amount of digital ink has been spilled on the ease of accessibility of extremist content to users vulnerable to radicalization, but it’s also immediately available to the communities they rally against.
YouTuber Natalie Wynn has spoken with candor about her experience transitioning from living as a man to a woman, all the while putting out videos drawing the ire of extremists on the Internet. Wynn, at certain times, sought out the most hateful content towards her and all trans women under the guise of research, before discovering a perverse thrill in observing these communities, where no pleasantries were made, and anonymity bred a certain kind of truth. I’ve done this too; with a few clicks, I can be on the forum of the worst white nationalists on the Internet. I’ve read the Christchurch shooter’s manifesto. Dylann Roof’s too.
I was supposed to write a summary of this event for Bwog, recounting what the very qualified and smart candidates discussed. It was a good panel, and they each had good points; Rachel Glickman, who helps run the Documenting Hate project at ProPublica, detailed how the data on hate crimes is bad, how many victims never go to law enforcement, and how extremists weaponize the media to spread their message. (By flyering college campuses, they get both that natural outreach and, if the media posts pictures of the flyers, online outreach as well.) Adam Serwer of the Atlantic spoke about the dangers of believing radicals at their word when they talk about their motives, of the stupidity of euphemisms such as “racially tinged” to describe racist attacks, and how hate against journalists can be artificially amplified through bot networks.
The two representatives of more traditional media outlets, Laurie Goodstein of The New York Times and Jane Eisner of the Forward, also discussed the effects of hate on their careers in the media, which each span decades, and how although they always received hate, now it’s instantly accessible and re-circulatable. It’s impossible to send someone’s letter back through the mail, but easy to retweet targeted messages.
The reason I didn’t write that article is because I exist in the gray area between the categories they discussed. I’m not quite a journalist; Bwog is more like one of those six-person bicycles than a structured news organization. I’m not the victim of a targeted hate crime, though I encounter hate constantly. I’m not the rational, unbiased, and completely dispassionate reader the Times imagines I am. I’m not the rational, unbiased, and completely dispassionate writer sometimes I wish I could be.
For all the talk about the importance of reporting on hate crimes, it’s fundamentally a practice of reaction. There’s no way to report on a hate crime before it happens, there’s no way to talk to victims or their families before they’re murdered, there’s no way to truly know the forces that led to an attack, though valiant efforts have been made. And when you’re terrified, as I am, about the safety of yourself, your loved ones, and people across the globe who you’ve never even met, reactive practices are no reassuring measure. And so you got this instead of a recap. Sorry.
The way the media covers hate is incredibly important, and the work of journalists must be protected. But while I was trying to write this story, I kept thinking about the kid in my high school stats class who was photographed along with his girlfriend at an international-themed beer pong party, both wearing shirts that said “Auschwitz” and “hit the showers” and proudly displayed swastikas. Their team was ‘Germany.’ He’ll graduate from Marist College next year. I think about him a lot.