How to write about Nazis

I was 22 when I covered my first skinhead march as a cops reporter in the Coeur d’Alene bureau of the Spokesman-Review newspaper.

We were under constant pressure from the community to ignore the white supremacists among us, even though the FBI had a five-person bureau in Coeur d’Alene just to keep track of them all.

We learned, through trial and error, that documenting their presence and their activities was a constant balancing act. Give the Nazis too much attention and you normalize or glorify their repugnant beliefs. Ignore them completely, and you spend a lot of time catching up when they finally do something violent that can’t be ignored.

So I recognized what the New York Times was trying to do in its profile of a “Nazi sympathizer next door.” There were two key flaws in this article, one in execution and one in delivery.

Execution failure

Reporter Richard Fausset gathers fabulous details to humanize his main character. We see him at Panera for lunch. We get a glimpse his Target wedding registry. But Fausset fails to show us how his young Nazi arrived in this place. He writes:

Mr. Hovater grew up on integrated Army bases and attended a mostly white Ohio high school. He did not want for anything. He experienced no scarring racial episodes. His parents, he says, were the kinds of people who “always assume things aren’t going well. But they don’t necessarily know why.”

Where are the voices of these parents or anyone else who can describe this man’s journey? We hear from one bandmate and one contemporary Nazi. But no sources describe the character’s evolution. This is a reporting failure.

NoteIn a follow-up column, Fausset tells us that he and his editors recognized this shortcoming and tried to compensate for it. But ultimately they decided to let the hole in the story become part of the narrative. They should have pushed harder, digging up sources that might offer a variety of perspectives — family members, old girlfriends and influential teachers.

Delivery failure

The story and its presentation take on a day-in-the-life quality. It reads like the Times’ “How I spend my Sundays” feature. The reporter and his editor both shared their desire to reflect the pedestrian nature of white nationalists.

In doing so, the Times played directly into the hands of the nationalist movement, which goes to great lengths to portray themselves as a rational, viable alternative to current mainstream politics. The Intercept documented the recent efforts of the movement to recast their online culture of trolls as political heros.

Had the Times included a bit more of this context, I suspect the backlash to their story would have been minimal. Journalists have several devices available for adding such context. The most obvious device is an editor’s note at the beginning of the story that describes the journalistic purpose. This could be as simple as: “Here’s why we’re doing this story. ...” But a more complete note might describe a newsroom’s strategy for covering the growing white nationalist movement and point to a wider body of work.

Journalists often reflexively resist such notes, suggesting they beg more questions than they answer. Yet the audience loves these explanations. They view them as a peek behind the curtain and an opportunity to engage more deeply with the news.

Another contextual device is the narrative digression. This is where a writer, often at an editor’s request, employs contextual phrases, sentences and paragraphs that hold sources accountable with they make outrageous claims.

For instance, The Times story reads:

He declared the widely accepted estimate that six million Jews died in the Holocaust “overblown.” He said that while the Nazi leader Heinrich Himmler wanted to exterminate groups like Slavs and homosexuals, Hitler “was a lot more kind of chill on those subjects.”

The link is a grossly inadequate nod at the truth that six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust is not “overblown.” Why not add: "The Nazis' own paper trail supports the six million murdered number, in addition to the research of historians, archaeologists, and government officials." Sure, it’s more words and it disrupts the narrative flow. But for the audience member who knows the truth, the audacious nature of the statement reads like a record scratch and calls out for a break in the rhythm. And for the audience member who might wonder where the six million number comes from, it’s an opportunity to do a little explanatory journalism.

We journalists working in North Idaho in the 1980s and 1990s learned these lessons over and over. Should we cover this march, this notorious character, this clash with law enforcement? Context was the answer every time.

And the best way to hone in on precisely what context your audience needs was to imagine what your neighbors were going to complain about when you ran into them at the coffee shop. Instead of answering them individually after the story is published, anticipate their complaint, and address it in your work. That’s a harder task on a national level, where the readers are more diverse and the number of reactions are infinite.

But it’s not a stretch to read The Times’ profile of a Nazi sympathizer in Ohio, and envision some anger directed at the messenger. Good editors edit with a loyalty to the reader, striving to create and refine a piece of journalism that will resonate. In this case, rather than hit its mark, the story offended. In doing so, the Times missed an opportunity to educate and inform those of us who are truly confused by the growing extremism of our fellow citizens.

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    Kelly McBride

    Kelly McBride is a writer, teacher and one of the country’s leading voices when it comes to media ethics. She has been on the faculty of The Poynter Institute since 2002 and is now its vice president.

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