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Documenting Hate

I Spent Three Years Running a Collaboration Across Newsrooms. Here’s What I Learned.



Photo: Pexels

ProPublica worked with close to 200 newsrooms in the U.S. to crowdsource hate crimes and bias incidents as part of our Documenting Hate project. The collaboration is wrapping up, but its lessons are worth remembering.

ProPublica’s Documenting Hate collaboration comes to a close next month after nearly three years. It brought together hundreds of newsrooms around the country to cover hate crimes and bias incidents.

The project started because we wanted to gather as much data as we could, to find untold stories and to fill in gaps in woefully inadequate federal data collection on hate crimes. Our approach included asking people to tell us their stories of experiencing or witnessing hate crimes and bias incidents.

As a relatively small newsroom, we knew we couldn’t do it alone. We’d have to work with partners - lots of them - to reach the biggest possible audience. So we published a tip form in English and Spanish, and recruited newsrooms around the country to share it with their readers.

We ended up working with more than 180 partners to report stories based on the leads we collected and the data we gathered. Partnering with national, local and ethnic media, we were able to investigate individual hate incidents and patterns in how hate manifested itself on a national scale. (While the collaboration between newsrooms is coming to an end, ProPublica will continue covering hate crimes and hate groups.)

Our partners reported on kids getting harassed in schoolmiddle schoolers forming a human swastikahate crime convictionsIvy League vandalismhate incidents at Walmarts and the phrase “go back to your country,” to name just a few. Since the project began in 2017, we received more than 6,000 submissions, gathered hundreds of public records on hate crimes and published more than 230 stories.

Projects like Documenting Hate are part of the growing phenomenon of collaborative data journalism, which involves many newsrooms working together around a single, shared data source.

If you’re working on such a collaboration or considering starting one, I’ve written a detailed guidebook to collaborative data projects, which is also available in Spanish and Portuguese. But as the project winds down, I wanted to share some broader lessons we’ve learned about managing large-scale collaborations:

Overshare information. Find as many opportunities as possible to explain how the project works, the resources available and how to access them. Journalists are busy and are constantly deluged with information, so using any excuse to remind them of what they need to know benefits everyone involved. I used introductory calls, onboarding materials, training documents and webinars as a way to do this.

Prepare for turnover. More than 500 journalists joined Documenting Hate over its nearly three-year run. But more than 170 left the newsrooms with which they were associated at the beginning of their participation in the project, either because they got a new job, were laid off, left journalism or their company went under. Sometimes journalists would warn me they were leaving, but most of the time I had to figure it out from email bounces. Sadly, it was rare that reporters changing jobs would rejoin.

Be understanding about the news cycle. Intense news cycles, whether it’s hurricanes or political crises, mean that reporters are not only going to get pulled away from the project but from their daily work, too. Days with breaking news may mean trainings or calls need to be rescheduled and publication dates bumped back. It’s important to be flexible on scheduling and timelines.

Adapt to the realities of the beat. It’s not uncommon for crime victims, especially hate-crime victims, to be reluctant to go on the record or even speak to journalists. Their cases are difficult to report out and verify. So like in a lot of beats, a promising lead doesn’t guarantee an achievable story. Crowdsourced data made the odds even longer in many cases, since we didn’t receive tips for every partner. That’s why it’s important to set expectations and offer context and guidance about the beat from the outset.

Expand your offerings. Given the aforementioned challenges, it’s a good idea to diversify potential story sources. We made a log of hate-crime-related public records requests at ProPublica for our reporting, and we made those records available to partners. We also offered a weekly newsletter with news clips and new reports/data from external sources, monthly webinars and guidance on investigating hate crimes.

Be flexible on communication strategies. Even though Slack can be useful for quick communication, especially among large groups, not everyone likes to use it or knows how. Email is what I’ve used most consistently, but reporters’ inboxes tend to pile up, and sometimes calling is easiest. Some journalists are heavy WhatsApp users, and I get through to them fastest there. Holding webinars and trainings is helpful to get some virtual face time, and sending event invites is another way you can get someone’s attention amid a crowded inbox. It’s useful to get a sense of the methods to which people are most responsive.

