SMPA Senior Joins National Investigation into Hate Crimes as News21 Fellow

Lillianna Byington
April 07, 2018

SMPA senior Lillianna Byington will join journalism students from 19 universities across the U.S., Canada and Ireland for the 2018 Carnegie-Knight News21 multimedia reporting initiative fellowship. The 2018 fellows will work on a major national investigation into hate crimes in the U.S.

Headquartered at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, News21 was established by Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Knight Foundation to demonstrate that college journalism students can produce innovative, in-depth multimedia projects on a national scale.

Byington, a Journalism and Mass Communication major and editor in chief of The GW Hatchet, says it is an honor to work with talented student journalists from around the world as a News21 Fellow.

“I hope that this project will lead to journalism that makes a difference and tells stories that wouldn't otherwise be heard,” she said. “In today’s political climate, journalism is under more scrutiny than ever before. But to me, there has never been a hesitation in my mind about the vital importance of this watchdog role.”

The reporting project is led by former Washington Post executive editor Leonard Downie Jr. and News21 Executive Editor Jacquee Petchel, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and former senior editor at the Houston Chronicle.

“We chose hate crimes and hate incidents as this year’s timely News21 topic because of the apparent increase throughout the country of such acts — from bullying and vandalism to assaults and murders — involving racial, religious, nationality, gender and sexual orientation bias,” Downie said.

The number of hate crimes across the United States has risen since 2015 with 6,100 reported incidents in 2016, according to Washington Post reporting on new FBI data.

“This fellowship is an opportunity to report on an important and timely topic. Investigating hate crimes and hate incidents at a time when there have been reported increases in incidents in a divided political climate is impactful journalism,” Byington said.

News21 reporting has appeared in major national publications including The Washington Post and and is also published each year in a comprehensive package on the News21 website.

Byington is no stranger to high-impact reporting. Last year, she worked with Professor Debbie Cenziper on an investigative piece that made the front page of The Washington Post. She has also helped break important campus news during her four years at The Hatchet.

“From courses on digital production in SMPA to running a newspaper with multimedia sections, I have been essentially preparing for a project like this since I got to campus,” she said. “My four years working at The Hatchet, GW's independent student newspaper, has allowed me to gain real reporting and editing experience that will help me at News 21 and in my journalism career in the future.”

The News21 fellows have already started reporting as part of an online spring semester seminar taught by Downie Jr. and Petchel. The students are collaborating using tools like Slack and Facetime as they conduct research and interview experts for the reporting project.

“Currently we are doing research and reporting in all 50 states, looking for patterns of hate incidents and hate group activities and the response of law enforcement and governments,” Byington said.

Following the seminar, students move into paid summer fellowships working out of a newsroom at Arizona State University and traveling across the country to report and produce their stories.

“We will be able to do what many newsrooms cannot, which is to deploy dozens of student journalists to investigate the culture of hate and related acts of violence in every state in the nation,” Petchel said. “Not only do recent attacks on people of different races and religions call for it, it is the right thing to do in the name of public service journalism.”

Over the past eight years, Carnegie-Knight News21 projects have included investigations into voting rights, post-9/11 veterans, marijuana laws and guns in America, among other topics. The projects have won numerous awards, including four EPPY Awards from Editor & Publisher magazine, the Student Edward R. Murrow Award for video excellence, and a host of honors from the Society of Professional Journalists and the Hearst Awards Program, considered the Pulitzer Prizes of collegiate journalism.