The “Printing Hate” project explores the role of American newspapers in promoting lynchings: NPR
MICHEL MARTIN, ANIMATOR:
Facebook’s role in amplifying lies and hate speech has been a central concern in recent weeks after whistleblowers released internal documents, and critics have noted the role of such content in promoting violence around the world. And I’ll mention here that Facebook’s parent company, Meta, pays NPR to authorize NPR content. But a new project from the University of Maryland School of Journalism shows that while the reach and speed of social media may be new, the role of the media in spreading hate is not. The project is called Printing Hate, and it’s an online reporting project that documents the role newspapers have played in promoting lynchings across the United States since the post-Civil War era.
DeNeen Brown is a Washington Post reporter and journalism professor who conceived the project and is the series editor. Brown says lynchings were so common they featured regularly in newspapers, often reported alongside graduation announcements and stock prices. When we spoke, she said the newspapers promoted the lynchings both by humiliating black people and by announcing when the lynchings would take place.
DENEEN BROWN: They portrayed black people in the most obnoxious way. They called them bullies and demons. Sometimes they printed the time, date and place of a massacre. It was almost as if they glorified the lynching. So, for example, there is a headline that says: “Negro Fiend Meets His Fate”. And here’s another one – “Lynching caused by brutal murder”. Anyone who has studied Journalism 101 knows that you have to watch out for this word, caused. Another said: “Negro sentenced to be hanged in Tallahassee.” So that’s the announcement of a lynching that took place in 1909. And then another one that I’ve done a lot of reporting on – it’s the Elaine massacre in 1919. There was a headline. in The Arkansas Democrat which said, “Governor Brough shot By niggers at Elaine; the niggers had plotted to rise up against the whites, are indicted.” That was – an outrageous headline that was completely bogus. was not a black uprising and no black fired at the governor, who may have been the first governor in history to oust black Americans, so yes those headlines and stories are going to amaze you.
MARTIN: I was going to ask you a question about that because part of this project involved students traveling through a number of states, digging through the archives of those newspapers. And I was just wondering, could you say a little more about what hit the students?
BROWN: Yeah. So some of the students went to different places in the South and actually reported these stories. There were students at Elaine. There were students who traveled to Virginia, Florida, and they did some amazing reporting. Some students said this work was profound. It changed their lives. It changed their way of seeing history. It changed the way they viewed racism and oppression.
A student, whose family is from Mississippi, told me that when she explained to her parents what she found in her research, they pushed back. You know, was – is that really true? And she tries to explain to them, yes, that’s what I find in my research. It happened. Yes, blacks have been lynched. Yes, black people were lynched because of the newspaper headlines. I find this. So it was a great experience for these students, for faculty, for faculty and staff, and for guest editors. It changed life.
MARTIN: As we said at the start of this conversation, the focus right now has been on Facebook in particular, but on social media in general to amplify hate speech around the world – around the world. And we’ve seen this before. I was just wondering if this work you took on digging through post-Civil War newspapers, does that amplify the current conversation in some way? Is there something about looking at the past that tells us about the present that you would like to emphasize?
BROWN: Yeah. I see a direct correlation between the story we uncovered in this project and modern black coverage. According to research, the media continue to dehumanize black people – well, not all media, but some media in general. So, for example, Michael Brown, who was killed in 2014 in Ferguson, has been described as, in quotes, “no angel”. You know, Eric Garner, who was killed in New York, was – there was a lot of coverage on, you know – focused on, you know, in quotes, “Mr. Garner was illegally selling cigarettes and therefore caused his disappearance .”
In George Floyd’s cover, there were a lot of stories that spoke about how he died due to his underlying conditions, despite the fact that we saw him die on camera. Again, I think there is a direct correlation between how black Americans have been characterized by those newspapers historically which advocated lynchings and massacres and the modern characterizations of blacks who have been killed recently.
MARTIN: This project takes place against the backdrop of lawmakers and sort of parent activists in parts of the country trying to literally erase or remove certain works from their libraries or teaching. Sometimes it’s an emphasis on fiction. Sometimes it’s an emphasis on non-fiction. Just – I’m curious. You know, it’s interesting that your work to collect this information comes at the same time that some people are trying to erase this information from our kind of discussions, at least at the school level. And I was just wondering if you have any thoughts on this.
BROWN: You know, what I said earlier in the conversation, I really believe – that journalists, great journalists are looking for the truth. And the truth is that story, the story that we find out is the truth of what happened in America. And I know, you know from my research, that organizations, you know, after the Civil War ended, set out to change the way history was written. So I feel like this project and my work is trying to correct that trajectory and at a time when people, as you said, are trying to cover up these ugly chapters of the story. But they have arrived.
It’s true that, you know, black people endured slavery and the horrible Jim Crow movement, and it’s a truth that has happened in history. I just hope that, you know, people keep looking for the truth of the story and the students learn it because if you don’t know, you know, there’s that old saying – if you don’t know. your story, you’re screwed to repeat it. And it’s so important to know that this story happened because it provides a context for what’s going on today.
MARTIN: DeNeen Brown is a reporter for the Washington Post and associate professor of journalism at the University of Maryland. This book, Printing Hate, is available online now. Professor Brown, thank you very much for speaking with us.
BROWN: Thank you very much, Michel. It was great to be here.
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