Gerber: Neo-Nazis and news judgment

Gerber: Neo-Nazis and news judgment

April 27th, 2014 by Alison Gerber in Opinion Columns

The neo-Nazis were coming.

The largest neo-Nazi group in the nation chose Chattanooga for a rally and counter rallies soon followed. Is that a news story worth covering?

After the National Socialist Movement announced a couple of weeks ago it was coming for a rally that was to have taken place Saturday at the Hamilton County Courthouse, some readers suggested the Times Free Press not cover the group. Even some in the newsroom tossed around the idea of staying away.

What if we just ignore them? Don't cover them. Act like they're not here.

The problem is, they were here. And this group -- which calls Adolf Hitler "the beloved Holy Father of our age" -- spewed their hateful ideology at a public place in downtown Chattanooga.

Is it shocking? Yes. Horrifying? Absolutely.

But it's also news. And if we chose not to cover it because we don't agree with it or because it's unpleasant, well, we'd have to quit covering a lot of things. And we wouldn't be doing our job, which is to inform the public of good things and acts of kindness as well as malicious acts and hateful speech.

There's a thought process that says: Don't cover the nuts, the hate-mongers, the Westboro Baptist Church types. All they want is attention and, if you cover them, you've given them exactly what they want.

It's a legitimate debate, and it's one we often have in the newsroom over stories big and small. But almost every time we decide: Giving people more information is a good thing.

As a newspaper, it's our job to put the information out there. How readers use that information is their choice -- they may completely disagree with the neo-Nazis and decide to speak out against the group and its beliefs; they may agree with the group and decide to join. That's not our call. Our task is to report the news in our community, our city, our state, our nation, our world.

So we run stories on the fight over abortion and about the effort to legalize gay marriage. Not all our readers agree on those issues; some believe abortion is murder and gay marriage is a sin. But we cannot ignore these issues, pretend they're not part of heated societal debates. Again, putting the information out there may help people develop a deeper understanding of the issues and perhaps help them figure out where they land. Maybe it can give them deeper insight into why the other side feels the way they do. Both are goals of good journalism.

We also report on gut-wrenching, heinous acts. In recent weeks, we've reported on a triple homicide in Lookout Valley, a horrific crime in which a 15-year-old and a 19-year-old are now charged with murder. We've written about a man killed by multiple gunshot wounds in Bledsoe County. And we've reported on the convenience store clerk in Dalton, Ga., who died after someone plunged a knife into his back.

All these victims died bloody deaths at the hands of others. Should we look away and pretend the horrifying acts never happened? No. People should know what's going on in their community, what crimes are being committed, what authorities are doing to solve the crimes and prevent future ones. Certainly, we should be respectful of the loved ones left behind, try not to make their agony any more acute, but we must balance that with our job of getting valuable news and information out. Covering something up -- and not writing about a legitimate news story amounts to that -- is never the answer.

Which gets us back to the neo-Nazis.

Nobody I've spoken to wants neo-Nazis in our beautiful corner of the world. Many ignored them and went about their business as if the group never came to town. Last week, leaders of the both neo-Nazi group and and the NAACP encouraged people in opposition to the event to simply stay away.

The Times Free Press can't do that. We're not in the business of protesting the news. It's our job to cover it.

Alison Gerber is editor of the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Contact her at agerber@timesfreepress.com.