Celebrate success stories. There is a huge amount of work that doesn’t end up seeing the light of day, so I make an effort to signal-boost work that gets produced. I’ve highlighted big stories that ProPublica and our partners have done to show other partners how they can do similar work or localize national stories. Amplifying these stories by sharing on social and in newsletters, as well as featuring them in webinars, can help inspire more great work.

Be diligent about tracking progress. Our database software has a built-in tracking system for submissions, but I separately track stories produced from the project, news clips and interviews that mention the project, as well as impact from reporting. I keep on top of stories partners are working on, and I also use Google Alerts, internal PR emails and daily clip searches.

Evaluate your work. I’m surveying current and past Documenting Hate participants to get feedback and gauge how participants felt about working with us. I’m also going to write a post-mortem on the project to leave behind a record of the lessons we learned.

This article was originally published by ProPublica. ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up to receive our biggest stories as soon as they’re published.

This story was co-published with Nieman Lab.

Documenting Hate

Three W.Va. Corrections Employees Fired, Others Suspended Following Nazi Salute Photo



Photo: Courtesy West Virginia Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety

This is a developing story originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting and will be updated.

West Virginia officials have announced that three individuals have been fired and 34 others have been suspended without pay as a result of an investigation into a photo of corrections trainees giving the Nazi salute. However, the Governor’s Office and the agency in charge of the state’s corrections’ program aren’t yet releasing the identities of those involved or the original photo in question. 

A blurred version of the photo, released Thursday by state officials, shows 31 people who were members of Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s Basic Training Class #18. 

The Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety said in a Friday news release that the three terminations include two correctional academy trainers and one of the class cadets in the photo. 

The release also states the other trainees in the photo remain suspended without pay. The state’s policy overseeing their suspension does allow the employees to apply any earned annual leave to their suspension, allowing them to continue to get paid.

Investigators have conducted more than 50 interviews at the Glenville, West Virginia, academy– where the training for the class of cadets in question took place between Oct. 21 and Nov. 27— and other facilities. Department Secretary Jeff Sandy estimates that the investigation, which is being reviewed by himself, corrections commissioner Betsy Jividen and their leadership teams, is nearing completion. 

Sandy also says that until the investigation is complete– and because of personnel rules and protections outlined in West Virginia’s civil service system– the release of names and disciplinary status of the individuals in the photo as well as an unredacted version of it remains pending. At a news conference Friday, Sandy and West Virginia Governor Jim Justice cited legal concerns over the release of such information.

Rabbi Victor Urecki of Charleston, West Virginia’s, B’nai Jacob Synagogue said he and other faith leaders in the community were shown an unredacted version of the photo Wednesday. 

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Documenting Hate

Once Defiant, All Four White Supremacists Charged in Charlottesville Violence Plead Guilty



White nationalist demonstrators walk through town Aug. 12, 2017, after their rally was declared illegal near Lee Park in Charlottesville, Va. Photo: Steve Helber/AP Photo, File

Guilty pleas last week by two prominent members of the Rise Above Movement came after pledges to fight federal charges and claims that those jailed were political prisoners punished for their controversial views.

Last year, when federal authorities arrested and charged four members or associates of a white supremacist gang for their roles in the infamous 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, the men and their supporters struck a defiant tone.

The men proclaimed their innocence, and their backers described them in social media posts as “patriots” and “political prisoners.” The gang, known as the Rise Above Movement and based in Southern California, set up an anonymous tip line for people to share evidence that might exonerate the imprisoned members, and it established a legal defense fund, with donations taken via PayPal and bitcoin.

But in the following months, the men, one after the other, have pleaded guilty. Last Friday saw the final two guilty pleas, including one from Ben Daley, 26, one of the group’s leaders. He was joined by Michael Miselis, 30, a former Northrop Grumman aerospace engineer. The men pleaded guilty to conspiracy to riot.

