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Class Unearths Newspapers’ Racist Coverage of Lynchings

Journalism Students Use Data Analytics to Comb Through 60K Articles

By Sala Levin ’10

Collage of headlines about lynchings throughout U.S. history

In a new journalism course, students are using data research tools to examine more than 60,000 articles covering lynching, ranging from 1789 to 1965. “What the students are learning is that journalism has some pretty dirty hands when it comes to this episode (of American history)," said Associate Professor Rob Wells.

Collage by Maryland Today Staff

How can an “orderly gathering” in one news report be a “hostile mob” elsewhere? Or one newspaper’s description of “justice served” be another’s “horrific crime”?

In a new University of Maryland journalism course, “Lynching and the Press,” students are using data research skills to examine how newspapers covered the thousands of such killings that took place largely in the southern United States in the 19th and 20th centuries, analyzing how descriptions of the perpetrators, the event and the victim varied based on geography, political leanings and race. The class offers students insight into how journalistic standards have changed over time—and how media coverage and public sentiment are intertwined.

“We’re looking through one of the darkest periods of our history here,” said Rob Wells Ph.D. ’16, associate professor of journalism. “What the students are learning is that journalism has some pretty dirty hands when it comes to this episode (of American history), and may have amplified some of the racist stereotypes that led to these lynchings.”

The course is a successor to “Printing Hate,” a 2021 initiative of the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism that was inspired by the journalism of Washington Post reporter and Philip Merrill College of Journalism Professor DeNeen L. Brown. That project examined the work of mainstream newspapers from the end of Reconstruction to 1965; last year, Wells and Sean Mussenden, Howard Center data editor and senior lecturer, expanded on it to search now-defunct newspapers nationwide for coverage of lynchings from 1789 through 1965. The search turned up 60,000 articles from the Library of Congress covering the more than 5,000 killings that occurred across the country.

Students in the course are using geocoding to pinpoint the city and state where each extrajudicial killing took place and location of the newspaper. Advanced keyword searches allow them to identify the person lynched and what was considered the motivation for the murder.

[Student Journalism Project Sheds Light on Role of White Supremacist Newspapers in Fueling Racial Tension, Violence]

Headlines and characterizations of the victim and the crowd are also topics of focus for the students. A 1906 article in The Newport News Daily Press, for example, included a sub-headline that declared “Black Brute’s Body Riddled with Lead From Farmers Who Wreak Vengeance Upon Him.”

The course offers students the chance to refine—or learn from scratch—skills in coding, large-scale qualitative and quantitative data analysis, and how to “extract a narrative from a data set,” said Wells, all of which are valuable in the current digital media landscape.

In many cases, the victims of the lynchings are “not even described as people but like animals,” said Hailey Closson ’25, one of the students in the class. Many articles, especially those that appeared in Southern newspapers, call those lynched “Negro brutes” or “beasts.” Some may describe the crowd as “hostile,” while others paint a picture of a well-organized group carrying out a reasonable action.

For many students, the class is an opportunity to evaluate how well—or poorly—reporters upheld the tenets of journalism: impartiality, accuracy, fairness. “I think it’s important that we as journalists acknowledge the fact that the history of our profession has not always been perfect,” said Hannah Marszalek ’24.

Wells noted that many of the newspapers don’t provide attribution for the information reported, and that many show “almost no attempt to reach out into the Black community to get their input about what happened. We’re contrasting that with what a modern news organization would do. The students were very shocked to see how poor and biased the reporting was.”

History Ph.D. student Tyriana Evans, the only graduate student in the class, said that the course has reinforced the idea that “journalists are the first to write about history in real time. It’s important to not only analyze this coverage but learn from the past to ensure that future coverage accurately portrays events.”



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