Since the election of Donald Trump, the media has paid close attention to white supremacist movements and ideologies in an attempt to document and understand the forces that helped Trump win the presidency. However, while the media is right to focus on white nationalism, the way it portrays this ideology often leaves much to be desired.
Take, for example, a recent profile in The New York Times of a white nationalist Nazi-sympathizer in Ohio. The article ends up normalizing white supremacy by including details like the man’s “Midwestern manners” and the fact that he is a fan of Seinfeld.
But neither the inclusion of the white nationalist’s mannerisms nor the documentation of his television preferences shed much light on white supremacy or why hate groups are on the rise in the United States. Instead, these details serve to de-emphasize the hatred of others inherent in white supremacy.
The media’s coverage of one of white nationalism’s top leaders, Richard Spencer, has also often fallen short. For example, the Los Angeles Times published a story on Spencer and sent out a tweet linking to the story with a photo of Spencer wearing sunglasses and leaning against a wall. The tweet read, “Meet the new think tank in town: The ‘alt-right’ comes to Washington.”
However, to portray Spencer’s “think tank” as simply another organization coming to Washington D.C. makes white nationalism seem like a typical belief. In addition, the photo of Spencer leaning against the wall, looking cool and collected, helps Spencer by making white nationalism look suave and hip. None of the distinguishing elements of the article emphasize the racism central to Spencer’s ideology.
These are just a few examples of the media normalizing white supremacists. However, the criticism of The New York Times’ profile of the white nationalist and the Los Angeles Times’ article on Spencer doesn’t mean the media should shy away from covering white supremacy. The media just needs to approach its coverage differently.
For example, one element that should be emphasized in the framing of articles on this topic is that hatred is the key element of white nationalism. In addition, journalists must have a compelling reason for profiling a white nationalist. There must be something the public can learn about why many are attracted to white supremacy to justify the decision to profile a white supremacist, because an understanding of why people become white nationalists could lead to a knowledge of how to prevent more people from embracing racism and hatred, but an understanding of what white nationalists’ favorite TV shows are will not.
How the media frames the issue of white nationalism is crucial because it impacts how people view the ideology. So far, the media’s framing has been problematic. Because of this, journalists have a duty to think about how they have covered this issue and learn from their past mistakes.