The Strange Career of Judge Lynch: How Newspapers Covered Lynching in the United States 1880-1950

Charles Seguin, Pennsylvania State University
Marjan Davoodi, The Pennsylvania State University

Newspaper coverage of lynching in the United States served at times to legitimate and motivate lynching, and at other times to shame lynch mobs and the communities that supported them. It is generally acknowledged that newspaper coverage of lynching became more critical of lynch mobs over time, and this critical coverage helped to end the practice by shaming communities it covered. However, little is known about the broad contours of lynching coverage. Studies of lynching in the media generally focus on one or two ways that newspapers framed lynching, or single actors who influenced coverage such as Ida B Wells or the NAACP. As a result we have little sense of which frames dominated coverage of lynching in the nations newspapers and when. In this paper we gather and digitize all articles mentioning “lynching” or “lynched” in the New York Times and Atlanta Constitution from 1880-1950. We use keyword-assisted topic modeling, an automated document clustering method, to analyze the frames which newspapers used in stories in newspapers. We document the dominance of a “rough justice” frame through the 1880s and early 1890s, which is first supplanted by “civilization” and “due-process” frames, and later by a “civil rights” frame. Our results confirm broad historical understandings of lynching discourse in the national newspapers, while supporting some more historical specific chronologies and typologies over others.

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 Presented in Session 127. Narrative and Counter-Narratives of White Supremacist Violence in the Postbellum South