Reviewing border coverage uncovers risks of ‘both sides’ reporting on right-wing extremists

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This excerpt from PEN America’s “Hate in the Headlines” report is republished here with permission.

Reporting on infrastructure along the southwestern U.S. border won two Emmys for San Diego’s KPBS and the nonprofit newsroom inewsource. It also left misgivings about the pitfalls of using a “both sides” framing to cover right-wing extremism.

In 2017, KPBS’ Jean Guerrero and Leonardo Castañeda of inewsource were in the process of a months-long investigation into life along the border. Guerrero was an immigration reporter, while Castañeda was a data journalist. Their investigative series “America’s Wall” was the result of a collaboration between their outlets. It featured both in-depth document and data analysis of public records about the walls and fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border and profiles of people whose lives revolve around border barriers and fencing.

Profile subjects included Joshua Wilson, a Customs and Border Patrol officer; border muralist Enrique Chiue; and Ely Ortiz, founder of Aguilas Del Desierto, a humanitarian group that searches for missing migrants and asylum seekers in the desert along the U.S.–Mexico border. Guerrerro and Castañeda’s misgivings center around one person in particular who was profiled: Bob Maupin, an anti-immigration property owner from San Diego and a self-described border “vigilante.”

Far-right extremism is increasingly penetrating U.S. politics and poses a growing threat to democracy. Its proponents have spread their ideology beyond organized hate groups and filled seats in local, state and federal elected offices, propelling once-fringe ideas and tactics to the political mainstream. Regardless of their increasing palatability to portions of the American public and some elected officials, such stances remain extreme — in many cases, directly inciting violent, racially motivated and/or anti-government policy and action.

This political landscape presents stark challenges for journalists. Based on interviews with 75 journalists, academics and other experts, a new report by PEN America offers guidance for media professionals on how best to critically identify and approach major hallmarks of political extremism — including fraudulent or inflammatory statements made by elected officials and candidates and direct violence or threats toward targeted groups — and dives into crucial debates reexamining and adapting traditional journalistic practices for our current political moment.

Almost all of the journalists interviewed for the report, titled “Hate in the Headlines,” critiqued deeply ingrained media structures that can result in drawing false equivalencies in political coverage. Within a skewed political landscape, many found that efforts to fit extremism within a traditional “both sides” framework directly contributed to the uncritical amplification of disinformation, conspiracy and violent rhetoric, and put targeted communities — and democracy — at direct risk. Zack Beauchamp, a senior correspondent at Vox, told PEN America, “You need to be equally fair, but fair reporting may not lead you to say that the two sides are symmetrical.”

As part of “Hate in the Headlines,” PEN America conducted a case study of the KPBS/inewsource “America’s Wall” project. Guerrerro said she originally chose Bob Maupin to be one of her profiled subjects because “I’d been repeatedly told and trained to depict ‘both sides’ of the immigration debate and that failing to do so was activism, not journalism.” Guerrero said that both the reporting team and the editors involved in the project wanted the series to include perspectives from all communities along the border and viewed anti-immigration property owners as an important perspective to include. She said that editors at KPBS and inewsource were concerned about ensuring that Maupin appeared as a sympathetic figure in the profile.

But Guerrerro quickly became unnerved by Maupin’s comments while interviewing and filming him for “America’s Wall.” “He had said some really inflammatory things to me on camera —like that he wanted to die in a gunfight,” Guerrerro says.

“There were some comments that I included in the video package that showed he was an extremist, that he was a dangerous person,” she said. “But my supervisor at the time told me to take them out because she wanted him to be someone readers could empathize with. I was upset about that, and I pushed back. But this was part of a larger project, and I was trying to pick my battles.”

One comment betraying Maupin’s extremism did make it into the published video, as the closing line: “It is my duty to protect my country from people invading it. I’m going to die, and I don’t care how. Except I’m not going to die a slobbering old man in a rest home pushing a walker. I’m going out in a firefight.”

