Journalists covering the racial violence in Charlottesville, Virginia face challenges as they choose words, images and sounds. This is not a time to sanitize the cost of hate, and it is not a time to glorify hate groups by giving them the notoriety they seek.
We have both covered hate groups including the Ku Klux Klan and the Aryan Nations. While we watch the unfolding story of violence in Charlottesville and the hard-working journalists on the ground covering it, we humbly offer this advice from the safe remove of St. Petersburg, Florida:
Precision is critical.
Be wary of subjective adjectives and unclear labels, like far-right or alt-right. Instead, describe what protesters were doing, what they were saying and what they were demanding. Be precise. It is not enough to simply call the marchers White nationalists. Explain that they chanted Nazi slogans including “Sieg Heil,” a victory salute used originally by Nazis at political rallies.
Many of the demonstrators carried Confederate flags, displayed swastikas and wore military gear and paraphernalia. Some of the protesters carried KKK signs. The Klan is a 150-year-old group that includes an estimated 130 groups which advocated for White supremacy over other races while attacking Black Americans, Jews, immigrants, LGBTQ individuals and Catholics.
Former Klan leader David Duke complains about journalists using the phrase “counter-protesters.” In this case, that phrase is appropriate since the only reason anti-hate groups assembled was to “counter-protest” the original demonstration. If an individual counter-protester describes herself as a Democrat, a progressive or a member of Black Lives Matter, that description may be applied to individuals who self-identified. But there are no broad labels that can be applied to the coalition of counter-protesters.
While it is terrifying that somebody hit a group of marchers who were protesting the White supremacy rally, it’s premature as of this writing to label this an act of “terrorism.” We do not yet know enough about the intent and identity of the driver. If the driver is part of the protest group and intentionally lashed out as part of the protest, it is as certainly terrorism — as it would be if ISIS had been behind the attack. Many domestic hate groups like the Klan have been linked to terrorism for decades. From bombings to lynchings to violent threats, they have embraced terrorism as a strategy.
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.
We would avoid both descriptions. Avoid words like “mob,” “urban war” and other subjective descriptions. In addition to the car attack on the counter-protesters, video shows men with white shields attacking counter-protesters, and counter-protesters surrounding and chanting at the men with white shields. Images show counter-protesters throwing punches, and, in at least one case, trying to burn the flags and signs of those gathered to protest and throwing a newspaper box.
The “Unite the Right” label, which demonstrators use to describe their protest, is too broad to use without explaining that the word “right” does not automatically include racism. It’s not fair to the entire conservative movement. To some, “right” means people who embody views that include opposing abortion, endorsing gun ownership rights, reducing government intervention and endorsing fundamentalist religious principles.
Duke has tried to attach himself and his racist causes to President Trump. By endorsing Trump and adopting Trump’s “taking America back” motto, Duke tries to make it appear that he curries favor with the president. Trump has attempted to distance himself from Duke, but his efforts have not been forceful enough for some. As early as 2000, Trump said called Duke “a bigot, a racist, a problem.” And in a carefully worded tweet after the violence, Trump condemned hatred.
But it is unfair to use Duke’s comments without a strong clarification that Trump has not supported his rhetoric. Imagine Duke endorsed your TV station, website, network or publication. It would be unfair to you to allow him to tout his love for you without saying whether it was mutual.
Images and video
Bring context to the video and still photos you select. Your first duty is to explain what happened. Choose images that accurately reflect the events as they unfolded. If we watched or read or listened to your coverage, would we know who started the violence? Would we know how much violence there was?
It may be tempting to omit from coverage instances of violence committed by counter-protesters because their side is standing against racism, but video shows violence from both camps. It’s not always clear who is on what side. Use captions and narration to make it clear. If I sample your still images, would I only see White supremacists throwing punches?
You will have to make decisions about how to include or edit out the signs that marchers are carrying. The Klan would love for you to use their insignia and logos. The decisions you make are not unlike the way police officers make decisions about covering gang graffiti. Show your audience what they need to know to understand the events in proper context, but don’t reward hate groups with notoriety.
You have to make decisions about what audio you use, too. In the breaking, first-day news coverage, it is totally defensible to include the hate language and loud exchanges from street skirmishes. But as time passes, the reasons to include that language become less compelling. TV producers should be especially thoughtful about using such language in promos, show opens and headlines.
We recommend that news websites remove the commercial pre-rolls from the videos of this violence including the video of the car crashing into the crowd. It is unseemly to profit from hate-inspired violence.
Avoid code words and shorthand writing
Don’t assume your audience understands the things that you know.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate crimes and hate groups, says the number of Klan-related groups is at a 14-year low. “Today, the Center estimates that there are between 5,000 and 8,000 Klan members, split among dozens of different – and often warring — organizations that use the Klan name,” the SPLC says.
In addition to Klan members, The National Socialist Movement also backed today’s rally in Charlottesville. The Unite the Right website said the rally “seeks to unify the right-wing against a totalitarian Communist crackdown, to speak out against displacement-level immigration policies in the United States and Europe and to affirm the right of Southerners and White people to organize for their interests just like any other group is able to do, free of persecution.”
The rally also included the Nationalist Front — formerly the Aryan Nationalist Alliance. The SPLC says, “The group’s stated mission was to create an ‘ethnostate’ where ‘each racial group’ could ‘govern themselves according to their culture and ethnic self-interest.’ People of color, ‘Jews and other groups who have light skin … should have their own homes, separate from ours,’ ANA said.”
Remember to put the events in context: The Charlottesville protests began over the removal of a statue of Civil War Confederate General Robert E. Lee. The park where the statue has stood for nearly 100 years used to be called Lee Park and now is Emancipation Park. It was erected 50 years after the Civil War. USA Today reports there are at least 1,000 Confederate statues and memorials around the country. As cities and states attempt to remove them, and they will, expect this topic to blow up again and again.
Similar protests have erupted in other locations where monuments to the Confederate cause have been removed, including recently in New Orleans.
The events in Charlottesville are likely to repeat. Journalists, you are likely to get more experienced at covering this story than you want to be.