In the weeks following the Presidential election in November, reports rolled in of a spate of hate crimes across the country. Swastikas and racial slurs were painted on public walls. A white man in Nashville shouted from his truck at a woman in a hijab, telling her to go back to her country and take “her terrorist son” with her. More women across the country received rape threats.
Scott Klein, from his office at the nonprofit investigative news organization ProPublica, began to wonder: were hate crimes truly spiking, or had the aftermath of the election heightened awareness of incidences that had been occurring at this rate all along?
The question was a difficult one to answer. “Hate crimes are tracked quite poorly in America,” Klein says. The Federal Bureau of Investigation technically maintains a database of hate crimes and bias incidences, comprised of reports from states and local jurisdictions. But there’s no rubric for how these crimes are reported–some do so voluntarily, and some, like Honolulu, chose not to report any hate crimes at all. Consequently, the reported increase in hate crimes, from 5,479 in 2014 to 5,850 in 2015, is not backed by comprehensive reporting.
Klein consulted with the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which counted 1,094 reports of hate between November 9 and December 12. The SPLC told Klein that the number was unusually high, but, as with the FBI count, there was not enough concrete data collected over time to verify a real trend.
In response, ProPublica launched Documenting Hate, a project to comprehensively track hate crimes and bias incidences. The platform, which launched this week, is backed by a large coalition of news organizations, nonprofits, universities, and civil rights groups, including the SPLC, The New York Times opinion section, and Univision, as well as social media verification experts from First Draft News. Documenting Hate offers two portals–one for individuals to report incidences of bias or hate, and the other for journalists to get involved. The point of the platform, Klein says, is to get reliable statistics and reports into the hands of journalists who will do justice by stories that are deserving of a wider audience and context. The first-person reports submitted to Documenting Hate will be kept private (to protect the identity of people who submit to the platform) and logged into a database that ProPublica plans to share with interested journalists, who will build out Documenting Hate’s raw data into fully reported stories.
ProPublica is no stranger to corralling a large force around crowdsourcing efforts. The idea for Documenting Hate, Klein says, arose from Electionland, the daylong initiative ProPublica ran on November 8 to collect, in real time, reports of the voting experience in America, from intimidation to fraud to the effects of the Voting Rights Act rollback. ProPublica directed a team of 1,100 people to field social media data and first-person reports collected through Electionland’s dedicated text line; journalistic analyses of the data followed the initial reporting.
Documenting Hate will take that same on-the-ground approach to data collection, but translate it to a year-long project. “We’re going to be casting a wide net for data sources,” Klein says, in the hopes of filling in the rampant gaps in the national landscape of hate-crime data. To that end, Klein deliberately shies away from assigning a set of criteria to the stories ProPublica hopes to collect through Documenting Hate. “I think the less we tell people what we don’t want to hear, the better,” Klein says. “Because unfortunately, some racist or sexist incidences have become routine. I don’t want people to decide that we are not interested in their story, because we are.”
Documenting Hate will span at least this whole year, but Klein hasn’t set a hard and fast timeframe to the project. The goal, Klein says, is not just to run an experiment in data collection, but to make sure that discussions on hate crimes and bias incidences–which will remain very much at the forefront of national dialogue over the next year–“will be backed by the best possible data.”