Domestic-terrorism expert J. M. Berger had an interesting piece for Foreign Policy this week in which he lays out the serious flaws with the work of the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the problems with monitoring domestic terrorism in general. He explains:
The Southern Poverty Law Center released its annual “Year in Hate and Extremism” report last week, and as usual, it was terrifying. In an article for the SPLC’s Intelligence Report magazine, researchers said they had identified an “all-time high” of 1,360 antigovernment groups active during 2012 and about the same staggering number of hate groups as last year, a total of 1,007.
Many news organizations, from wire services to TV networks, covered the new figures uncritically. The SPLC looms large in most discussions of American extremism, in large part because they have little or no competition. Very few journalists cover domestic extremism on a regular basis, and those who do tend to work for publications that have an overt political slant. . . .
For better or worse, the SPLC remains the go-to media source for data on domestic extremists of the non-Muslim variety, with the Anti-Defamation League coming in second in terms of published resources. Those journalists who do cover domestic extremism often rely on the SPLC for facts and figures.
The problem is that the SPLC and the ADL are not objective purveyors of data. They’re anti-hate activists. There’s nothing wrong with that — advocating against hate is a noble idea. But as activists, their research needs to be weighed more carefully by media outlets that cover their pronouncements.
The SPLC has various justifications for this methodology, but they don’t seem all that convincing. Berger concludes that “based on my own tracking of antigovernment extremism, I’m fairly certain the movement has grown in recent years, perhaps substantially,” but that’s, of course, no justification for the SPLC not to be as clear as possible in measuring that growth.
Berger’s absolutely right that the media should be more circumspect in reporting the SPLC’s observations as fact, in part because they are an advocacy group, not a scrupulously unbiased research organization. (It’s possible to be nonpartisan but not adhere to the standards of academic research.)
The fact that they are “anti-hate activists” and not objective researchers only suggests subtle and implicit bias and sloppiness, like what Berger documents. But further, the SPLC’s bias is explicit: They purposefully do not cover or condemn the hateful or violent groups on their end of the ideological spectrum. It is scandalous, therefore, for the media to report the SPLC’s findings without fairly explaining what they do, no matter if they are the only source of data on this topic or not.