Covering domestic violent extremism in the U.S.

Domestic violent extremism (DVE), defined here as the use of criminal violence to advance a political ideology of control or dominance of one group over others, has long been part of the political fabric of the United States. Consider white supremacy and the DVE of the Klu Klux Klan, which has become a series of organizations with their own structures, memberships, by-laws, financing, political and cultural propaganda, and strategies for using violence. Public awareness of DVE ebbs and flows, often in response to acts of domestic terrorism.

In a public report on terrorist threats from June 2023, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Homeland Security stated that “domestic violent extremists represent one of the most persistent threats to the United States today.”

Journalists can help expose extremist individuals, organizations and affiliated activities. Effective reporting demonstrates the motivations behind DVE and how it falls outside the laws and social norms of a healthy democratic society. Akin to reporting on organized crime, reporting on DVE is difficult and dangerous. Ethical reporting on DVE requires newsrooms to a significant amount of preparation before ever publishing a story.

This guide is designed to assist newsrooms in covering U.S.-based domestic extremism with accuracy and with responsibility, to both the public and their own staff.

The difference between DVE and extremism writ large

Extremism writ large is now ever present in U.S. life, locally and nationally. Every newsroom should prepare to differentiate between “normal” and “extreme” for almost every beat. Local government reporters are faced with Moms for Liberty and Proud Boys, religion reporters are faced with white Christian nationalism and other both spiritually and politically extreme manifestations of religion, and even high school sports writers are faced with far-right campaigns against the participation of trans youth.

Having extreme beliefs is one risk factor among many that could lead to violence, but actual violent criminal activity is essential in order to differentiate between protected First Amendment activity and DVE.

DVE should be covered at the scale of groups, not individuals. Violence is a political tool used by domestic extremists and should be understood as a mechanism within a political or organizational strategy. Depending on their group’s specific ideology and strategy, DVEs may also seek to use additional political strategies, such as running for office. Again, consider the Klu Klux Klan, which used violence to diminish the political power of Black and progressive political movements and establish a herrenvolk democracy in southern and western states from the late 1800s until, at least, the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Frustratingly, there is not a consensus definition of DVE across law enforcement, research and advocacy organizations. Newsrooms must be internally consistent and publicly transparent about what definition they use.

To make matters more complex, the difference between legally protected political activity and criminal acts of extremism may vary state to state. Take, for example, far-right individuals or groups open-carrying firearms while protesting LGBTQ+ events.

In some states, including some open carry states, it is illegal to bring a firearm to a protest. Law enforcement agencies may be unwilling to act even in the face of apparent violations of the law, and district attorneys may be unwilling to pursue charges. Law enforcement may not consider such incidents to be illegal armed intimidation or violent, but research groups like the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project may record the incident as an act of political violence. Newsrooms need to prepare their own internal metrics for DVE or they will quickly find themselves mired in a series of contradictions posed by shifting definitions, enforcement and analysis across law enforcement and research organizations.

Prepare

1. Understand Domestic Extremism
Begin by comprehending the various manifestations of domestic extremism in the U.S. This includes extremist ideologies, tactics, and groups that operate within the country. Thorough research and education are key to providing accurate and insightful reporting.

2. Protect Your Safety
Reporting on domestic extremism is risky. Prioritize your reporters’ safety. Newsrooms should have plans in place in case the newsroom or any of its staff are targeted with online or in-person threats or harassment, including when to speak with law enforcement and what information to share.

Newsrooms should ensure digital security for staff, including scrubbing personal information from the web, making social media profiles private, and using password managers, at a minimum. Additional security is needed for reporters who are engaging directly with extremists in online spaces or in person.

In-person reporting requires planning for reporters’ physical safety, including physical safety and hostile environment training, newsroom policies for reporting at protests with armed participants, and safety plans for reporters meeting DVE individuals or groups.

Safety also includes mental health support. The best thing a newsroom can do is ensure high quality health care that includes mental health support for its staff.

