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Jan. 23, 2017, 9:24 a.m.
Reporting & Production

ProPublica is leading a nationwide effort to document hate crimes, with local and national partners

“We’re not alone in trying to compile the numbers, and we’re not alone in trying to track all reports.”

A family’s garage vandalized with an image of a swastika and a hateful message targeted at Arabs. Jewish community centers receiving bomb threats. These are just a slice of the incidents of hate across the country after the election of Donald Trump — but getting reliable data on the prevalence of hate and bias crimes to answer questions about whether these sorts of crimes are truly on the rise is nearly impossible.

ProPublica, which led an effort of more than a thousand reporters and students across the U.S. to cover voting problems on Election Day as part of its Electionland project, is now leaning on the collaborative and data-driven Electionland model to track and cover hate crimes.

Documenting Hate, launched last week, is a hate and bias crime-tracking project headed up by ProPublica and supported by a coalition of news and digital media organizations, universities, and civil rights groups like Southern Poverty Law Center (which has been tracking hate groups across the country). Like Electionland, the project is seeking local partners, and will share its data with and guide local reporters interested in writing relevant stories.

“Hate crimes are inadequately tracked,” Scott Klein, assistant manager editor at ProPublica, said. “Local police departments do not report up hate crimes in any consistent way, so the federal data is woefully inadequate, and there’s no good national data on hate crimes. The data is at best locked up by local police departments, and the best we can know is a local undercount.”

Documenting Hate offers a form for anyone to report a hate or bias crime (emphasizing that “we are not law enforcement and will not report this information to the police,” nor will it “share your name and contact information with anybody outside our coalition without your permission”). ProPublica is working with Meedan (whose verification platform Check it also used for Electionland) and crowdsourced crisis-mapping group Ushahidi, as well as several journalism schools, to verify reports coming in through social channels. Ken Schwencke, who helped build the infrastructure for Electionland, is now focused on things like building backend search databases for Documenting Hate, which can be shared with local reporters. The hope is that many stories, interactives, and a comprehensive national database will emerge and paint a fuller picture of the scope of hate crimes in the U.S.

ProPublica is actively seeking local partners, who will have access to the data as well as advice on how to report on sensitive information (no partners to announce just yet, though there’s been plenty of inbound interest, according to Klein). Some of the organizations working with ProPublica were already seeking reader stories of their own.

Univision, a Documenting Hate launch partner, has been working with ProPublica for the past four years on investigations and was also an Electionland partner. María Sánchez, a digital journalist on Univision’s innovation team, told me the coalition was a way to broaden the range of people who were sharing incidents (the online magazine The Root is also a partner). Univision News reporters already have a good sense of the immigrant experience, a useful lens through which to understand how hate crimes are (or are not) reported.

“Many of the people who suffer hate incidents in the United States — for example, Hispanic immigrants — have already got in touch with us through a WhatsApp number we enabled to listen to their stories after the election. Some of them are not fluent in English, and it would be hard for them to fill out the form we have put up in English,” she said. “With the participation of more partners like us, I think we will be able to make this project more inclusive, not only to Spanish-speaking people, but to more minority groups or language groups who are often the target of hate.”

The New York Times opinion section is also part of the coalition. (Not using the Times newsroom was a specific strategic decision, staff editor Taylor Adams told me: The opinion section had been running a “This Week in Hate” column since after the election in which it sought reader input, making it a ready partner. There’s a strict divide between the Times newsroom and the opinion section, and the newsroom could very well be considering a partnership — “we wouldn’t know.”)

“A lot of our readers have been writing in and asking if there has, in fact, has been a rise in hate crimes — whether we can document that — and if so, how large an increase,” Anna North, staff editor at the Times, said. “Everyone involved in this project will now have access to a centralized data source, which will help us answer some of those questions. There are a number of places where people can report instances of hate crimes, but these places don’t necessarily all talk to one another. Each partner can work on their strength — we’re not alone in trying to compile the numbers, and we’re not alone in trying to track all reports.”

Klein demurred when asked if this was a project ProPublica would host in perpetuity, or whether there was a timeframe to any of the work.

“We don’t think in perpetuity, and I don’t want to make conjectures,” he said. “The goal is to do great journalism.”

POSTED     Jan. 23, 2017, 9:24 a.m.
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