By the latest count, four journalists were attacked August 11-12 while covering protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, involving white supremacists, white nationalists, neo-Nazis, and groups that oppose their racist views. At least one cable news host who was critical of President Trump’s controversial response to the protests is now facing threats.
As inexcusable and unfortunate as that is, the reporters’ and photojournalist’s injuries will heal. The cable news host, God willing, will be okay. In the aftermath of Charlottesville, however, deeper and more cure-resistant wounds have been ripped wide open.
That is already prompting changes in the way journalists cover race and civil unrest in the United States, and has led to a new level of navel gazing about whether journalists should even seek both sides of a story when one of the sides is widely accepted as disreputable or despicable.
On Wednesday, for example, Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan advocated putting “the nail in the coffin for ‘both sides’ journalism.” She referenced a Harvard post-election study that claimed, essentially, that the news media were complicit in President Trump’s victory because, by seeking both sides to every claim made during the campaign, reporters created the same kind of false equivalencies that the president himself is now accused of making after Charlottesville.
On another front, the Associated Press has decided to restrict the use of the term “alt-right,” which has become a catch-all to describe, as the Anti-Defamation League defines them, “a range of people on the extreme right who reject mainstream conservatism in favor of forms of conservatism that embrace implicit or explicit racism or white supremacy.”
Instead of “alt-right,” AP correspondents and writers are now encouraged to use their reportorial skills to determine whether someone mentioned in a story is a “white supremacist,” a “white nationalist,” or a “neo-Nazi,” and to use one or more of those appropriate monikers when needed.
Also in the days since Charlottesville, news media observer Ken Doctor, writing for NiemanLab, praised journalists covering race relations for “developing a spine” to keep raising questions about the president’s rhetoric on race relations. His column also offered several other thoughtful “lessons for the news media.”
All of this introspection about reporting and race – and the parallel, more far-reaching debate about issues of race in general – are the direct result of responsible journalism. If journalists had not risked their safety to report, in striking detail, just what happened in Charlottesville on August 11 and August 12, the world would not know just how deadly and horrific (yes, that’s the right word) the events of those two days were.
There were innumerable flagrant acts of responsible journalism in Charlottesville, but perhaps the most compelling account came from “VICE News Tonight” correspondent Elle Reeve, who gained an amazing degree of access both to the protestors and counter-protestors there. Her report is a must-see, even if, or maybe precisely because, it’s difficult to watch.
Watching Reeve’s stark, riveting, and hard-to-stomach antonymic-Leni Riefenstahl report, one can’t help but wonder how she didn’t become the fifth journalist attacked during the unrest.
Which brings us to another, much more basic way journalism must change after Charlottesville. Reporters and photojournalists must pay more attention both to their own safety while covering protests, and to the ethical implications involved.
Prior to the events in Virginia, journalists across America had been subjected to increasing levels of obstruction, threats, harassment, arrests, and assaults merely for trying to do their jobs by serving the public. Earlier this year, RTDNA formed its Voice of the First Amendment Task Force to defend against such threats to press freedom, and to help the public better understand why journalism is essential to their daily lives.
The fear, of course, is that there will be more Charlottesvilles to come. If or when they do, responsible journalists will be there to expose the truth and serve as catalysts for the continuation of a discussion of a vital issue that has corroded, and continues to corrode, the fabric of our society for millennia.