Lynching and the Press, 1789-1963

Rob Wells, University of Maryland
Sean Mussenden, University of Maryland
Mohamed Salama, University of Maryland
Hailey Closson, Philip Merrill College of Journalism, University of Maryland

We present initial results from an extensive examination of media coverage of lynching from 1789 to the current era. Researchers examined 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. We find that some news reports sought to normalize this violence by describing members of lynch mobs as citizens seeking to pursue justice. A similar examination of Black press coverage showed divergent priorities in news narratives from mainstream, primarily white-owned newspapers. Our sample of 714 Black newspaper articles tended to emphasize civil society narratives such as the legal system and court proceedings whereas descriptions of violence had greater prominence in a sample of 1,387 mainstream newspaper articles. The disparity suggests Black newspaper coverage was more focused on bringing members of the lynch mob to justice. The metadata analysis of newspaper coverage reveals potentially hundreds of cases of lynching victims prior to the U.S. Civil War. This finding could be significant since the bulk of scholarship and analysis of lynching in the U.S. focuses on the period after the Civil War. We also discovered that newspaper lynching coverage did not keep pace with the heavy lynching activity in the 1880s and early 1890s and lagged the the actual incidence of lynching until 1893. After that point, news coverage exceeded actual lynchings through the 1920s. The growth in news coverage after 1893 coincided with the high profile reporting by journalist Ida B. Wells and greater pressure on the federal government by Black civil society to prosecute lynchings.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 24. New Perspectives on Mob Violence in the South