Oct 18, 2021 - Politics & Policy

"Printing Hate" details U.S. newspapers' roles in lynchings

Illustration of quotation marks around a redaction box.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

American newspapers played a prominent role, from Reconstruction through the 1960s, in promoting lynchings, massacres and other forms of racist hate and violence. That legacy is documented in an ambitious new project, launching today, from 58 student journalists.

Why it matters: Understanding the witting and unwitting roles played by U.S. media is an essential part of the national examination of systemic racism. It also offers lessons for today's news reporters today covering everything from American political movements and the Jan. 6 attacks to human rights abuses in China.

"Some of the newspapers advertised upcoming lynchings, often printing the time, date and place where mobs would gather," DeNeen Brown, an associate professor at the University of Maryland and a Washington Post reporter who worked with the students, writes for the inaugural story of the series.

  • "Fried over slow fire," screamed one Texas newspaper headline from 1902. "Fixed for a barbecue," read another.
  • The installments include unsparing details of the deadly results of mob behavior.

Details: "Printing Hate" is a collaboration by the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism and Capital News Service at Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism.

  • It also includes reporting from students at the University of Arkansas and HBCUs Hampton University, Howard University, Morehouse College, Morgan State University and North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University.

White Americans were egged on by front-page headlines to pull Black Americans from their homes, ridicule or torment them and whip them, Brown wrote.

  • "Some white reporters watched, took notes and wrote riveting accounts ... as though they were writing about a sporting event ... But those reporters, as skilled as they were as writers, often failed to practice good journalism...
  • "Many of those reporters failed to identify white people in the mob nor hold government officials accountable by asking hard questions of the sheriffs, judges and other local law enforcement officials who stepped aside while white mobs attacked Black people."

Flashback: The project was inspired by Brown's reporting on the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.

  • Beginning in the spring, the students used computational methods to examine digital archives containing more than 5,000 newspapers, then analyzed the data, interviewed descendants and historians, took photos, recorded sound and built graphics and an app to tell the stories.

The bottom line: "The students were not the first to uncover the white newspaper coverage, which was often countered by the Black press," Brown writes. "However, they were able to investigate as reporters of a new generation bringing a 21st-century perspective to the project."

  • "Who better to force a reckoning of journalism's past than the journalists of its future?“ Howard Center director Kathy Best told Axios.

What's next: The stories will be posted on Mondays and Thursdays through mid-December on Capital News Service’s Howard Center website as well as the National Association of Black Journalists’ news site and on Word in Black.

Note: Axios co-founder and president Roy Schwartz and managing editor Margaret Talev are members of the Maryland J-school's Board of Visitors.

Go deeper