Hate speech and actions
- When should we report on hate speech and actions?
- How should journalists regard laws on hate speech?
- How can journalists fight hate speech?
Hate speech and actions are by their nature offensive. But sometimes they make legitimate news. Where’s the line on what we should write about and photograph?
Some news organizations have a relatively lenient approach toward reporting hate speech and actions, believing 1) journalists should not be censors and 2) the best way to combat hate speech is to expose it to public scrutiny. When discussing hate material online, they have no problem linking to it so their readers can make up their own minds.
A much-discussed example was the decision of many news organizations to republish cartoons from Charlie Hebdo mocking Islam after the attack on the satirical magazine’s offices in January 2015. Some used the argument of newsworthiness; others wanted to show support for freedom of expression.
Other journalists disagree with such approaches. They feel that publishing or linking to such material makes outlets themselves into distributors of hateful words and actions. They also believe that hate speech cannot be justified by “balancing” it with opposing views and that the “right to offend” should be balanced by a “duty to mend.”
A possible compromise is to publish controversial material online in such a way that readers need to click a second time if they truly want to see it.
When deciding whether to cover hate speech or actions, a journalist might ask first whether the speech or action involved is part of a broad and significant story. Does it tell us anything other than that there are angry people? Do the words and actions have widespread support? Do they tell us something about the nation or community involved, or are we talking just about the work of a person or small group out to get attention and to inflame passions?
Aidan White of the Ethical Journalism Network offers this five-point framework for addressing hateful expression: assess the status of the speaker, reach of the speech, intention of the speaker, content and form of speech, and, the economic, social and political climate in which it exists.
Is there a way to convey the nature of controversial material to readers without fully reproducing it? In 2005, a Danish newspaper published cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad that many Muslims found insulting. In reporting on the controversy, some news organizations republished the cartoons so their readers could see what the issue was; others felt it sufficient to describe them in a few words.
Sometimes journalists ignore or downplay hate speech and actions, but they lead to consequences — protests, riots, boycotts, etc., — that can’t be ignored. However, it’s still a journalist’s decision on how much or little to report on the original act that provoked the response.
Some journalists believe national and international laws should ban hate speech, including in the press. Such feelings may stem from deeplyfelt national experiences. For instance, journalists in some European countries back laws that ban any speech promoting Nazism. Some also heed cautions that hate speech disproportionately affects marginalized or disenfranchised communities and suggest that laws are necessary to protect these populations. These issues are further complicated by variations, from culture to culture, in the value attached to free expression and individual rights, as opposed to more communitarian focuses.
Laws targeting hateful expression can be complicated by questions of definition, and under some regimes, they can be used to limit press freedom. Journalists who want to fight hate speech themselves and avoid government involvement have many tools at their disposal. They can analyze what gives rise to hate speech and fact-check the claims of haters. Intolerant voices in a community can be balanced by tolerant voices.
This main author of this section is Thomas Kent.
See also the “Obscenities and Vulgarities” section in this project.
Ethical Challenges for Journalists in Dealing with Hate Speech, UN Human Rights
Can Journalists Trust the U.N. to Help Control Hate Speech?, Tom Kent
Hate Speech, Ethical Journalism Network