3. Train your staff
Reporting on violent criminal networks requires specialized knowledge for collecting information online and through human sources, commonly referred to as OSINT and HUMINT respectively.

OSINT, or “open source intelligence,” is a skill set for collecting and verifying information online. This may include sensitive activities like creating “sock puppet,” or fake alias, accounts to infiltrate closed networks of extremist actors. Newsrooms should establish policies for this style of reporting before creating any such accounts.

OSINT should always be confirmed and contextualized using HUMINT, or human intelligence. In short, this is just talking to real people. That task is made complicated when those people are often violent and antagonistic to journalism. Even so, extremists often make claims online knowing that news media is watching and they seek to elicit response as a form of propaganda. Confirming information through a network of cultivated human sources is essential, as are newsrooms preparing policies for protecting their reporters during that reporting.

4. Establish your style guide
Newsrooms should use consistent and clear language when discussing extremism and DVE. This coverage is highly politically charged. Newsrooms will need to explain why they chose to do this reporting, why they are using certain language, and why they are focusing on certain subjects.

DVE coverage will elicit an asymmetrical partisan response. One-third of Republicans (33%) believe political violence may be necessary to “save the country, compared with 22% of independents and 13% of Democrats,” according to an October 2023 opinion survey by the Public Religion Research Institute.

Using the Associated Press’ Stylebook is a great first step for newsrooms in establishing their own language around DVE coverage. The Field Guide to White Supremacy, edited by Kathleen Belew, is an excellent supplemental resource.

5. Prepare your lawyers
Due to its sensitivity, newsrooms should notify their legal counsel of upcoming DVE coverage, including describing the reporting methods used. Newsrooms should strongly consider pre-publication legal review when covering DVE. For newsrooms without retained legal representation, several groups are available that can offer pre-pub review with appropriate preparation.

Reporting Guide for Covering DVE

Once a newsroom has completed preparations to understand DVE and protect its staff, reporters can follow these steps to report on DVE.

1. Monitor Online Spaces
Domestic extremists often use online platforms to disseminate their views. Monitor these spaces to stay informed about their activities without engaging with or inadvertently endorsing extremist content, such as through liking or sharing extremist posts. Exercise caution when reporting on online activities.

2. Verify Information
Given the desire of many DVE groups to seek media coverage as a form of propaganda, rigorous fact-checking is essential. Verify information from multiple credible sources to ensure accuracy and objectivity. Be cautious of unverified claims or uncorroborated reports.

3. Avoid Giving DVEs a Platform
Resist the urge to provide extremists a platform to spread their ideologies, to recruit, or to increase attendance at events. While reporting on DVEs is important, exercise discretion to avoid inadvertently promoting their messages. Focus on the broader context and consequences of their actions. Paraphrase DVEs rather than quoting them directly, do not link to DVE sites, do not use the labels or language DVEs create for themselves, and only name specific groups when essential.

4. Avoid Sensationalism
Resist the temptation to sensationalize stories about DVE. Sensational reporting can inadvertently amplify extremist messages and polarize the public. Instead, focus on accountability reporting and telling stories of the impact of DVE actions in order to inform, not inflame. Remember that a significant portion of U.S. residents believe political violence may be justified, so focus reporting on contrasting the aims of the DVEs and the consequences of their violence.

5. Distinguish Extremism from Free Speech
Strive to differentiate between DVE and protected free speech. While reporting on extremist views and actions is crucial, respect the principles of free expression. Be discerning in identifying when speech crosses the line into incitement or violence.

6. Promote Accountability
Emphasize the efforts of authorities, organizations, and individuals in addressing DVE. Reporting on legal actions and initiatives to counter extremism fosters accountability and public awareness. Where authorities fail to counter DVE actors and groups, report on that.

