Amid rising attacks on racial, ethnic and religious groups, journalists are navigating the complex terrain around what constitutes a hate crime.
So how can they cover hate crimes and other attacks on vulnerable populations? Here are some tips from a National Press Club Journalism Institute panel on Wednesday.
First, understand what constitutes a hate crime
The FBI defines a hate crime as a traditional offense — like arson, assault, murder or vandalism — with the added element of bias, whether it’s against race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity.
“Someone has to commit a crime. And then law enforcement has to be able to prove that the primary motivation for the commission of the crime was bias on some sort of protected identity characteristic,” said Lecia Brooks, chief of staff at the Southern Poverty Law Center and a public speaker and educator on hate crimes and the American Civil Rights movement.
But proving the motivation behind the crime can be difficult, especially if law enforcement officers are not trained on what to look for.
“There has to be some kind of clear indicators of motivation, including in the language that was used, was rhetoric or bias expressed during the commission of the crime?” Brooks added.
Focus coverage on the community impact whether or not it’s legally classified as a hate crime
While the distinction of a hate crime is important for legal reasons, that definition isn’t necessary for members of a community to feel unsafe.
“Sometimes it doesn’t really matter what the prosecutors say when it comes to community impact. It’s scary for them no matter what,” said Moriah Balingit, a Washington Post reporter covering national education issues, and president of the Washington, D.C., chapter of the Asian American Journalists Association.
“For example, the shootings of Asian women in Atlanta: We knew that he targeted spas allegedly, and that he allegedly wanted to erase the sexual temptations. That sent tremors of fear through Asian American communities everywhere among women. It didn’t matter that eventually, yes, the prosecutor is charging it as a hate crime.”
As journalists wait to learn more from an investigation, Brooks suggests they reach out to community members directly to ask whether or not they feel something is a hate crime.
“This allows the community to have agency and voice about what they’re thinking regardless of what happens with the investigation,” she said. “You should at the same time, push law enforcement to ask them: Are you investigating this as a hate crime? Why or why not?”
Also recognize that none of these incidents happen in isolation
“Whenever there’s rhetoric that targets a particular group, you’re going to see an increase in hate crimes or hate incidents that target that particular group,” Brooks said. “It’s important for journalists to keep a check on elected officials, and to check them for the rhetoric and the misinformation and the disinformation that they put out.”
To add nuance to reporting, focus on the whole community rather than the community under attack
“Nobody is ever just a victim,” Balingit said. “We should really avoid making people in communities this two dimensional, just the recipient of abuse and hate because they often have community solutions.”
She recommends making connections through church groups, civic organizations and other touchpoints of a community.
“Start having conversations just like you might do if you were starting to cover City Hall,” she said. “You might not get a story, but you’ll get to understand what the animating issues are. I’ve gotten really good stories that way, just by showing up.”
“There’s always a group of individuals who are pushing back against hate,” Brooks said. “Journalists could do a better job in covering them, covering community response, covering counter rallies.”
Allow extra time in interviews for sources to open up
“We forget that someone who has been through an extreme experience with hate when they’re speaking with you, it might only be their first or second time they’re opening up about it,” said Tara Rosenblum, an award-winning senior investigative reporter for the News 12 Network. “Realize that people express pain and trauma … in so many ways beyond words. They express it through art, through poetry, through music … There’s tentacles to trauma, and it’s not always going to be in the most obvious verbal forms during an interview.”
Finally, don’t stop reporting — or filing public record requests — after covering the breaking news story
“Keep churning out the stories on it,” Rosenblum said. “If you’re filling out the FOIA reports — especially for those agencies that aren’t cooperating with you — when they know that there’s eyes on them, and you’re not going away, it makes a difference when it comes to accountability.”
“I would become extremely familiar with the federal, state and local statutes. Know them inside and out. Know them better than the cops know them, and then audit the department and say: Are you doing this? Are you reporting? … Why are you not sending these decisions to the FBI?” Balingit said. “I think that gives you some really good grounding for some good accountability reporting about whether they’re doing what they probably should be doing — in some cases are legally required to do — when it comes to addressing hate crimes.”
“Agencies can report zero hate crimes taking place, and there’s no accountability whatsoever,” Brooks said. “I think that journalists can really bring a lot of pressure on law enforcement agencies to not only be responsive to their communities but to the nation.”
President Biden signed the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act into law in May. The bipartisan legislation seeks to improve the reporting of local incidents to the FBI. It also approves additional resources for states to implement new training for law enforcement on the prevention and response to hate crimes, as well as establishing state-run hate crime reporting hotlines.
“What it boils down to at the end of the day is: Are our communities safer in six months — in a year from now — than they were before this legislation was passed?” said Rosenblum. “Reach out to your local law enforcement agencies … to get the crime data. Reach out to civil and human rights organizations, these other groups that have been screaming for more accurate data collection on these types of crimes for years. Let them know you’re interested.”
The Institute offered “Hate crime coverage: How journalists can get it right” at no cost thanks to a generous grant from the Gannett Foundation.