By Sandy K. Johnson

In the month after the 2016 elections, the Southern Poverty Law Center noted a dramatic surge in hate incidents across the country.

The rapid escalation of hate acts against people of color, religious minorities and the LGBTQ community poses many questions for journalists. What is the legal definition of a hate crime? Where is the bar for law officers to investigate, or to prosecute? How do journalists differentiate between a hate crime and an act of bullying that is protected as free speech?

Each state law differs, and Jesse Holland, race and ethnicity reporter for The Associated Press, encouraged journalists covering crime to know their state’s statute, which is readily available through state attorneys general or local prosecutors.

What turns an act of hate into a hate crime is “whether the perpetrator is motivated by animus” against a particular person or group, said Heidi Beirich, intelligence project director at the SPLC. A crime that is prosecuted as a hate crime can carry additional penalties for the perpetrator.

Since the election, SPLC said 40 percent of hate incidents have occurred at college campuses or K-12 schools – a higher percentage than normal.

Holland said each news organization has its own guidelines for how to cover hate crimes, including whether to report things such as the names of the victims and whether to show photos or videos of the hateful evidence. He said it is not up to journalists to deem an act a “hate crime.” Rather, he said, journalists must rely on law enforcement to say whether something is being investigated or prosecuted as a hate crime.

One thing is certain: Hate crimes are under-reported. SPLC tracks between 5,000-6,000 hate crimes a year. The FBI, meanwhile, estimates there are 250,000 hate crimes a year, almost all undocumented and unreported. Beirich encouraged victims to always report incidents to the police, so there is a record in case the violence escalates. And Holland suggested victims also call local media.

“Sometimes sunshine is the best disinfectant,” he said. “You want people in your community to know what’s happening.”

Holland also said newsrooms should discuss how to cover hate crimes and decide on some standards so such decisions aren’t being made in the heat of the moment.

Some recent examples of hateful acts, for journalists to think about:


*A car belonging to a transgender person in Denver was spray painted with swastikas and “die.”


*A high school in Minnesota was spray painted with swastikas and white supremacist language.

*A white mentally challenged male was assaulted by a group of African-American men shouting obscenities about Donald Trump. They posted video of the assault on Facebook Live.

*An anti-gay, anti-immigrant voice mail was left at a church in Grand Rapids, Michigan.