On the media

Sam: How Journalists Should Cover the Hateful

There are some points of view that we try not to include in our coverage of Dublin because they are hateful, hurtful, and/or inaccurate.

These include insults based on race, class, sexual orientation, gender, national origin. We try to keep the tone civil in our little corner of the world.

But this week, we’ve been wondering whether we are failing our readers by doing this.

If we exclude the offensive views of bigots, homophobes, racists, misogynists, xenophobes and other hateful people, are we lying (by omission) to you about what Dublin is really like?

But if we put them in our newspaper, are we spreading them, saying it’s okay to express them in public, saying they are legitimate views, and helping the hateful find each other and organise?

Limiting Speech

Free speech and freedom of the press are great and all, but in most of the world, there are limits on both, and that is as it should be.

For example, if you stand on the street urging people to murder all members of a particular religion, you can be stopped. If we publish an article that is false and ruins someone’s reputation, we can be taken to court and made to pay.

I only wish that there were stricter legal limits on speech by politicians, to keep them from demonising groups of people to the point that they are harassed, attacked or even killed by the politicians’ followers. I’m talking to you Donald Trump, and to you Leave campaigners.

So I don’t think Dublin Inquirer would be improperly infringing on free speech by refusing to publish hateful views. Especially since there are plenty of other places the hateful can go if they want their views heard — plenty of other media happy to publish or broadcast it.

That begins with the state broadcaster. Public money went to Ryan Tubridy’s offensively high pay package (€495,000 in 2014) as he helped a professional bigot and provocateur spread her hateful message on RTE’s Late Late Show last week.

Even if you believe that freedom of speech protects the right of the hateful to spew their bile into the public discourse, I hope you will agree that this does not include the right to be featured in whatever media outlet they choose. Editors can still decide what to run, and what not to.

So, as a matter of principle, I see no problem with Dublin Inquirer excluding hateful views, or hateful ways of expressing views.

Warping the Mirror

What I am worried about is whether by excluding these views we are failing to accurately reflect what Dublin is really like — and whether that matters.

For example, there are lots of people in Dublin who hate foreigners and immigrants.

I have been told off three times in recent memory on the streets of Dublin for being a foreigner. I can avoid trouble by not speaking, since I might be mistaken for a white Irish person if you didn’t hear my accent; I can only imagine the levels of abuse suffered by people who cannot “pass”.

But you wouldn’t know from reading Dublin Inquirer that Dublin is like that.

We did have this story about Dubliner Mary Oyediran’s experience of being targeted because of her race. But should we also be telling the other side, letting other Dubliners express their hate for people, and explain why they hate them — and should we publish the hateful language they use?

Is it best to shun racists and xenophobes when they try to step out onto the public stage and spread their bile, or to listen to them, give them a voice in the public debate, engage with their views, and try to address their concerns and/or rebut their arguments?

Persuasion

The idea that it is better to publish or broadcast these views and then publicly dismantle them, rather than trying to pretend they don’t exist, rests on a couple of assumptions.

First, that the views being presented are coherent arguments, which we can engage with and dismantled, and second, that people can be persuaded to change their minds by well-reasoned, factual rebuttals.

There is no point in giving space in the media to someone so that they can go on rants abusing people based on their race, class, sexual orientation, etc. What is the logical, fact-based rebuttal to “I hate foreigners”?

And even if someone does bring a coherent argument — such as, “I hate foreigners because they’re lazy benefits-scroungers” or “I hate foreigners because they’re taking our jobs” — then what are our chances, really, of persuading the speaker or our readers that it is not true?

I think many journalists got into the job because we are the type of people who believe that facts matter, that words matter, that truth matters. But there are people in every country who believe certain things based on their religious faith or political ideology, and will not change their minds no matter what facts we present them with.

There are people who believe certain things based on their own observations (an American was rude to me once, ergo Americans are rude), and will not change their minds no matter what facts we present them with ( for example, a scientific study showing that Americans are polite).

There are also people who are busy with their lives, have already made up their own minds on the issue, and don’t care enough about it to engage with new information and reconsider their opinions — they want to just get on with their day, get the kids to school, get to work on time.

Even if we manage to reach some people who are willing and able to engage with new facts and arguments, we in the media are at or near the bottom of the list of sources of information that they are likely to believe and trust.

Someone who is anti-immigrant and anti-immigration is far more likely to change their mind based on something a friend or family member says to them, than something we say to them. Or based on a positive personal experience they might have with an immigrant.

So putting a venomous racist xenophobe on national TV legitimises those views and makes people who are them feel emboldened to express them, and our rebuttal will likely have no effect on most viewers. And the professional xenophobe wins.

If you don’t buy that argument, let me also offer an alternative: journalists in the US and UK have been giving the hateful platforms for many years, and some of these journalists have done exemplary work “dismantling” these hateful views, but the racists just keep winning. Perhaps it’s time to try another strategy.

(I don’t mean to be defeatist about the value of public debate, or of journalism — just about the ability of journalism to convince people logically to shed deeply ingrained illogical hatreds. I’d say reporting and analysis can definitely inform people’s opinions on public policy issues such as how to tackle the housing shortage, or whether to pedestrianise College Green.)

A Plan

If Dublin Inquirer doesn’t want to give the hateful a platform, how should we proceed?

We do not want you to wake up one morning in 2019 and be shocked to learn that a neo-Trump-ist faction has taken over Dublin City Council, and wonder why you hadn’t learned from our pages that this groundswell was building.

We do want to make sure you’re aware of major challenges that are facing us here in Dublin so that — if you want to — you can get involved in your community and work to address them, preferably before a tide of fascism washes over.

