A Rise in Nooses, or a Rise in Reporting?

Since the Jena Six incident in Louisiana, in which nooses were hung from a tree on a high school campus, reports of nooses have increased. It's unclear, however, whether there is an actual surge in racist events vs. a surge in reporting on the incidents.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

The noose is both a symbol of bigotry and an implicit threat. Nooses have received a lot of attention since the case of the Jena Six in Louisiana. That began when nooses were hung from a tree on a high school campus. Since then, media outlets have run more and more stories about nooses throughout the country. So here's the conundrum: On one hand, ignoring racism won't make it go away. On the other, are the news media making too much noise over every noose?

NPR's Mike Pesca reports.

MIKE PESCA: It happened this past week on the campus of Indiana State University.

Unidentified Woman#1: Crystal Kerns(ph) and two other students found this - a rope tied like a noose.

PESCA: It happened on Long Island.

Unidentified Woman#2: Another noose has been found on the island. This one turns out Thursday afternoon.

PESCA: And there've been others.

Unidentified Man#1: Ogle County, Illinois, where this hangman's noose was discovered nailed to a tree.

Unidentified Woman#3: Many at the school called a hanging noose a cowardly act.

Unidentified Group: Not on our campus. Not on our campus.

Unidentified Man#2: A noose left on a black cadet's sea bag aboard the Coast Guard's training barque, the Eagle, in New London, Connecticut and…

Unidentified Woman #4: A worker at this concrete plant near Millington mixed together poor judgment with bad humor. Over the weekend, he left a hangman's noose from the bathroom as a prank at another employee. But another who found it hanging this morning didn't think it was funny.

PESCA: Hate-crime researcher Mark Potok is with the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama. He's not surprised to see nooses getting more attention since the Jena protests.

Mr. MARK POTOK (Spokesman, Southern Poverty Law Center): We've had a huge story that revolved around the noose, and there's been an apparent rash of noose incidents following that. So I think it's simply inevitable that these things are going to be covered halfway for a while.

PESCA: Nearly everyone agrees that the news media should report incidents that involve the display of nooses. But NAACP chairman, Julian Bond, says that some people will inevitably imitate what they see on TV.

Mr. JULIAN BOND (Chairman, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People): Many of them are copycats. That's to say they've read about it in the newspaper, heard about it and they say gee, I don't like black people either.

PESCA: The news business is about reporting the news. It's not about censoring stories for fear of fueling some racists' imagination. But still, the news media do offer a megaphone, and acts of hatred and racial intimidation take on greater power when they're broadcast all over the community or all over the country.

Cliff Schechtman is the Long Island editor of Newsday, the paper has run about 20 noose-related stories during the past two weeks. But Schechtman says he's not going to run a story about every single noose found on Long Island.

Mr. CLIFF SCHECHTMAN (Editor, Newsday, Long Island): I don't want to get into where that was a drawing on a wall somewhere. And it might have been some kid who is just being stupid, and it didn't rise to the level of a full story.

PESCA: Then, again, such careful deliberation can fall by the wayside when news breaks.

Unidentified Woman #5: First on Fox tonight. In the aftermath of the racial tension surrounding the Jena Six in Louisiana, this morning, a noose was found tied to a utility pole. And now, an investigation is underway to determine who put it there and what their motive was.

PESCA: The motive turned out to be benign. The rope and the type of knot are commonly used in tying down military equipment. There've been a few of these hyped-up stories. But even when the nooses are clearly meant to intimidate, the news media can reach overly broad conclusions.

Here's anchorman Bill Weir of ABC, reacting to a report about recent noose incidents.

Mr. BILL WEIR (Anchorman, ABC News): We're in the middle of a presidential campaign, where an African-American is a leading contender…

Unidentified Man#3: Mm-hmm. Barack Obama, yes.

Mr. WEIR: Barack Obama, that somewhat say, are we kidding ourselves that he's a legitimate candidate when this is going on, or maybe his very presence is bringing this out of those knuckleheads.

PESCA: Nooses probably have less to do with presidential politics than with old-fashioned racial animists. And it's a trap to report every noose incident as a referendum on race in America.

Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center advises keeping this phenomenon in perspective.

Mr. POTOK: There are really two things going on: A big hunk of the society is becoming essentially more open-minded, more liberal-minded, more tolerant. But at the same time, we have very, very substantial backlash movements.

PESCA: In a nation of 300 million, the presence of 30 or 50 or even 100 nooses may indicate a worsening of racial tensions. Then, again, the nooses may just be the products of a few desperate bigots looking for trouble and attention.

Mike Pesca, NPR News, New York.

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