Reporting on free (and sometimes hateful) speech

Let’s pretend for a second that there’s a “church” whose primary mission is disseminating hatred.

For example, this “church” believes that the bad things that happen in the United States are God’s just punishment on a depraved country. That God hates homosexuals. That God hates Catholics, Jews, people in the military — all “proud sinners.”

When members of this group show up at military funerals, or at other events where they think a demonstration of hatred is justified, should reporters and photographers show up to report what they chant and take pictures of the sentiments they express on signs?

It’s a question we’ve discussed in the past in the Missourian newsroom. We talked about it, too, when a group of neo-Nazis decided to march in Columbia.

The basic, first question goes something like this: By covering the activities of white supremacist and other kinds of hate groups, do we help their cause? It’s a question that is often applied to covering terrorist groups, too. Are we in the news media actually feeding a problem by providing a platform?

The march in Charlottesville recently by torch-carrying white supremacists and a counter-protest ended in the death of a young woman and multiple injuries, so there was no question of whether or not to cover the events there.

But how to cover these events is a little more complicated because the language and images we choose can have a big impact on how the public perceives the reality of what occurred. We have to be careful and thoughtful in our decision-making.

Thursday in class, we’re going to talk about how to cover demonstrations of hatred and hate groups. Have a look at what the Poynter Institute had to say about it in this recent piece. Be ready to discuss.


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Welcome to the Missourian (you’re a reporter, now)!

You’re about to take the plunge into a completely different kind of class. Come to think of it, “class” might not be the best way to describe the experience you’re about to have. You’re about to become a reporter, with lots of help from lots of people. If you’ve done a little reporting before, that’s great. If you haven’t, do not despair; you’re not alone. We’ll help you every step of the way.


Unless you don’t meet us halfway.

What do I mean by that? As Woody Allen once said, “Eighty percent of success is just showing up.”

Showing up, in the context of the reporting class, means doing more than just occupying a seat in the newsroom or in class or on assignment. It means really being present, paying attention, and thinking, thinking, thinking. It means: asking for help when you need it, after you’ve done as much as you can on your own:

  • (very carefully) reading (not “skimming”) the previous reporting on the topic you’re covering and taking notes on it
  • making a list of the people you need to talk to and research you need to read
  • making another list of all the questions you need to ask and checking them off, one by one.

Showing up — being present and prepared — will allow us to help you do really well in reporting and walk away with the kind of experience (and clips) you came here to get.

This is the Missouri Method. It’s not just marketing. It really works. If you don’t believe me, I can give you the phone numbers of about 20 people you can talk to — former students —  and some of them have already won Pulitzer Prizes. Ask them if this whole thing works.

You might want to know what not showing up looks like:

  • Not showing up. I mean, like, physically, because you’re afraid of this whole reporting thing. Understandable, but self-destructive
  • Not paying attention in class or in our morning meeting
  • Not volunteering for stories
  • Not taking advice from editors
  • Not making to-do lists
  • Not writing down what people tell you
  • Not using social media to share your work, others’ work, thoughts and ideas
  • Not coming into the newsroom with ideas
  • Not thinking like a reporter (“Hey, that might be a story!”).

Good luck. It’s going to be waaaay more fun than you think.

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