(NEW YORK)—As extremism has increasingly penetrated mainstream politics and posed a growing threat to democracy, a new report by PEN America highlights the stark challenges that this political landscape poses for journalists, especially political reporters, and analyzes how newsrooms are adapting to counter extremist propaganda and disinformation. 

Recognizing that some news organizations have dramatically reframed coverage and created new beats to track the surge in extremism, the free speech organization said fundamental changes are still needed if audiences are to get a full and accurate view of how anti-democratic forces are infiltrating civic life from local school board meetings to nationwide elections.

Hate in the Headlines: Journalism & the Challenge of Extremism – a report based on interviews with 75 journalists, scholars, and other experts – exposes the challenges this new political environment poses. It examines how the news media has grappled with reporting on rising far-right extremism in the United States; how that reporting has evolved from 2016 until today; and considers how the journalism profession can respond as the line between extremism reporting and political reporting continues to blur.

Summer Lopez, PEN America’s chief program officer for Free Expression, said: “Journalists and newsrooms are an essential bulwark against the erosion of democracy, and today, U.S. democracy is threatened in part by the increasing prevalence of extremist views in our politics and in society at large. As a result, political reporting has become extremism reporting, and journalists face the challenge of not just documenting facts, but informing the public about the nature and severity of threats posed by anti-democratic ideology and tactics. Our research documents the potential pitfalls in reporting on extremism while suggesting new ways to avoid them. Learning from reporters who have covered extremist movements, uplifting the stories of people most affected by extremism, and supporting journalists who may face threats for their reporting are among the ways newsrooms can adapt.”

The research was undertaken against a backdrop of polls showing “threats to democracy” among the top three concerns of voters in last week’s midterm elections, along with the rise of  more than 300 candidates for Congressional seats and statewide offices nationwide perpetuating the lie that the 2020 election was stolen or corrupted (election deniers lost races for key state offices in every battleground state); an FBI warning of threats to poll workers; intimidation of Arizona voters by armed vigilantes at ballot drop boxes; and increasing concern about rising political violence, only further stoked by the violent attack on Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s husband Paul.

This research captures a series of ‘lessons learned’ over the past six years.

  • The candidacy and election of Donald Trump emboldened white nationalists and other extremist forces in the U.S., which triggered reporting spotlighting them. But while PEN America found wide agreement among journalists that increased reporting on this issue was necessary, many warned that some of the coverage lacked the depth and precision to avoid amplifying extremist narratives and perspectives.
  • News stories too often failed to persuasively contextualize and rebut extremists’ false claims, to probe the risks posed by extremism for democracy, or to document the impact of extremism on the communities it most directly targets–namely communities of color, immigrants, and religious minorities. Insufficiently hard-hitting journalism may have inadvertently contributed to the ‘mainstreaming’ of extremists and their views.
  • C. Thompson of ProPublica and Frontline voiced the challenge journalists faced in describing radicalized individuals who are not affiliated with organized groups but are loyal to former President Donald Trump and subscribe to militant  ideologies: “After Unite the Right in 2017 my colleagues and I were saying that the most dangerous extremist in the land was the President, and that he was most likely to catalyze hate violence. We were focusing on this broader group of people who were very enamored by the president and who were adopting more and more extremist, militant views, but we’ve struggled with how to talk about this massive group of people who are now unaffiliated but radicalized.”
  • Right-wing media provides its audiences with a frame to interpret mainstream media news so that factual reporting gets distorted to fit their predispositions. Based on interviews with Tea Party activists, A.J. Bauer of the University of Alabama told PEN America: “Conservative media gives them a narrative for when they’re consuming news from these other outlets. So if they are reading The New York Times, they are already reading it through a lens that they’ve been given through that other ecosystem.”

The report finds that without hypervigilance from journalists and editors, propaganda and disinformation can slide into reporters’ stories, especially as extremists deliberately target them  to convey their messages to the broader public. Odette Yousef, NPR’s national security reporter on extremism, told PEN America that the blurred line between politics and extremism calls for “much more education for political reporters on extremism,” especially at the local level.

The report also examines the challenge of avoiding false equivalencies in a skewed political landscape, where differences between parties and candidates are not merely about policy stances, but can involve election denial and the promotion of conspiracy theories. Zack Beauchamp, a senior correspondent at Vox, told PEN America, “You need to be equally fair, but fair reporting may not lead you to say that the two sides are symmetrical.”

The report documents steps some newsrooms are taking, and steps that reporters and other experts called on them to take, to adapt reporting to the current political landscape:

  • Devote training and resources for reporters and editors to gain expertise on right-wing extremism, political radicalization, and disinformation.
  • Integrate informed coverage of extremism as a newsroom-wide responsibility, not one reserved for the politics or disinformation beats.
  • Guard against sensationalizing coverage of extremism as part of “click’’-based strategies for increasing engagement.
  • Ensure that reporting also documents the impact of extremism and extremist violence on the communities most directly affected by it.
  • Develop policies to address online and physical security threats to all staff covering these stories, recognizing that people of color, women, immigrants, LGBTQ individuals, and Jewish, Muslim, and other faith minorities are disproportionately targeted.
  • Collaborate with civil society and academic institutions to pool knowledge on race, politics, and extremism. 

PEN America recently published Hard News; Journalists and the Threat of Disinformation, a report based on a survey of more than 1,000 journalists and editors across the U.S. to understand the impact disinformation is having on journalists and their work. Our online abuse defense programming offers support and resources to journalists, writers, and others facing  abuse–including our Online Harassment Field Manual–and works with media organizations to support staff facing harassment.

PEN America is grateful to the Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting for its contributions to the development of this report, and to the Ford Foundation for their support of this report.

 About PEN America

PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. Learn more at pen.org.

Contact: Suzanne Trimel, [email protected], 201-247-5057