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Reporting on hate crimes accurately and sensitively

By John Sadler

Hate crimes are on the rise. According to the FBI’s annual report, near the end of the succeeding year, 2016 was the second year in a row in which reported hate crimes rose.

There is reason to believe this data is not comprehensive, though. It relies on local police reports, many of which are incorrectly classified. And it doesn’t account for unreported crimes.

Data on hate crimes was one of the topics covered in Thursday’s “Investigating hate when the data isn’t there” CAR Conference panel. The panel featured Duaa Eldeib, an investigative reporter for ProPublica Illinois, Melissa Lewis, the data editor and a developer at The Oregonian, Ken Schwencke, a journalist and developer on ProPublica’s news apps team, and Nadine Sebai, an independent radio reporter in the Bay Area.

The panel focused on navigating the sensitive world of reporting on hate crimes. Two of the reporters, Sebai and Schwencke, have worked on ProPublica’s “Documenting Hate” project, a nationwide collaboration to report on crimes that would otherwise be ignored.

Dealing with law enforcement classifications

One of the problems you may face in dealing with reporting on hate crimes is that local police departments differ on what they classify as a hate crime, Schwencke said. Don’t take their word for it — ask more specific questions about how they classify these crimes.

“If they don’t have records, or they have few reports, that’s my favorite because I say, ‘does this mean you’ve had no hate crimes, or that you don’t check hate crimes reported to you?’ And that question tends to shake loose some reports.”

Schwencke said another method of finding hidden reports is to ask for records of hate crimes reported to your local law enforcement agency, compare them to what has been reported to the FBI and see if they match up.

He also recommended filing FOIA requests for documents with any form of discriminatory epithets. “It’ll possibly ruin a FOIA officer’s day, but those things get written into a report,” he said.

Discussing hate crimes with affected minorities

Sitting down with victims of hate crimes can be a difficult experience, and there are techniques to be sure your journalistic due diligence doesn’t give the impression to your source that you are doubtful of their story.

Separately interviewing others that may have witnessed the incident and comparing their accounts is one way to verify the details. Sebai used this solution with a story she was working on.

“(A man I interviewed) had a hate incident walking his dog with his wife across the street, and I interviewed his wife who supposedly was there during the incident … I looked at my transcript with him, and then I interviewed her and I said, ‘OK, does this story match up?,’” she said. The man’s wife verified his story.

Another way is to ask for a timeline of the incident at the beginning of the reporting process, and throughout the remainder of the process, double-check the timeline by asking specific questions.

Eldeib said one of the most useful excuses for double-checking and verifying stories without insulting the interviewee was blaming the process on your editor. “That kind of lessens any potential hostility,” she said.

John Sadler is a journalism student at the University of Missouri.

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