An examination of bias motivated events or hate crimes is not an easy task. While there might be agreement as to a specific definition of a bias incident or hate crime, there is substantial disagreement as to what events fit into these categories. Some incidents from 2001 in Valparaiso, for example, have evoked substantial disagreement. To some, cross burnings and swastika graffiti are simply juvenile pranks that are only incidentally racist symbols and thereby are not bias motivated. To others, these same events qualify as hate crimes.
In addition, if a consensus could be developed as to what types of events actually constitute bias motivated incidents, there still would be a problem of where to get reliable information about these events. To the best of our knowledge, there is no one agency in this area that systematically reports information about bias motivated incidents. The FBI covers hate crime incidents, but many incidents are not considered “criminal” or even serious enough to be reported to the police. Local police reports cover some bias incidents, but our impression, based on conversations with a number of persons, including police and the FBI, is that the process of reporting these events is often quite haphazard. The Southern Poverty Law Center collects data on these events at a national level, but its reports are often incomplete when it comes to reporting local events.
The obvious question is then, how can you go about systematically gathering information about such incidents? Certainly the best solution is to rely upon a variety of sources, including FBI reports, police reports, the reports of other agencies, as well as the verified observations of individuals. In addition, we think an examination of newspaper accounts of these incidents can provide a useful source of information. While we are well aware of the numerous problems involved in relying solely on newspaper accounts, including selective and inaccurate reporting, analysis of newspaper reports has a long history as a generally acceptable method of examining particular events. It is clear that an examination of newspaper reports can be a helpful indicator of the frequency, location, and severity of such events. At the same time, all of the limitations of such a source should be kept in mind. We view this study as simply a first step in an effort to begin the systematic compilation of data about bias related incidents in this area. Future research should combine these methods with others for a more complete understanding of the extent and nature of bias related incidents in the area.