“These avowed white supremacists traveled to Charlottesville to incite and commit acts of violence, not to engage in peaceful First Amendment expression,” U.S. Attorney Thomas T. Cullen said in announcing the guilty pleas. “Although the First Amendment protects an organization’s right to express abhorrent political views, it does not authorize senseless violence in furtherance of a political agenda.”

The Rise Above Movement and its role in the violence in Charlottesville in 2017 and at rallies in other cities was the subject of reporting by ProPublica and Frontline, work the authorities have credited in taking action against the men. Federal prosecutors in California are pursuing charges against four other RAM members, including its founder, Robert Rundo.

The plea documents filed during Friday’s court proceedings in Charlottesville lay out a detailed narrative of what the authorities say were RAM’s repeated acts of violence two years ago.

The narrative chronicles RAM’s combat training and the visual evidence capturing its members attacking protesters, including in Charlottesville, where, the authorities spell out, they “collectively pushed, punched, kicked, choked, head-butted, and otherwise assaulted several individuals, resulting in a riot.”

In pleading guilty, the authorities said, Daley and Miselis admitted their actions were not in self-defense.

In the contemporary white supremacist scene, RAM had positioned itself as the violent vanguard of the movement, a successor to the volatile and hyper-aggressive skinhead gangs that were prevalent during the 1980s and 1990s. Since its formation in 2016, the group has recruited several members of the Hammerskin Nation, the largest skinhead gang in the country, which has been tied to numerous killings, including the massacre of six Sikh worshippers at a temple outside Milwaukee.

Though RAM has eschewed the skinhead style — combat boots and bomber jackets — in favor of a more mainstream look, its members have embraced the bloody tactics of the Nazi skinhead gangs.

Miselis, a onetime engineering student at UCLA, was fired from his job at Northrop Grumman after ProPublica and Frontline exposed his membership in RAM. In a companywide email, then-CEO Wesley Bush said he was “deeply saddened yesterday to see news reports alleging that one of our employees engaged in violence as part of the Charlottesville protests.” Miselis held a government-issued security clearance while at Northrop, a major defense contractor, though the company has so far declined to say what projects Miselis was assigned to.

Rundo, who was living in Orange County at the time of his arrest, has also portrayed the federal prosecutions as a miscarriage of justice. “The rioting charges brought against us have not been used in 70 years,” Rundo said in a jailhouse interview posted on YouTube in February. “This has little to do with rioting and all to do with censorship and silencing anyone that they deem too radical by today’s standards.”

In the interview, Rundo blamed the media for demonizing RAM and described the group as a self-improvement club for white men.

Rundo has pleaded not guilty, and he could be headed to trial.

The RAM prosecutions have become something of a cause celebre for the racist right. Augustus Invictus, a fringe political figure and attorney, has set up a legal defense fund to solicit donations for the RAM members facing charges. “The federal government has taken an absolute political hard line against the right wing,” Invictus said in a 53-minute YouTube video discussing the case. The video has generated more than 22,000 views and nearly 700 comments, most of them sympathetic to RAM and many of them racist, anti-Semitic and Islamophobic.

One of RAM’s most infamous supporters is Robert Bowers, the Pennsylvania man accused of murdering 11 congregants at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh last October. Shortly before the massacre, Bowers posted a message decrying the RAM prosecutions on Gab, a far-right social media platform. Bowers has pleaded not guilty in the unfolding case.

This story was originally published by ProPublica and was co-published with Frontline PBS.

ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom based in New York. Sign up for ProPublica’s Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox as soon as they are published.

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Documenting Hate

Safety Concerns Force Postponement of Rally Opposing White Nationalists



UPDATED April 27, 2017:

Organizers say they have postponed a counter-rally organized by local youth due to “previously unforeseen credible threats to the safety of our attendees and our community,” according to organizer Ariana Velasquez.

The “Rally for Equality and American Values” had previously been moved from a centrally located city park to the local college campus, which is further from downtown and is a weapon-free zone.

