Journalists Struggling To Define What 'Alt Right' Means

Dec 2, 2016

New words and phrases are forever showing up in our conversations – and in our media. And when it comes to politics, the word choice journalists make can be overly generalized, polarizing or just plain wrong.

That’s why a conservative ideology coined the “alt right” is causing incredible angst among media organizations. The term has been tied to ideology and groups linked to white nationalism and anti-Semitism – groups that have been around forever. It's in the news now because President-Elect Donald Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon is the co-founder of the conservative website Breitbart News, which he has said is a platform for the alt right.

Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies said the definition of alt right is not clear. For many, she said, the term is trying to encapsulate a belief that conservative ideology should be about the white power structure. As a result, news organizations including NPR and the Associated Press both have shared long missives that encourage journalists to avoid short-hand usage of the term that’s only recently entered the mass media lexicon.

“Journalists are twisting themselves into knots trying to figure out what to do…In most cases (news organization standards editors) are saying, “Don’t use it often. When you do use it, give a definition, and when other people use it in interviews, make sure you add the appropriate context,” she said.  

Richard Spencer, the man who says he coined alt right as a term, spoke recently with NPR’s All Things Considered. In that extended interview, he explains his perspective of alt right beliefs, including one that legal immigration into the United State should be limited, and he hopes that’s what President Trump will do.

“And I think a really reasonable and I think palatable policy proposal would be for Donald Trump to say, look; we've had immigration in the past. It's brought some fragmentation. It's brought division,” he said. “But we need to become a people again. And for us to do that, we're going to need to take a break from mass immigration. And we're going to need to preference people who are going to fit in, who are more like us. That is European immigration.”

McBride said Spencer’s stance doesn’t even meet the same definition of what people including Bannon ascribe to the alt right. Bannon described the word in an interview to the Wall Street Journal, which explained it this way:

“Our definition of the alt-right is younger people who are anti-globalists, very nationalist, terribly anti-establishment,” Bannon is quoted saying in the article.

The Journal added that Breitbart said it "is also a platform for “libertarians,” Zionists, “the conservative gay community,” “proponents of restrictions on gay marriage,” “economic nationalism” and “populism” and “the anti-establishment.”

In other words, the site hosts many views. “We provide an outlet for 10 or 12 or 15 lines of thought—we set it up that way” and the alt-right is “a tiny part of that.” Yes, he concedes, the alt-right has “some racial and anti-Semitic overtones.”

The solution to oversimplifying the term, McBride said, is to take the time to explain the issue at hand and not the term.

“Use more words. Sometimes you need more words. It’s hard to speak in coded shorthand language and because of twitter and because our phone screens are so small, we’ve all become accustomed to short-handing certain things,” she said. “But you can’t really do that in this case because the term is evolving.”