Media researchers study Jasper hate crime

Dr. Mia Moody-Ramirez, assistant professor of journalism, believes that intial coverage of the James Byrd Jr. dragging murder unfairly stigmatized the city of Jasper as racist.
Matt Hellman | Lariat Photo Editor

By Jade Mardirosian
Staff Writer

Texas executed a man Wednesday for his role in the hate crime that a Baylor study says resulted in the unfair labeling of the small East Texas town of Jasper as racist.

Lawrence Russell Brewer, 44, a self-labeled white supremacist, was executed after being convicted of taking part in the murder of James Byrd Jr. 13 years ago.

Byrd was chained to the back of a pickup truck and dragged for miles, dying when his head struck a cement culvert and he was decapitated.

Dr. Cassy Burleson, lecturer of journalism who has been studying the effects of media coverage on the community of Jasper since the crime, said the initial coverage was clearly prejudiced.

“The community was so much more progressive than other communities at the time of this murder,” Burleson said.

“I began to look at the facts of how many people of color were on the school board and were in leadership positions throughout the town; I realized that people had gotten it wrong, particularly the media who covered the story in the beginning days,” she continued.

Dr. Mia Moody-Ramirez, assistant professor of journalism who is working with Burleson on the study, said many newspapers used stereotypes in beginning coverage of the tragedy.

“Larger newspapers like the New York Times covered it from a stereotypical perspective,” Moody-Ramirez said.

“They used frames that had previously been used to cover tragedies in Texas like ‘gun toting,’ ‘backwards’ and ‘racist.’ Later, their coverage changed and it became more realistic of Jasper. It was found that the three individuals who committed the crime were not the norm in the town,” she continued.

Though coverage changed to portray Jasper more realistically, the stigma of a racist community still affected its economy.

“The economic decline of that area was created as a result of what three people did to one other person and that stymied the growth of Jasper,” Burleson said.

“It is something similar to what happened in Waco with the David Koresh incident. These major news events color people’s images of any community,” she continued.

Burleson and Moody-Ramirez found through their study that leaders in Jasper were able to build community from such a widely publicized hate crime, even holding prayer vigils and concerts to unite people and promote healing.

“There are so many small-town heroes in this story and so much good that occurred in the community over time in terms of racial healing,” Burleson said.

Moody-Ramirez echoed the same sentiments.

“Thanks to how the key leaders handled what happened, Jasper was able to heal and is now held up as an example of how to handle a hate crime,” Moody-Ramirez said.

Burleson said the study is ongoing, as the story is not finished.

Two other men were convicted for the murder of Byrd. John William King, 36, is on death row. His case remains under appeal. Shawn Berry, 36, has been sentenced to life in prison.

Burleson said what happened in Jasper 13 years ago can help build a more peaceful world.

“I hope that this story and the effects it had helps people to appreciate diversity more and eliminate the prejudices they may have about other people and about other places, to try to build a world that has more harmony,” Burleson said.

Moody-Ramirez said she believes the research and study done on the effects of the media coverage on Jasper can help to serve as a reminder of the importance for news services to remain unbiased and neutral.

“Our hope is that our study will help reporters in the future have a more objective lens when they go into this type of situation,” Moody-Ramirez said. “[Reporters] need to be willing to talk to many different people and get a feel for the situation while making sure coverage is fair and balanced.”