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How news organizations should cover white supremacist shootings, according to a media expert

While reporting on the white supremacist ideology behind mass shootings, are journalists inadvertently magnifying the message? Joan Donovan, director of the Technology and Social Change Research project at Harvard University, joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss how reporters should -- and should not -- cover mass shootings.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    What we know about the killers and several recent mass shootings in America is that many share a white supremacist ideology.

    Joan Donovan studies this hate-filled community and has written a guide for journalists who cover it. She is the Director of the Technology and Social Change Research Project at Harvard University's Kennedy Shorenstein Center and she joins us now from West Newton, Massachusetts.

    You know racism white supremacy has existed almost as long as this entire country has. So what's different about it now?

  • Joan Donavan:

    One of the things that we try to study when we look at these groups is the way in which they communicate both internally and then to the public. And obviously with internet technologies there's been a lot more opportunity for white supremacists to directly reach the public with their messaging and so right now what we're up against isn't just that reporters need to be more careful about how they report on these white supremacist violent events but also we have to start to take into consideration how the platforms and social media are circulating the messages of these white supremacists as a rationale for the attacks.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    You and I had a conversation after the Christchurch shooting and what happened with that video when it went viral. Have the technology platforms learned from that?

  • Joan Donavan:

    So some of the platforms have implemented rapid response teams and are doing their best to take down this content as fast as it goes up. But there is a whole internet out there — it isn't just what's happening on platforms that we have to wonder about.

    We also have to begin to take seriously the role that cable is playing in spreading these keywords that are associated with these manifestos and so, one of the things that we're noting in a pattern is that there's a you know publication of the manifesto then there's the attack and then there's the cycle, the media cycle that the manifesto gets washed through. And what we're noting is that there's a lot more attention to these manifestos now than there ever was before.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Okay. And what does that do when those manifestos gain in attention and traction and visibility?

  • Joan Donavan:

    Well essentially what we know about these attackers is that they tend to post these manifestos in a very specific place because they know that the police and media are already lurking on these anonymous message boards looking for items like this and then they go out and carry that carry out the violence. And then when the circulation is happening we see groups of users unaffiliated with the shooting itself acting in concert and coordination to make sure that the original content stays up and stays live.

    The other thing that happens unfortunately is that the rationale sets the media agenda. So instead of journalists picking and choosing between different topics that they could cover within the story they tend to focus on the manifesto and then focusing on the manifesto some of them are inadvertently or as a consequence of it spreading and explaining that ideology to their either readers or audiences.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    You know one of the things that journalists are always looking for and anybody that's reading their publication reviews really for us why did this happen, why could this happen right. So here's this document that purportedly comes from this person who's giving you some insight into why he's thinking this way. So how should journalists approach something like that while still trying to answer one of those crucial questions in reporting a story?

  • Joan Donavan:

    I think it's really important for journalists to read these manifestos and then highly contextualize the pieces of it that they are going to transmit to their audiences. And when they can they should be paraphrasing and they should also ask for the input of racial justice and civil society organizations that have been studying this for a really long time as well.

    Journalists should often try to tell an impact story and understand what is the long term impact of violence like this on a community or on victims so that we don't narrow our focus to the message that the attacker was trying to spread and instead journalists should think about what other parts of the event are newsworthy.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Is there, are these people trying to frame their own narratives by throwing the words in there that journalists end up using?

  • Joan Donavan:

    Yes and it and it's done intentionally. This is a bit of an artifact of what we might call mimetic culture online, right. The idea that memes carry the tail and so viral slogans, pieces of you know maybe subcultural language even defining the difference between a white supremacist and a white nationalist. These are the kinds of messages that people who commit these attacks are trying to spread into the public.

    And so when they make reference to certain books like we saw in the Gilroy case that is an attempt to get journalists to go deeper and to really do the work of contextualizing the theories and spreading them.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    So do journalists end up doing the bidding of the shooter by talking about the books that the shooter was reading at the time?

  • Joan Donavan:

    Yeah increasingly we're talking about this in research circles as a circuit. It's not every beat that journalists are on that they are intentionally manipulated. But when it comes to white supremacists, these theories are old, a lot of them you know you can trace them back to early days of colonization and fears around immigration and population decline.

    But one thing is different about this beat that journalists have to be cognizant of is that these theories are old but the violence is the provocation to create the newsworthiness that then opens the window for journalists to see into this world and then to bring those stories to the public.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Is there anything that we can do as part of the press in the first 24 hours, 48 hours to try to minimize the harm while still reporting the story?

  • Joan Donavan:

    Yeah I think it's really important that journalists do cover these stories. You have communities of people that are wondering if there's other you know causes of the violence. They're wondering if there are other perpetrators. They're looking for instructions if they should stay home. You know these these things are really important that journalists report on.

    But if you don't know a certain set of words or a set of keywords or if you find yourself as a journalist starting to chase little pieces of information through what we might call the rabbit holes of the internet, be cognizant that this is probably not the lead.

    This is probably not the story that the audience needs to hear right away but it might be something that you put in a pipeline for a few weeks down the road where you could then have a much more long form and impactful conversation about that.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    You pointed out to the terms that are now in our lexicon alt-right or alternate right white nationalist how are all of these different than old fashioned idea of white supremacist or racist?

  • Joan Donavan:

    Yeah. There's been a few different times in the history of white supremacists especially if you study the relationship between the KKK and journalists where white supremacists realized that the journalists were people they needed to cultivate and part of that was continually rebranding how their movement saw themselves. In the late 60s they were calling themselves the American Nazi movement. Then they switched to talking about a white power movement.

    As we've uncovered what these new terms really mean, they shed them and they move on to the next set of terminologies so that they can stay in the public eye and continue to shape the way in which we talk about specific racialized issues.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    So in a way that is the same white supremacy with different labels now?

  • Joan Donavan:

    Yeah exactly in one of the pieces of evidence of this is in 2016-2017, we had a big conversation with the media about what it means to use the term the alt-right especially when it came time to explain situations of violence. And if journalists should interview people that profess to be part of the alt-right.

    By and large many of the people that were part of that initial group coining the phrase the alt-right have shed it, they've completely gotten rid of it because there's so much violence associated with it and it's not helpful for their cause anymore. And so when we see this happening, when we see these terms start to shift as researchers we try to stay ahead of them and with my research group of course we try to make sure that the media knows that these term in this terminology is shifting.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Finally then with the ideology of white supremacy match those criteria that the government holds up to be terrorism?

  • Joan Donavan:

    Well there's a several complicated laws around when we would or if we should label things domestic terrorism. But I do think that the definition of terrorism that that we follow has to do with if it's meant to cause public terror, right?

    If the event is meant to cause chaos and of course in these situations where you have shootings that are being carried out against targeted groups and minorities groups but that the killing is indiscriminate in the sense that it doesn't target an individual then I think that these are terrorist events.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    All right. Joan Donovan from Harvard's Kennedy Shorenstein Center. Thanks so much for joining us today.

  • Joan Donavan:

    Thank you.

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