Earlier this week, the city issued a ban on masks and hoods, which Pikeville City Manager Donovan Blackburn described as stemming from online rumors that counter-protest groups could be coming into town with the intention of inciting riots.

Velasquez announced that event had been postponed on the counter-rally’s Facebook event page. A new date has not yet been announced.

What do you do when neo-Nazis choose your town as the site for their rally? That’s the question currently facing Pikeville, Kentucky. Local organizers have chosen to focus on pulling attention away from the hate.

Last February, an organization of neo-Nazis and white nationalists announced plans to hold a rally in Pikeville — one of the biggest towns in the Appalachian coalfields, with a population just under 7,000.


Youth-led Counter Rally

Ariana Velasquez, a student a Pikeville High School, decided that if neo-Nazis were going to march in her hometown, she was going to organize a counter-rally. The morning after the event was announced, she launched a Facebook event for The Rally for Equality and American Values. Velazquez said it took off right away with thousands of responses and attention from national and international media.

Velasquez and other volunteers have lined up speakers and bands to perform on the campus of the University of Pikeville, away from where the neo-Nazis plan to march. Keeping crowds away from potential conflict is a key ingredient for how Velasquez envisions the event.

“It’s non-partisan, it’s non-violent, it’s a very peaceful event,” she said.

The Rally for Equality And American Values poster designed by J.J. Waters.

The Next County Over

Originally, the Nationalist Front planned to hold a retreat at Jenny Wiley State Park in neighboring Floyd County. After public outcry, the park told the group that they needed to remake their reservation, and would need to pay extra for security costs. The retreat has now been moved to private property. But that hasn’t stopped residents of Floyd County from continuing to organize in opposition.

Patrick Davis started a Facebook page for Floyd County events called  “Unity for a Diverse Appalachia”. Much like the rally in Pikeville, the plans for Floyd County are designed to draw people and attention away from the neo-Nazis.

“Groups like this, they gain momentum by getting themselves in the press,” Davis explained. “So what we’re trying to do is fill the news with positive messages that hopefully will eat up their news coverage.”

Davis and other volunteers are organizing a tree-planting the day before the neo-Nazi rally, which Davis hopes will “clear the air” in more than one sense.

In Floyd County April has also been declared Diversity Month by the Mayor of the county seat. Davis is working to tie that to a social media campaign, encouraging people to post stories of diversity in their family and community using the hashtag#diversityappalachia.

“We want to fill Facebook with family history, what groups came into the area. And we want to break this idea that Appalachia is just this homogeneous, one-ethnicity group,” he said. “We want to show that there’s a diverse culture here.”

Few Signs of New Recruits

The neo-Nazi event is backed by the Nationalist Front, which is a partnership of neo-nazi and white nationalist groups. Their organizers are based across the Midwest. In statements, the groups said they say they chose eastern Kentucky because it’s a high-poverty area that’s predominantly white and voted heavily for President Trump.

Davis said he hasn’t heard anyone openly support the groups coming into town. And Velasquez said what she’s read from the groups doesn’t line up what she’s heard from local Trump supporters.

Instead, she’s heard mainly from people who are disturbed that these groups think they could represent the area. Velasquez emphasized that Pikeville has a lot of veterans, and that means many people have family members who fought against the Nazis in World War II.

Velazquez said the groups have “fed into the stereotype that we’re a bunch of racist hicks around here, and clearly that’s not the case.”

Velasquez says she expects a diverse turnout for the counter rally on April 29, including veterans, Muslim and Jewish communities and other religious groups, the medical immigrant community, scouting troops, elected officials, and even a former Miss Kentucky.

As Velasquez described the event, it’s meant to be a place “for people to stand up for peace, diversity, and love, and to stand up against neo-Nazis and everything they represent.”

Interviews for this story were conducted by Elizabeth Sanders of WMMT. You can find the extended interviews here.

This story was originally produced by Ohio Valley ReSource.

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