REPORT: Racial Disparities in 19th, Early 20th Century Reporting through Media Portrayals of Legal Execution 

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By Kayla Meraz 

WASHINGTON, D.C. – In a report from the Death Penalty Information Center, Professor Daniel LaChance exposed a stark contrast in the reporting of executions during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

In his groundbreaking analysis, LaChance unveils how media narratives shaped a disturbing perception, casting legal executions as a ‘high-status punishment’ that subtly upheld racial hierarchies.

Professor LaChance suggests newspaper editors and journalists contributed to a perception of legal executions as a “high-status punishment that respected the whiteness of those who suffered it.”

LaChance emphasizes how portrayals of defendants evolved over time, with a diminishing focus on the humanity of Black men. White men, on the other hand, were consistently presented with empathy to distance capital punishment from the increasingly frowned upon practice of lynching in the South.

Analyzing 667 newspaper articles from the Atlanta Constitution and the New Orleans Times-Picayune between 1877 and 1936, LaChance observed changes in reporting patterns.

In the initial three decades post-Reconstruction, executions, irrespective of the defendant’s race, were extensively covered, depicting the individuals being executed as “sympathetic souls” and “responsible persons” whose humanity was acknowledged during the execution process.

However, the professor writes, by the mid-1890s, a shift occurred, particularly in stories about Black men facing execution. The articles progressively reduced capital punishment to a “dry, technical procedure,” with a 75 percent decrease in the average length of coverage—from 16 paragraphs to four paragraphs.

The presence of quotes from Black defendants in execution stories declined substantially, and the elimination of pictures further contributed to a dehumanizing portrayal, said the report, noting, in contrast, white men’s executions continued to receive extensive coverage, characterized by “sentimental execution narratives.”

Articles during the same period of 1892–1896, said LaChance, averaged 77 paragraphs, portraying condemned white men as tragic heroes and engaging readers in dramatic narratives of life and death.

Professor LaChance argues that this approach served to protect white social solidarity by treating condemned white men as fallen humans rather than vicious beasts.

Professor LaChance contextualizes these trends within the backdrop of lynching practices in the South, noting as public spectacle lynchings of African Americans became more prevalent in the 1890s, the focus on white individuals in articles about capital punishment, despite their minority representation among those executed, helped legitimize the death penalty.

This was especially notable in an era where legal executions in the South were often equated with what he terms “legal lynchings,” the author said.

About The Author

The Vanguard Court Watch operates in Yolo, Sacramento and Sacramento Counties with a mission to monitor and report on court cases. Anyone interested in interning at the Courthouse or volunteering to monitor cases should contact the Vanguard at info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org - please email info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org if you find inaccuracies in this report.

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