(Video) SoDa Seed Grant Series: Newspapers and the Lynching Story: Discoveries, Distortions, and Erasure, 1789-1963

INFO Staff - January 9, 2024

Associate professor with UMD’s journalism college discusses research about lynching and news coverage

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Rob Wells, associate professor with the University of Maryland’s (UMD) journalism college, along with two UMD doctoral students gave a presentation Dec. 12 about a project examining media coverage of lynchings from 1789 to the mid-20th century. 

The presentation provided an overview of Wells’ research, which earned one of the inaugural Social Data (SoDa) Seed Grants for its exploration of social media misinformation, vulnerable community infrastructure, and racial injustice. 

“There have been other studies, quite a few actually, about lynching and news coverage, but none have had the ability to look at time and over region,” Wells said. “We’re making this contribution to the literature.”  

Wells taught a course, “Lynching and the Press”, this past semester where 13 journalism students conducted research for the project by digging through historic newspaper articles and data tables covering lynchings. The class analyzed metadata of 60,000 pages of news coverage in the Library of Congress’ Chronicling America database and conducted a computational text analysis of a stratified sample, Wells said. 

The research found that some news reports normalized racial violence with descriptions of lynch mobs as citizens advocating for justice. The project also sampled 714 newspaper articles from the Black press and concluded that Black newspaper articles were more likely to emphasize civil society narratives such as the legal system instead of descriptions of violence. 

The project is an extension of the award-winning 2021 project called Printing Hate, where students partnered with UMD’s Howard Center for Investigative Journalism to examine case studies of different lyching coverage. 

“Overall our research is seeking to understand structural racism and newspaper coverage,” Wells said. “We really believe our findings will provide new historical evidence of how newspapers in many cases help perpetuate racial narratives — ones that scholars believe contributed to violence.” 

Watch the full presentation here.