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Ida B. Wells used data journalism to fight lynching

(R. Gates/Hulton Archive/Getty)

Ida B. Wells, who would have turned 153 today, is usually called something along the lines of a "crusading journalist" or a "journalist and advocate." Those are accurate descriptions — her journalism was in the service of ending lynching in the United States and promoting the civil rights of African Americans. But they're also loaded phrases. At best, they imply that the journalism being done is based in emotion and rhetoric rather than facts: a particularly deeply felt hot take. At worst, they imply that the journalist in question is outright twisting the facts to shape her bias.

Wells was an advocate, and she wrote plenty of editorial commentary attacking lynching at the turn of the 20th century. But she was also a rigorous journalist. In fact, today we would probably call some of her work "data journalism."

In 1895, Wells published The Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynching in the United States, 1892-1894. She continued to use quantitative work on lynching throughout her career (including statistics compiled by her hometown newspaper, the Chicago Tribune). She used statistics not just to make her point, but to shape the terms of the debate — to force other critics of lynching, as well as defenders, to reckon with the facts about why white mobs lynched (mostly black) victims.

Check out an article she wrote called "Lynching and the Excuse For It," which was published in a magazine called the Independent in 1901 as a response to an essay by fellow Chicago justice pioneer Jane Addams. Addams was against lynching, but tried to give its participants the benefit of the doubt: that they "honestly believe that that is the only successful method of dealing with a certain class of crimes."

Charity has its place. But not when it requires ignoring the facts. And Wells had the facts. Her response to Addams presented some of the data that had been compiled in the Chicago Tribune over the past several years, showing not only that lynchings weren't limited to black men accused of raping white women (as was the predominant myth then and now), but that they weren't limited to people accused of crimes at all:

Men, not a few, but hundreds, have been lynched for misdemeanors, while others have suffered death for no offense known to the law, the causes assigned being "mistaken identity," "insult," "bad reputation," "unpopularity," "violating contract," "violating quarantine," "giving evidence," "frightening child by shooting at rabbits," etc. Then, strangest of all, the record shows that the sum total of lynchings for these offenses — not crimes — and for the alleged offenses which are only misdemeanors greatly exceeds the lynchings for the very crime universally declared to be the cause of lynching.

The essay is two and a half pages long, and a fair bit of that is charts. You should read the whole thing. At its close, Wells offers a soaring defense of data journalism as a tool of social justice — one that rings true to anyone who's been frustrated over the last year with the paucity of official statistics on police shootings of unarmed black men, or who's had to argue with someone who refuses to consider facts in the name of he said/she said equivocation:

No good result can come from any investigation which refuses to consider the facts. A conclusion that is based upon a presumption, instead of the best evidence, is unworthy of a moment's consideration...The Christian and moral forces of the nation should insist that misrepresentation should have no place in the discussion of this all-important question, that the figures of the lynching record should be allowed to plead, trumpet-tongued, in defense of the slandered dead[.]