Starting in the fall 2019 semester, a journalist who has been attacked online by members of the far-right will teach a course detailing ways to report on white supremacists and extremist groups. In addition to reporting methods, “Reporting on the Far-Right” will have an emphasis on maintaining physical and mental health while on the beat.
Talia Lavin was a fact checker for The New Yorker when she tweeted a picture of an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent’s tattoo beside a visual dictionary for the Iron Cross, an image associated with the Nazi Regime. However, it was later revealed that the tattoo was a symbol for the platoon the agent had fought in in Afghanistan.
Lavin was not the only person who made the mistake, and she was quick to correct it: soon after others tweeted that it did not appear to be an Iron Cross, she deleted the tweet and issued an apology. However, in a public statement, ICE credited Lavin with starting the rumor. Lavin was subjected to death threats and online harassment and resigned from her job soon after. Since her resignation, Lavin has been reporting on the far-right for outlets such as the Washington Post, Media Matters and the New Republic.
In the class Lavin will be teaching at NYU, she hopes to teach students how to deal with this type of criticism.
“It was very disturbing to become the focus as this extremely junior employee of such a firestorm,” Lavin said in an interview with WSN. “One thing that I would like to educate students about is ‘how can you handle the vitriol you receive as a reporter?’”
After Lavin’s class was posted on NYU Journalism’s website, it was reported that she had been hired by the university, resulting in Lavin and NYU being criticized by right-leaning public figures. The New York Post columnist John Podhoretz went so far as to tweet that Lavin’s hiring by NYU, along with that of freelance journalist Lauren Duca, provides reasoning for “why J Schools should be neutron bombed.” Lavin was also the subject of a “Fox and Friends” segment in which host Laura Ingraham referred to her as a “little journo-terrorist.”
Update: 20% of my NYU course grade will now be earned by getting John Podhoretz to delete his account pic.twitter.com/3zVZ0r0GZb
— Lauren Duca (@laurenduca) March 21, 2019
“What I experienced was essentially being a pawn in a culture war that was much broader than me,” Lavin said. “It’s unfortunate to me that these sort of culture warmongers have taken the opportunity to use an adjunct faculty hire to smear a 200-year-old institution [NYU].”
Additionally, Lavin said that many of the criticisms levied on her contradict those on the right who champion the First Amendment.
“I see Laura Ingraham’s criticism of me as a way to curtail the academic freedom she claims to champion,” Lavin said. “Part of freedom of speech is freedom to teach.”
Lavin’s course will teach students how to take care of one’s mental health, deal with threats and maintain digital safety, in addition to general reporting skills. The use of public information to analyze and cover extremist groups, as well as the history of said groups, will also be covered.
Lavin said that one should expect a certain level of harassment when using the adversarial approach to reporting on the far-right she uses and will be teaching in her class.
“When you’re covering extremists, you should be pissing them off,” Lavin said. “You’re covering racists and extremists, people that are filled with hate. Good reporting should challenge that ideology.”
Journalism first-year Abigail Metsch said she would be interested in taking the class.
“I would love to learn how to better express myself on this topic,” Metsch wrote in a Facebook message to WSN. “I also love the idea that [Lavin] will be using her own experience to teach the course — actions are always more impactful than words.”
CAS junior Teddy Son, another journalism student, said that he felt the course would be helpful in increasing his knowledge of extremist groups.
“I believe in terms of raising awareness, it’s a course I would consider taking,” Son said. “It’s definitely an unorthodox course in that I don’t think anything like that has been offered in recent years.”
Lavin said that she wishes to impart to her students the ability to deal with the pressure that comes with reporting in the current political climate and the knowledge that making a mistake in good faith is something that should be more commonly accepted. This belief is part of why Lavin said she will continue to work in journalism despite the immense amount of hate directed towards her.
“I’m not going to stop reporting on the surge of white nationalism because Breitbart.com wants to convince their readers that I’m the enemy of the people.” Lavin said. “Period.”
A version of this article appeared in the Monday, March 25, 2019, print edition. Email Victor Porcelli at [email protected]