In retrospect, Guerrero said she thought the profile of a white, armed border vigilante did not adequately delve into the dangers he represented. The profile included personal details like his passion for restoring World War II vehicles and his memories of his late wife, rather than hard questioning about the potential harms, not to mention potentially illegal nature, of his vigilantism on any migrants caught crossing his property. Guerrero, who has continued to reflect on the experience, concluded recently that “I don’t think having empathy for people who have been radicalized is wrong. What is wrong is to approach these dangerous individuals without also challenging them on the very real and extreme dangers they pose to vulnerable communities.”

“I do think there was a sense of ‘We should have the conservative immigration analysis as well because that’s how you do good journalism. And that is how you do a big story like this, you have to have both sides,’ which looking back now, feels a little naive.”

Leonardo Castañeda, former inewsource journalist

Castañeda, reflecting on the profile during an interview, agrees. “I think that kind of gentle, human-interest feature is something I don’t think is appropriate anymore … especially now that we’ve seen how extremists can manipulate media and can manipulate these kinds of sympathetic profiles, and how that’s a back door to normalizing these very extremist political positions,” he said.

Castañeda, although not directly involved in the conversations with editors, said he thought even the reporting team didn’t necessarily see the Maupin profile as an issue at the time but rather saw Maupin’s profile as part of the border community’s story. “I don’t think I saw it as an external editorial pressure to have [Maupin’s profile] so much as that’s how I thought about doing good journalism,” he said.

In looking back on the profile, Castañeda said he thought the reporting team would approach Maupin very differently today. “Today, with what we know now, I’d be very worried sending someone alone, or even two people, to walk around with someone armed with an AR-15 and [who] walks around in the desert,” he said. “Now, there would be a lot more conversations about what that would look like, and the safety measures. Then, I think we saw [people like Maupin] as aggrieved landowners with too much time on their hands, not the kind of political or racial extremists the way we do now. … I think the years under Trump have shown us that people like Maupin have a capacity for violence that I think we didn’t take seriously at the time.”

Guerrero and Castañeda’s experience developing “America’s Wall” demonstrates how feature profiling, lack of context, and direct quotes can normalize and platform extremism. Armed border vigilantes have a history of ties to the white supremacist movement, and while Maupin did not appear to have an affiliation with border militias like the Minuteman Project (started by Jim Gilchrist and Chris Simcox in Arizona) and Ranch Rescue or with white supremacist or nationalist groups, his profile still lacks critical context on the influence that anti-immigration vigilante groups have had on right-wing armed groups more broadly. A shot of a flag flapping in the wind — bearing an illustration of a rifle and the words “Will Not Comply” — fills the screen for several seconds, but left unexplained is the fact that this slogan is a rallying cry for white supremacist and other far-right movements decrying government authority on everything from vaccine mandates to “globalism,” state gun laws and “tyrannical” immigration laws. Most glaringly, the profile fails to make clear that private citizens acting to prevent illegal border crossings, including detaining individuals at the border, is illegal under U.S. laws.

Guerrero also told PEN America that she felt some of her editors had exercised a “double standard” in their decision to include Maupin in the “America’s Wall” series and exclude another profile, that of deported pastor Walter Bohorquez and his wife, Bridget, based on police allegations that he was in the street and prison gang the Latin Kings. “One of my editors thought Bohorquez wasn’t a sympathetic individual at all, because he was allegedly a Latin King, something the pastor denied to me,” she says. “But on the other hand, we have this white extremist talking about his really horrific views, but we wanted to paint him as a nice guy. And then when it came to this pastor, who is Mexican, even though he denied being associated with the Latin Kings and was otherwise a caring father and a pastor, editors with inewsource just wanted it removed. They thought it would be offensive to our audiences.” Guerrerro added that a KPBS editor also approached her about removing the Bohorquez profile from their version of the story series after learning that inewsource editors had done so, but that she was able to convince the editor to keep it.