7. Law Enforcement Efforts
Cover the actions and strategies of law enforcement agencies combating DVE. Report on arrests, convictions, and efforts to dismantle DVE organizations and networks. In instances where DVE actors are protesting or holding public rallies, document law enforcement strategies for protecting free speech rights while also protecting public safety. Pay special attention to police tactics, including who is protected and how, when counter-protesters are also present.

8. Protect Vulnerable Communities
Acknowledge the potential impact of your reporting on communities targeted by DVEs. Safeguard sensitive information, and avoid framing stories in ways that might perpetuate biases or tensions. Be sure to include leaders from communities targeted by DVEs as sources and consider their suggestions on story framing.

9. Community Perspectives
Include the voices of affected communities in your reporting, including the voices of more moderate leaders in affiliated groups. For example, interviewing church leaders such as the Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty can help contextualize the extremism of Christian nationalist churches or groups and help limit an dichotomous response (either/or, with/against) to your reporting. For targeted communities, highlight resilience and mutual support in addition to sharing their experiences and perspectives on how DVE impacts their daily lives.

10. Encourage Dialogue and Understanding
Promote dialogue and understanding among different communities. Report on initiatives that seek to counter DVE through peaceful means, ultimately contributing to a more inclusive and tolerant society. The Bridging Divides Initiative at Princeton is a great resource to learn about these efforts in your coverage area.

11. Transparency
Maintain transparency about your reporting methods and sources to build trust with your audience. Be clear about any limitations or challenges you faced while investigating DVE. Publish explainers about language choices, reporting methods and source selection alongside stories about DVE.

Resources

Newsrooms should review the following resources in preparation for tackling DVE coverage. Several of the sources listed below are academic institutions with highly specific research, such as extremism in gaming networks, groupthink contributing to radicalization on forum sites like Reddit, or the reason accelerationist anti-government groups target the electrical grid.

Though these may seem like esoteric issues not relevant to the beat reporter, they may suddenly become relevant, as they did for many local reporters across the country in 2022-2023, when low-level personnel at the local military base leak state secrets on a gaming platform, when a domestic terrorist commits a racially motivated mass murder and has a long history of hateful online engagement, or when your county loses power for a month because a local power station has been strategically damaged.

Brennan Center for Justice: A nonpartisan law and policy institute based at NYU Law. The Center has focus areas on countering violent extremism and domestic terrorism and hate crimes, including analysis to hold DHS accountable for lackluster responses to white supremacist violence.

Bridging Divides Initiative (BDI) at Princeton University: BDI is a “non-partisan research initiative that tracks and mitigates political violence in the United States” and is “based at the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs.”

Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS): A bipartisan, nonprofit policy research organization focused on issues of national security and based in Washington, D.C. Their work on violent extremism is carried out through their Transnational Threats Project and their International Security Program.

Federal Government: In June 2023, the White House announced a National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism. Subsequently, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Homeland Security increased their attention on domestic terrorism, including a June 2023 strategic assessment.

George Washington University’s Program on Extremism and Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection (ICAP): The Program on Extremism publishes pragmatic policy solutions for policymakers, civic leaders, and the general public faced with extremism, terrorism, and radicalization in the United States. ICAP “uses strategic legal advocacy to defend constitutional rights and values while working to restore confidence in the integrity of our governmental institutions.”

Global Network on Extremism and Technology (GNET): A European-based network of experts and organizations working on technology’s impact on extremism. GNET is convened and led by The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR).

Global Terrorism Database (GTD): A comprehensive resource by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) for global terrorism data. Housed at the University of Maryland.

Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI): A nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that researches the intersection of religion, culture, and public policy. PRRI has researched Christian nationalism extensively in recent years.

Mapping Militants Project: “[T]races the evolution of militant organizations and the interactions that develop among them over time.” A project of the Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC) at Stanford University.

Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC): Provides extensive research on hate groups and extremism in the United States.

VOX-Pol Network of Excellence: A European-based academic research network that focuses on researching the prevalence, contours, functions, and impacts of online extremism and terrorism.