Hate in America
Students travel the country to investigate hate
By Stephanie Cook (MJour'18)
Ashley Hopko (Jour’19) surveyed the Hattiesburg, Mississippi, landscape as 93-year-old Ellie Dahmer sat in a chair nearby. The two chatted about gardening. Dahmer loves blue flowers, she told Hopko. They remind her of her husband.
A leader in the civil rights movement and former president of the Forrest County, Mississippi, chapter of the NAACP, Vernon Dahmer—Ellie’s husband—died of smoke inhalation in 1966 after the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan firebombed the family’s farm in the middle of the night. As Vernon exchanged gunshots with members of the Klan, Ellie and three of their children escaped through a window. Ellie rebuilt a home on the same land and still lives there more than five decades later.
Over the summer, Hopko and other students interviewed Ellie and her daughter, Bettie, as part of the Carnegie-Knight News21 fellowship program. Afterward, the group toured the still-operational Dahmer farm.
“They’d just walked us through this event that ultimately lost them their husband and dad,” Hopko says. “It was almost a story of recovery, how they’ve moved on with their life and family business. It was overwhelming.”
Based at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, Carnegie-Knight News21 is a national reporting initiative that brings together top journalism students from across the country to produce in-depth reporting and multimedia projects for major media outlets, including The Washington Post, NBC News and USA Today.
As fellows in the program, CMCI students Hopko and Tessa Diestel (Jour’18) worked with 36 other students from 19 universities to report on hate crimes, racism and intolerance in 36 states. The result is an ambitious project called Hate in America, which includes a feature-length documentary, longform stories, a blog, a podcast, data analysis and photo stories. The team also collaborated with ProPublica on its Documenting Hate project, and with the Anti-Defamation League.
Diestel compared the experience to a bootcamp. In 10 weeks, she co-produced the documentary American Hate while conducting interviews and shooting video footage in California, Oregon and Florida. The experience was emotionally charged and logistically challenging.
In Los Angeles, she reported on the murder of Viccky Gutierrez, a Latina transwoman who was stabbed and burned in her own home.
“My team and I visited her apartment a few months after this happened, and it was still charred and being cleaned out,” Diestel says. “It was difficult to stand outside and look at her apartment and think about the horrific way that she died.”
On another assignment, in downtown Portland, Oregon, Diestel and four other students filmed a clash between supporters of the far-right group Patriot Prayer and anti-fascists.
“I found that it was very difficult to interview anyone who was protesting because they did not want to be on camera, show their face or tell me their real name,” she says.
Hopko conducted interviews throughout Mississippi and in rural Texas. She spoke with sources who’d been impacted by hate, or who identified with a range of social groups and ideologies, including an antifeminist classified as an “alt-right mommy,” undocumented and documented Latino immigrants, and families whose lives had been torn apart by the KKK.
“I still don’t understand why people have such extreme hate in their hearts for certain groups of people, but one thing that did surprise me: They’re still humans, and they still share certain traits of humanity that everyone else does,” she says.
Her work on the project also put her face to face with a former KKK grand wizard, and the experience was far different from her expectations.
“One thing that was eye opening and slightly startling for me to realize is that people’s personalities are extraordinarily complex,” she says. “It’s impossible to stereotype a person. Just because they’re friendly and outgoing and have a compassionate personality doesn’t mean they might not be extremely racist or have biased beliefs that don’t align with what you might see when you first meet them.”
The students also met with groups working to stem hate and aid victims.
Hopko spoke to people from the Southern Poverty Law Center and Anti-Defamation League, and Diestel interviewed officials from the Guatemalan-Maya Center in Palm Beach County, Florida; the TransLatin@ coalition, based in Los Angeles, California; and the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department Hate Crime unit.
For Hopko, the fellowship was far more emotional and fulfilling than she’d anticipated, and it shaped the type of work she hopes to do after graduating this spring, she says.
“This was a total career shift for me, and I’m walking out of this with a renewed passion for the industry and enthusiasm for my future,” she says. “Before this, I didn’t think I wanted to do anything nearly as investigative, but I kind of fell in love with it during the program.”
Diestel, who graduated and works as a social media manager while pursuing a career in broadcast journalism, agrees that the experience was formative.
“With a project like this, I think it’s difficult to walk away from it without the people and their stories impacting you,” she says. “After all, that’s why we do it. We believe these stories are important and can have a bigger impact, if only they get told.”
Anna Blanco (Jour’19) contributed to this story.