Guerrero told PEN America that a second editor had also suggested the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) as a conservative policy expert source to balance the inclusion of immigrant and immigration attorney perspectives. In the final published feature, Guerrero referred to the organization as “a nonprofit think tank that advocates for tougher restrictions on illegal immigration.” It was not until Guerrero began research for her biography of Trump’s senior adviser Stephen Miller, a book called Hatemonger, that she learned CIS is one of several anti-immigration groups founded by John Tanton, a white nationalist who believed in the necessity of a “European-American majority” to preserve American culture, or that the organization was categorized as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), based on its continued circulation of white nationalist and antisemitic writers in its weekly newsletter in 2016, and employment of a policy analyst known for embracing “racist pseudoscience.” (In 2017, PolitiFact determined that the SPLC designation was based on some of CIS’ past associations rather than its current work, though SPLC stands by its designation.) 

When asked whether he recalled any conversation about CIS as a source at the time, Castañeda replied, “No, which I think is pretty damning. … At the time we didn’t think of CIS as a far-right anti-immigrant organization. There was this understanding that they come from a very conservative angle, but that they have good people doing solid analysis and reports. I do think there was a sense of ‘We should have the conservative immigration analysis as well because that’s how you do good journalism. And that is how you do a big story like this, you have to have both sides,’ which looking back now, feels a little naive.”

PEN America reached out to inewsource and KPBS for comment.

Inewsource responded with this statement from managing editor Mark Rochester: “The inewsource editor who oversaw this project has since retired, but we categorically deny there was pressure to present a positive character profile as described in the article. Then, as today, inewsource produces its investigations in collaborative fashion with reporters, carefully vetting and fact checking for accuracy all our investigations — we stand by that reporting and editing.”

The journalistic urge to paint one’s subject as empathetic is an understandable one. Yet as this case study illustrates, the urge to portray extremists as “relatable” and “reputable” threatens to amplify and normalize their message and to minimize the acute danger they pose to targeted populations.

KPBS responded with this statement from News Director Terence Shepherd: “If we had this project in front of us today, we would include additional context in the profile of Mr. Maupin. Certainly, in hindsight, after lessons learned over the past five years, we would have asked more questions during the editing process.” (In their response, KPBS noted that Shepherd joined KPBS in August 2022 and was not on staff at the time that the story was published.)

Guerrero told PEN America she still sees the CIS and other Tanton groups, like the Federation for American Immigration Reform, regularly cited in national immigration reporting without proper scrutiny. This blind spot, she says, results from a lack of awareness about their origins and how to navigate their strategic branding as “reputable” economics-focused organizations. While the CIS in particular disputes the SPLC’s designation, Guerrero told PEN America the group’s history in the “nativist white supremacist movement” should be called out and exclude it from being included in reporting as a legitimate source.

The journalistic urge to paint one’s subject as empathetic is an understandable one. Yet as this case study illustrates, the urge to portray extremists as “relatable” and “reputable” threatens to amplify and normalize their message and to minimize the acute danger they pose to targeted populations. Further, the instinct to treat violent extremism as simply one of many perspectives sends the implicit message that such a perspective is validly included within mainstream discourse — an objective that extremist groups are actively seeking to gain political influence.

Immigration is not the only beat where journalists need to be both vigilant and proactive about extremism. Reporters and editors across beats — including politics, health care, criminal justice, business and social services — must be prepared to identify, critically examine and counter extremist tactics, sources and disinformation in their areas of expertise. The full Hate in the Headlines report offers additional research, resources and recommendations for newsroom leaders, journalists and media professionals who may be encountering extremism in their work.

Christine Mehta is senior ideas editor at the newly launched Harvard Public Health magazine. For nearly a decade, she carried out investigations for flagship human rights organizations including Amnesty International, Physicians for Human Rights, and PEN America documenting violations of human rights and threats to democracy. Her bylines include the New York Times, Al Jazeera and Foreign Affairs.

Ryan Howzell is research program coordinator at PEN America. Before joining PEN, Ryan produced On Shifting Ground, a podcast and radio show from the World Affairs Council of Northern California. She has conducted research on racial violence, equity and labor rights for the city of San Francisco, the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, and Asylum Access, and worked as a news fellow at KALW Public Radio.

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