So we’ll cover hate, but — since we are the media — we will mediate it. We won’t give the hateful free rein to say whatever they want in Dublin Inquirer.

We’ll try to keep an eye on the magnitude of hate; if we see a rise in anti-immigrant sentiment or attacks, for example, we will write about that. But we’re not going to let a bigot write a column for our opinion section, explaining why they hate all immigrants.

If hateful attacks arise in the context of a story we’re working on, we’ll let you know that they are an issue, but we won’t repeat, legitimise, and spread them. (See, for example, how we dealt with the issue in this article about a proposal to put a friendship arch in Chinatown.)

We are perfectly willing to engage with policy positions and views with which we disagree, but the potential benefits of giving a platform to hate do not outweigh the very real costs.

Sam Tranum portrait
Sam Tranum

Sam Tranum is deputy editor of Dublin Inquirer. He's been a newspaper reporter, a newspaper editor, an assistant professor of journalism, an author and a book editor, among other things. You can follow him @samtranum.

 

Comments

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  2. Thomas Brunkard
    16 November at 09:09

    It’s about false equivalence, quantity of coverage on a particular point. A sensational minority inevitably get more coverage from the press as they make good copy.

    The volume of coverage seems to legitimise their point of view by presenting a binary approach to issues that are normally better explained by a rainbow of opinion.

    The coverage is then amplified on social media by extremists puppeting multiple fake Facebook profiles to show that there is a popular movement behind the extremism.

    The borderline racist who has an irrational fear of the unfamiliar other and who is not aware of both the irrationality of racism and the historical book of evidence on where it leads now feels safe enough to adopt the creed of the bigot.

    Much in the same way that religious often deligate responsibility of matters of fate to a god, they can now safely blame the problems they suffer from on immigrants, foreign born, different ethnicities etc.

  3. Liam
    16 November at 09:41

    @Thomas Brunkard: Well put Thomas.

  4. Grace C
    16 November at 19:20

    Excellent piece, Sam Tranum, and as Thomas notes above, bigots make good copy. The media exposure given to Nigel Farage here in the UK – before and since the referendum – is beyond disgraceful. He represents a party with one member of parliament – and couldn’t even get elected himself. Reporting on hatred and the hateful is a fine balance – it needs to be reported but not supported; called out for what it is, but not sensationalised.

  5. Matthew
    16 November at 22:54

    My opinion – it’s not about ‘dismantling’ the hateful views by allowing them airtime. It’s about allowing people already on your side to better understand the ‘other side’, empathise where possible, and give them the tools to properly convince their family and friends who might lie on that side.

    For example, yes, there is an anti-immigrant sentiment that clearly exists in certain sections of the Irish population. I don’t believe Dublin Inq should be giving them a space, but I do believe you should try and investigate what these people are saying, and then break down these views, and let your readership use the facts you present to talk to their friends and family.

    The counter-example would be a news site that simply mocks or posits outrage about unseemly or non-liberal opinions, and I genuinely believe that this is one of the reasons that USA has ended up with Trump. There are a multitude of liberal shows like The Daily Show and Full Frontal which indulge in that kind of thing, and in my opinion they don’t really help to advance understanding, they simply preach to the choir.

    I think it’s absolutely crucial that news media in Ireland tackles this correctly, because otherwise we’re at risk of ending up in the same place.

  6. droid
    17 November at 14:01

    Excellent article and a thoughtful, considered approach.

  7. Conan
    18 November at 18:00

    @Matthew: I agree with this completely. Why do journalists need to be proving people wrong when writing articles? The 59m people who voted for trump are not extremist nazis who need to be educated, more likely they are voters who are not hearing balanced debates about matters that concern them as the liberal ethos pretends that everything else outside of their view is wrong and hateful. The result being that when far right representatives like trump/farage come along who are the only ones saying anything outside of utopian liberalism they are the ones picking up the these people’s votes. And while social media sentiment and social narrative is pro liberalism people in private are clearly not 100% of this mind and the balance overall gets restored when they get presented with the secret ballots of elections and a referendum. Discussion rather than dismantling is what is warranted and gulp maybe the acceptance that we can exist together without having the same beliefs?

  8. Maire O'Sullivan
    19 November at 21:01

    I agree it is dangerous to give hate speech and propaganda a platform.

  9. louis hemmings
    4 March at 09:06

    might the serendipity of more intercultural mutual meetings help migrants and passport Irish people to get along better. this often happens often in churches. maybe they could lead the dialogue more? or put on intercultural ceilidhs or picnics and invite beyond the parish cliques?

    Ministry to Migrants, written to inform churches and Christians of the needs of migrants and assylum seeker, in the current Irish context, and suggests ways of ministering to migrants. Author Nick Park, pastors a large and vibrant multi-cultural church congregation, consisting of many ‘new Irish’ immigrants.

    book links: https://www.amazon.com/Ministry-Migrants-Asylum-Seekers-Evangelical-ebook/dp/B00S54J7I4

  10. Sheena
    29 October at 18:52

    I strongly agree with Matthew. We've got a problem where very harmful ideas are taking hold and if anyone who doesn't entirely agree with liberal values hears nothing from the left but 'You're a hateful bigot', I think things will get worse. Some people will be anti-immigration because they're hateful. Some will sincerely be concerned and feel that it disadvantages them. By calling those people bigots, we lose the opportunity to engage with them and persuade them. I just don't get the current lack of faith in debate. This doesn't mean inviting Katie Hopkins on to write a column, but it does mean trying to understand how people came to hold certain opinions, and then arguing against their actual reasons, not the ones we might be mistakenly imputing to them.

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