Alumna Completes National Investigation into Hate Crimes

An SMPA Q&A with Journalism and Mass Communication Alumna Lillianna Byington.

News21 news room group shot
November 29, 2018

The nation’s most talented journalism students come together as part of the News21 initiative to report and produce innovative, in-depth multimedia projects on a national scale. 

Each year, an SMPA student is selected for the prestigious fellowship which provides the opportunity to travel around the country to report and produce projects focused on a pressing issue facing the country.

Lillianna Byington, B.A. '18, was this year's participant, joining student journalists from around the world for an investigative reporting project on hate crimes in America. She received a front-page USA Today byline for her reporting as a 2018 News21 fellow and the project received the 2018 EPPY Award for Best College/University Investigative Documentary Report.

Byington is currently an associate editor for Food Dive and was previously the editor-in-chief of The GW Hatchet before beginning the summer journalism fellowship program.

Junior Samantha Cookinham asked Byington about her experience as a News21 fellow.

Q: What does a typical day as a News21 Fellow look like?

A: Every day is different at News21.

The program starts remotely with a weekly online course which I took during my last semester at GW. As teams, we started working together virtually to do research for our stories.

Once we got to the News21 newsroom on the Arizona State University campus, we continued researching, collecting data and contacting sources. Then, we started reporting, listening to sources tell their stories, finding our reporting angles and mapping out our travel plans.

After that, the 38 fellows spread out across the country to talk to people in person about their experiences with hate crime. I traveled to Texas, Virginia and Maryland, where I was predominantly working on a story about how black Americans disproportionately face acts of intimidation, extremist rhetoric and violence.

Once our reporting was complete, we returned to the newsroom and started transcribing, writing, editing photos and producing the documentary and podcast. After spending extensive time editing, fact checking and building the website, the project was ready to go.

Q: What was it like investigating and reporting on national hate crimes?

A: Investigating and reporting on a sensitive topic like hate crimes is not easy. Before I even left for the newsroom in Arizona, the project editors spent time talking about the challenges we would likely face.

You have to build strong trust with sources because they need to feel comfortable retelling trauma that they lived through and entrusting you to justly tell their story. That was a challenge and a huge responsibility, but also the most rewarding part of the project.

We spoke on the phone with people several times to get to know them before we traveled to meet with them in person. We went to their homes, spoke with their communities and really got to know people. When you build that trust with your sources, you can write and produce powerful stories that can make a difference.

But there is also the other side of hate crimes: the perpetrators. There is a delicate balance between listening to their side of the story and challenging their views. That can be difficult, but it is necessary, and I think that we were able to find the right approach and balance.

Q: What did you take away from this experience?

A: It was eye-opening to see the wide impact of hate in every corner of the country when the project came together.

Altogether, the News21 team produced 12 stories, a podcast, a documentary and a multimedia road trip report on hate in America, but there is still ground we couldn’t cover — that is very telling.

Acts of hate that continue to dominate the news cycle today show how important it is that journalism tells those stories.

Lillianna Byington interviews a source outside in Texas

Lillianna Byington and fellow News21 team members conduct an interview. Photo courtesy Lillianna Byington.

Q: What was the most memorable part of the fellowship?

A: Every interview was a memorable one for this project.

Talking to people that have been directly impacted by hate crimes and having them trust me to share their stories was an honor.

In addition to working on two of the stories, my reporting also contributed to the News21 project documentary and a podcast episode of our podcast series. To look back, and now listen and see those stories, is really powerful.

One really memorable experience was when I got to travel across Texas with my colleagues Brittany Brown and Danny Smitherman to report on one of the most vicious hate crimes in history — the brutal dragging of James Byrd Jr. 20 years ago. We not only looked at how that case has shaped hate crime law today, but also the impact it left on the town of Jasper, Texas and Byrd’s family.

When we were there, the prosecutor for this case, Guy James Gray, gave me and my colleague Brittany a CD with the graphic evidence from that day that was only shown to the jury in court. Viewing those images and writing about them in our story was necessary for us as reporters to show the raw truth of hate crimes.

Another time that really sticks out is when I got to interview blues musician Daryl Davis in Maryland, who has made it his life mission to have an open dialogue with the KKK. My colleagues Tilly Marlatt, Andrew Capps and I got to see Klan robes that he had collected from KKK members that ended up changing their views and leaving the hate group after speaking with him — Davis now has more than 200 robes.

Although I was out there to report on vicious hate crimes, there were people working hard to combat hate. It was important to tell that part of the story too.

Q: What was it like to work with journalism students from around the world?

A: One of the reasons News21 annually produces an investigative project with powerful reporting is because of the wide variety of students that come from around the world with all different skill sets.

When you get to News21, you work to become an investigative multimedia journalist, and you rely on your fellow journalists to help you learn the skills that you don’t yet have.

Not only did I get to learn from powerful professors and journalists that led the project, but I also learned from each student and recent graduate in the program. I was blown away by the talent of the journalists in this program, and I’m excited to follow their reporting throughout their careers.

Q: Your reporting for the News21 Hate in America project won the 2018 EPPY Award for Best College/University Investigative Documentary Report. What does this mean to you?

A: Of course, it made me really proud. We all worked hard on this project. We wanted to continue the News21 tradition of being recognized for that work, but it’s not the awards that really count, it’s the impact the story makes.

Our stories were published in outlets across the country. Stories I worked on were published in USA Today, Philadelphia Inquirer, Texas Tribune and The Center for Public Integrity.

To see that people across the nation are reading these stories on this timely topic of hate in America makes me proud beyond measure.