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MVJ hosts webinar with reporters covering extremism and disinformation in military and veteran communities

By July 3, 2024Resources

By Devon Lancia, MVJ Partnerships Director

During a time when news media is facing unprecedented challenges in combating disinformation and Americans are being increasingly exposed to extremist propaganda online, Military Veterans in Journalism’s recent Counter-Disinformation Panel shed light on the multifaceted strategies and considerations involved in addressing these critical issues within newsrooms serving the military-connected community.

With a panel of experts including managing editor Zach Fryer-Biggs, 100 Days in Appalachia creative director and executive editor Dana Coester, reporter Konstantin Torapin, Military Times reporter Nikki Wentling, and The War Horse investigative reporter Sonner Kehrt, the event was just one piece of an ongoing dialogue around MVJ’s Information Integrity Project.

Key points from the discussion:

  • The panel discussed the importance of reporting on extremism within the military due to the outsized influence of veterans in organized groups.
  • Panelists emphasized reframing coverage to avoid political polarization and focus on broader issues of preventing violence.
  • Nuanced considerations in crafting coverage for this community were discussed, including tailoring reporting to engage diverse audiences.
  • Challenges of safely navigating online spaces to uncover extremism-related content were highlighted.
  • Panelists flagged a need to craft stories about extremism in a way that avoids dehumanization while accurately depicting ideologies. They also flagged the need to avoid damaged veteran stereotypes in media coverage and gave some ideas to get around it.
  • Current and future trends in disinformation distribution and the formation of radical groups within the military space were discussed.
  • The role of a journalist’s personal identity – race, gender, ethnicity and veteran status included – in covering extremist groups was explored.
  • The discussion closed with some tips on how newsrooms can support reporters covering extremism and disinformation, including suggestions for increased collaboration and providing adequate resources.

Panelists first shared their journey into covering extremism and disinformation to provide context for their perspectives. Coester traced her involvement in extremist coverage back to 2012, when her work on projects involving veterans of both World Wars exposed her to manipulated populist rhetoric that reminded her of historical extremist ideologies. Kehrt, a Coast Guard veteran, found her interest piqued during clashes such as Milo Yiannopoulos’ free speech week and delved into journalistic coverage of extremist activities like that. Toropin, a Navy veteran, used his experiences covering mass shootings and events like the January 6 Capitol insurrection to recognize and cover the presence of extremism within the military, starting at CNN and moving to Wentling’s journey began in previous reporting roles, where her increased awareness of Russian propaganda targeting veterans and its intensification following events like the Capitol insurrection led her to contribute her expertise to MVJ’s Information Integrity Project as a Military Times reporting fellow.

The discussion portion of the session, moderated by Fryer-Biggs, clarified why reporting on radicalization and extremism within the military is so important, especially given recent data on the influence veterans wield within extremist groups. Despite challenges like senior Pentagon leadership’s reluctance to address the issue, panelists emphasized that investigative journalism should play a critical role in shedding light on these complex and challenging topics. 

The group also discussed the challenge of depoliticizing reporting on and conversations around extremism and violence and advocated for reframing coverage to avoid perpetuating polarizing takes on these issues. Wentling suggested breaking down “extremism” into specific categories to facilitate better understanding with audiences. Fryer-Biggs also suggested creating more nuanced reporting that focuses on the broader issue of preventing violence and extremist recruitment without shifting blame to specific political factions.

The panel also explored the various things journalists must consider in crafting their coverage on these issues, particularly tailoring reporting to effectively engage and inform diverse audiences. Kehrt, speaking from her experience with The War Horse, mentioned that one of the missions of this work is bridging the military-civilian divide and catering reporting to military-curious civilians who may be reading to seek deeper insights. Coester advocated for local journalism taking the lead in this space, highlighting the importance of reporters engaging with their communities directly to address issues affecting them. Wentling suggested providing coverage beyond the issues to better equip readers with tools to discern misleading information. Toropin stated journalists must try to inform readers about the origins of information to foster healthy skepticism and news literacy, especially among skeptics and disbelievers within the military-connected community.

Strategies for navigating online spaces to uncover extremism-related content were discussed, including ways for journalists to stay safe within an increasingly hostile segment of the information environment. Fryer-Biggs started the conversation by underscoring the resource-intensive nature of monitoring online channels effectively. Toropin and Wentling added to that by highlighting the difficulty of distinguishing between genuine rhetoric and trolling or edginess in online spaces and suggesting journalists collaborate with extremist monitoring organizations to gain wider perspectives.

Panelists then shifted into discussing the challenges inherent in writing stories about extremism. They emphasized that reporters must avoid both dehumanizing or giving undue sympathy towards individuals holding extremist beliefs in their work. They addressed the need to avoid the damaged veteran stereotype in coverage on these issues, with Kehrt pushing the need for reporting that showcases the diverse experiences and actions of veterans beyond the stereotype of trauma and vulnerability. The panel suggested holding institutions and societal factors accountable while recognizing the complexities behind certain behaviors, and Wentling mentioned one potential storytelling solution: focus on veterans who are actively working towards solutions, such as recruiting veterans for volunteer work or advocating against extremism and disinformation, rather than giving most of the story’s attention to those who aren’t.

Looking towards the future, Fryer-Biggs led the conversation into shifting trends in disinformation distribution and the formation of radical groups within the military space. Wentling brought up concerns about the proliferation of disinformation, particularly driven by foreign adversaries, and the challenges posed by generative AI and inadequate content moderation on social media platforms. Toropin noted a shift towards smaller, decentralized cells and lone actors as prominent culprits in extremist activities, while Kehrt and Coester raised the issue of extremism ideas becoming mainstream and extremist rhetoric permeating everyday discourse. This discussion underscored the ever-evolving nature of the disinformation and extremist threat landscape and the need for vigilant monitoring and response strategies for journalists.

Panelists also discussed the role of identity in covering extremist groups, particularly in relation to gender, ethnicity, and veteran status. Wentling highlighted the credibility that comes from having a heavily veteran staff at her current publication, but both she and Kehrt acknowledged the complexities of being a woman in a predominantly male space.

In discussing ways in which newsrooms can better support reporters covering extremism and disinformation, the panelists emphasized the need for increased collaboration, long-term commitment, and providing adequate time and resources for thorough research and development of stories. They also added that newsrooms should be mindful of the mental health impact on reporters covering sensitive and potentially distressing topics within the extremist landscape. Finally, they underscored the value of collaboration across newsrooms and advocated for a collective effort in covering these complex and evolving issues.

Later this year, MVJ will be releasing a guide with best practices on reporting on disinformation and extremism in the military and veteran community.