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'Printing Hate' project explores U.S. newspapers' role in promoting lynchings

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Facebook's role in amplifying falsehoods and hate speech has been a central concern in recent weeks after whistleblowers went public with internal documents, and critics noted the role of such content in promoting violence in places around the world. And I'll mention here that Facebook's parent company Meta pays NPR to license NPR content. But a new project from the University of Maryland's journalism school shows that while the reach and speed of social media might 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 played in promoting lynchings throughout the United States from the post-Civil War period onward.

DeNeen Brown is a Washington Post reporter and journalism professor who conceived the project and is the lead editor on the series. Brown says lynchings were so common they were routinely featured in newspapers, often reported next to graduation announcements and stock prices. When we spoke, she says newspapers promoted lynchings both by demeaning Black people and advertising when lynchings would take place.

DENEEN BROWN: They portrayed Black people in the most heinous ways. They called them brutes and fiends. Sometimes, they would print the time, date and location of a massacre. It was almost like they were glorifying the lynching. So, for example, there's a headline that says, "Negro Fiend Meets His Fate." And here's another one - "Lynching Caused By Brutal Murder." Any person who's studied journalism 101 knows that you have to be careful about that word, caused. Another one said, "Negro Under Sentence To Hang At Tallahassee." So that's announcing a lynching that took place in 1909. And then another one that I did a lot of reporting on - it's about the Elaine massacre of 1919. There was a headline that ran in The Arkansas Democrat that said, "Governor Brough Fired Upon By Negroes At Elaine; Negroes Had Plot To Rise Against Whites, Are Charged." That was - outrageous headline that was completely false. It was no Negro uprising, and no Black people fired on the governor, who actually may have been the first governor in history to actually hunt Black Americans. So yeah, these headlines and these stories will amaze you.

MARTIN: I was going to ask you about that because part of this project involved students traveling throughout a number of states, digging into the archives of these newspapers. And I was just wondering, could you just say a bit more about what struck the students?

BROWN: Yeah. So some of the students traveled to different places in the South and actually reported these stories. There were students in Elaine. There were students who traveled to Virginia, to Florida, and they did amazing reporting. Some of the students said that this work was profound. It changed their lives. It changed the way they looked at history. It changed the way they looked at racism and oppression.

One student, whose family is from Mississippi, told me that when she was explaining to her parents what she was finding in her research, they pushed back. You know, was - is it really true? And she's trying to explain to them, yeah, this is what I'm finding in my research. This happened. Yes, Black people were lynched. Yes, Black people were lynched because of newspaper headlines. I'm finding this. So it was a tremendous experience for these students, for the professors, for the faculty and staff and the visiting editors. It was life-changing.

MARTIN: As we said at the outset of this conversation, the focus at the moment has been on Facebook in particular but social media in general in amplifying hate speech around the world - around the world. And we've seen this before. I just wondered if this work that you've undertaken with digging into newspapers of the post-Civil War period, does this amplify the current conversation in some way? Is there something about looking at the past that teaches us about the present that you think you would want to point up?

BROWN: Yeah. I see a direct correlation between the history that we've uncovered in this project and modern-day coverage of Black people. According to the research, the media continues 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, was portrayed as, quote, unquote, "no angel." You know, Eric Garner, who was killed in New York, was - there was a lot of coverage on, you know - focus on, you know, quote-unquote, "Mr. Garner was illegally selling cigarettes and therefore brought on his demise."

In the coverage of George Floyd, there were a lot of stories that talked about how he died because of his underlying conditions, despite the fact that we watched him die on camera. So again, I think there's a direct correlation between how Black Americans were characterized by these newspapers historically that advocated for lynchings and massacres and modern-day characterizations of Black people who have been killed recently.

MARTIN: This project takes place against the backdrop of legislators and some sort of parent activists in parts of the country trying to literally erase or remove certain works from their libraries or from being taught. Sometimes, this is a focus on fiction. Sometimes, this is a focus on nonfiction. Just - I'm curious. You know, it's interesting that your work to recover this information arrives at the same time that some people are trying to erase this information from our sort of discussions, at least at the school level. And I was just wondering if you have thoughts about that.

BROWN: You know, what I said earlier in the conversation I really believe - that journalists, great journalists are in pursuit of the truth. And the truth is this history, the history that we're uncovering is the truth of what happened in America. And I do know, you know, from my research that organizations, you know, after the end of the Civil War set out to change how history was written. So I just feel that this project and my work is trying to correct that trajectory and at a time when people are, as you said, are trying to cover up these ugly chapters in history. But they happened.

It's true that, you know, Black people endured enslavement and horrible Jim Crow movement, and that's a truth that happened in history. It's just my hope that, you know, people will continue to pursue the truth of history and that students will learn about it because if you don't know, you know, there's that old adage - if you don't know your history, you're damned to repeat it. And it's so important to know that this history happened because it provides context for what's happening today.

MARTIN: DeNeen Brown is a Washington Post reporter and an associate professor of journalism at the University of Maryland. This work, Printing Hate, is available online now. Professor Brown, thank you so much for talking with us.

BROWN: Thank you so much, Michel. It was great to be here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.