November 28, 2016; New York Times

The Washington Post recently received 2,600 comments on an article about the despicable Richard Spencer, a declared leader of the so-called “alt-right movement.” A good number of those readers had a message about the term.

“Please, please stop referring to a white Christian supremacist movement as the ‘alt-right,’” one reader wrote, suggesting that that the term sounded more like a subgenre of rock music. Another wrote, “Stop calling them ‘alt-right.’ They are racists, white supremacists, Nazis.”

Those who object to the term call it a euphemism for a collection of groups that espouse venal ideologies that legitimize extreme forms of misogyny, racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and white supremacy. They say the use of the term normalizes what should be seen as far-fringe hate-based views.

In response, the Washington Post joined other publications in revisiting their style guides. In circulated style WP guidelines, the term is defined in part as referring to “a small, far-right movement that seeks a whites-only state.” Its followers are known, the guide says, for “their expressions of racist, anti-Semitic and sexist points of view.”

On Monday, the Associated Press published its own guidelines instructing journalists not to use the term without clearly defining it because “it is not well known and the term may exist primarily as a public relations device to make its supporters’ actual beliefs less clear and more acceptable to a broader audience.”

At NPR earlier this month, guidelines encouraged an explication of the term, and ThinkProgress has declared that it will “no longer treat ‘alt-right’ as an accurate descriptor of either a movement or its members” because it intentionally obscures the group’s overt racism.

Nicole Hemmer, an assistant professor at the Miller Center at the University of Virginia who studies conservatism and the media, says it is important to be specific about the group’s history, tactics or prejudices. “We can’t just use new words and new labels without describing what they are,” she said. “I think if news organizations are meticulous about defining their terms, then I think people will come to understand what the alt-right is.” Rich Lowry, the editor of National Review, a conservative magazine, said the term should be applied narrowly to describe “people who are obsessed with race and, in one form or another, are white supremacists. […] From where we sit, the alt-right is kind of a motley collection of white supremacists and neo-Nazis,” he said. “It’s a mistake to label people who aren’t that the alt-right.”

The press has struggled with any number of terms over the years because of their ability to connote or obfuscate. Terms like “illegal immigrant” and “torture” have come under scrutiny for their emotive powers or lack thereof.—Ruth McCambridge