AEJMC Board urges educators, journalists to be thoughtful in coverage of hate speech

CONTACT: Jennifer Greer, University of Alabama, AEJMC 2017-18 President | August 22, 2018

As members of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC) concluded their conference in Washington, D.C., earlier this month, the group that organized the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., came to the nation’s capital to mark the one-year anniversary of that deadly event. The AEJMC board urges educators openly discuss coverage of these and similar rallies in their classes and to be thoughtful in their approach to preparing future journalists to report on hate speech.

Hate speech is a grey area in media law, and its exact definition is widely debated. AEJMC supports free speech and acknowledges that hate speech generally is protected by the First Amendment. We maintain, however, that free speech does not offer a pass to incite violence against marginalized people. Speech that encourages violence has a silencing effect on groups that include people of color, those with disabilities, people from sexual and gender minority groups, people practicing marginalized religions and refugees. In the face of the violence surrounding hate speech, victims weigh their need to be protected from being targeted against their need to be heard – and often choose silence.

Media professionals and the educators who teach future media professionals have important roles in countering these silences. AEJMC urges its members, both professional and academic, to remember these best practices in covering hate speech:

  • Seek out silenced people and give them a voice. Don’t overlook them because they are not obvious in the public sphere. However, not all marginalized groups are silenced, and journalists should seek to fairly portray voices of those who remain underrepresented and stereotyped in news coverage.
  • Avoid quoting inflammatory sources that promote hate speech. Coverage of racist organizations and actions can legitimize and institutionalize extremist discourse.
  • Include appropriate context in coverage of extremist groups to help consumers of news to understand the origins and factors behind the values these groups are espousing. The more journalists who disseminate historical context, the more powerful and useful the discussion and the story will be.
  • Use the groups’ names rather than an obscuring catchphrase, such as “alt-right.,” “white nationalists” or “protest groups.” Groups that endorse hate based on race-for example, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) or White Aryan Resistance (WAR)-should be referred to by name and identified as white supremacist groups. Organizations such as the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Associated Press and Poynter Institute provide guidelines on these labels.
  • Be mindful of subtle examples of hate speech and marginalization and work to understand the cultures of marginalized groups. Journalists, above all, should recognize their own biases.

We believe in comprehensive education of students, and as such, we urge educators preparing media professionals to reach audiences in the current social, political, economic and cultural environments to:

  • Encourage historical research on hate speech and marginalized groups. Asking students to compare historical eras with current events and analyze how the past informs the present is a powerful critical thinking exercise. Studying language used to describe marginalized groups over time offers insights into social views.
  • Assign seminal readings focusing on free speech and hate speech in Western societies. Encourage students to use these texts to inform debates about free speech, hate speech and speech that may be offensive.
  • Expose students to media coverage of victimized groups and/or hate groups that places both in context and gives voice to all marginalized publics. Encourage students to seek out balanced coverage and to be able to defend why they have defined it as such.
  • Explore the range and complexity of issues that marginalized populations face and why underlying issues that surround these groups may not always be newsworthy and why these issues may shift in different environments.

We encourage journalists and other media practitioners to strengthen their guidelines for coverage of hate speech to ensure that marginalized voices are heard and that adequate context is provided. Journalism and mass communication educators must provide opportunities for students to develop the knowledge, skills and abilities to most effectively communicate about hate speech and its ramifications on our society.

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