By Natalie Shure
After the December 3 episode of daytime talk show Katie questioned the safety of Gardasil, the human papillomavirus vaccine, prominent journalist and host Katie Couric became the target of public outcry. Many reporters, like Time Magazine’s Alexandra Sifferlin, argued that Couric unethically legitimized the scientifically unfounded arguments of anti-vaccination advocates by giving them a platform on her show. “There is no “HPV-vaccine controversy,” Sifferlin wrote. “And yet Couric has framed the issue as if there were a debate to be had.”
But how do journalists ethically “frame the issue,” when it comes to covering extremists? Couric’s controversial interview subjects happened to be outliers whose viewpoints had repeatedly been proven false by the scientific community, but not all extremist philosophies are so easily debunked by data. Furthermore, there are times when extremists and their ideologies demand journalistic inquiry. While Couric’s methodology was immediately blasted as unethical, journalistic protocol for covering potentially dangerous ideas is hardly straightforward.
Couric’s apology a week later conceded that the intense social media criticism of her “anti-vaxxer” segment was deserved. “We simply spent too much time on the serious adverse events that have been reported in very rare cases following the vaccine,” she wrote in the Huffington Post. Although she did not endorse her sources’ faulty arguments, her failure to challenge them amounted to a validation.
Some argue that any engagement with dangerous forms of dissent suggests a false equivalency between unmatched sources. In an op-ed for Grist Magazine, Reddit moderator Nathan Allen called upon newspaper editors to ban content and comments that deny climate change. “Climate change deniers have an outsized influence on the media and public,” he wrote. Continuing to spread their messages, he contended, is purposefully misleading. But to some readers, Allen seemed to be advocating censorship.
If featuring climate change deniers really does serve fringe dissenters more than the public, how can a journalist determine which extremists should be reported on? Conspiracy theorists – like Holocaust deniers – can make this question especially difficult. While spotlighting Holocaust denial may risk recasting bizarre outliers as a legitimate cultural force, others argue that the ideology is simply an amplified form of antisemitism that should be exposed.
If using a Holocaust denier as a source, it is important to be critical about what exactly they shed light on. According to Todd Gutnick at the Jewish Anti-Defamation League, “there is a difference between interviewing a Holocaust denier as an expert or an authority on the Holocaust, and interviewing a denier to investigate how these anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists think and promulgate their claims.” By analyzing a Holocaust denier’s method rather than their content, a journalist can assess issues more nuanced than the veracity of their subjects’ beliefs, which is not up for debate.
The fact that little reputable reporting has been done on Holocaust denial is evidence of this ethical quandry. Tablet Magazine, a Jewish cultural publication, ran a three-part series on Holocaust deniers by Mark Oppenheimer in 2009. Oppenheimer rejects the idea that covering such people validated them. “I think our job as reporters is to find interesting stories that help explain some corner of the human experience,” he said. “I’m not as horrified by it as some journalists are. My thought was, what makes someone decide to marginalize themselves and pursue such an absurd path?”
Still, Oppenheimer suspects that attitudes against any coverage of Holocaust denial led to a relative neglect of his piece. “I think the piece didn’t get as much attention as it deserved, because a lot of people thought it was best to just ignore Holocaust deniers entirely,” he said. “People thought, ‘I don’t want to link to this, or even look at it.’” After the piece ran, Oppenheimer even received a message from Deborah Lipstadt, a historian who has written about the development of Holocaust denialism over several decades. Lipstadt was skeptical that exploring the lives of prominent Holocaust deniers was a good idea. “She basically said, ‘why bother?’” Oppenheimer said. “But others said, ‘I’m very glad you bothered.’”
Oppenheimer doesn’t regard American Holocaust deniers as dangerous, because he doesn’t believe they have power. He regards deniers as eccentric sad-sacks, not threatening agents of change. “In some ways, I might have that luxury because I’m American,” he conceded. “I feel secure, because there is no major anti-Semitic political party in the U.S. I don’t live in Romania or France, where there is more public anti-Semitism.” While American Holocaust denial is a farcical curiosity, international public figures like former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have come under fire for historical revisionism. In 2006, Iran even hosted a conference to “review the global vision of the Holocaust,” provoking outrage. But for Oppenheimer and his primarily American readership, climate change deniers are far more consequential.
Intended audience and environment are important considerations when navigating ethical challenges. When Rolling Stone faced social media criticism for its July cover image of Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the magazine’s decision was defended by commentators at publications like The New Yorker and The Los Angeles Times. They contended that the evocative cover was an unsettling but appropriate accompaniment to a story that traced Tsarnaev’s descent into terrorism.
Ty Burr of The Boston Globe disagreed with most of the journalistic community, and argued his point in an op-ed entitled “Rolling Stone cover an act of irresponsibility.” While Burr felt that the Rolling Stone piece was an important exploration of the life and motivations of extremism, he believed that the cover shot glamorized the suspect.
“I got a tweet from a journalist in Ottawa, Canada disagreeing with me,” Burr said. “And my response was, ‘that might be true, but if someone bombed the Ottawa rodeo instead of the Boston Marathon, you might feel differently.”
Burr’s main contention was that the cover gave Tsarnaev undue control over his own image by using a ‘selfie’ photo that Tsarnaev had taken himself. He argued that this allowed Tsarnaev to decide how he presents himself, and that reprinting it lent credence to his world view: “They’re basically buying into his self-image without commenting on it.”
Burr’s concern about context makes sense – contextualizing extremists and their ideas is the key to ethically reporting on them. It isn’t enough simply to report on people or ideas – a reporter should have a clear justification for what their subject represents, and how it functions as a political or cultural force. Instead of probing an ideologue’s veracity, it is important to probe their methods, influences, goals, and consequences.
Ultimately, a journalist has the responsibility to interpret information about extremism as well as relay it. “I think the school of thought that says, ‘ignore them, ignore, them, ignore them!’ is a little bit foolish, Oppenheimer said. “It’s the job of journalists to pay attention to people.”