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"Reporting Race in the 21st Century,"

by Craig Flournoy July/August 2012 issue of Poverty & Race


In the late 1980s, the mainstream news media embraced race relations. Witness the fact that in 1989 three Pulitzer Prizes were given for race-related journalism. The Investigative Reporting award went to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for a series revealing that local lending institutions systematically discriminated against African Americans. The Feature Writing prize was awarded to the Philadelphia Inquirer for stories describing the harshness of daily life for South African blacks. The Commentary award went to the Chicago Tribune’s Clarence Page for his columns exploring race relations. The three awards represent more than one-quarter of all Pulitzers given for written journalism that year.

At the time, this journalistic attention to race did not strike me as unusual. I was a reporter at the Dallas Morning News in 1989. A few years earlier, another reporter and I had published “Separate and Unequal,” an eight-part series documenting how the federal government expanded a racially segregated, starkly unequal system of subsidized housing two decades after passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. We spent more than a year researching and writing the series. It was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting in 1986. Afterwards, my editors agreed I could cover low-income housing and race full-time.

And why not? Wherever we looked, print and broadcast reporters were producing outstanding work examining African Americans. In 1987, PBS aired “Eyes on the Prize,” a six-part series superbly chronicling the Civil Rights Movement. Subsequently, it was awarded the dupont-Columbia Gold Baton, broadcast journalism’s highest honor. During these years, mass communication scholars also focused much of their attention on race. Between 1986 and 1990, Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly (J&MCQ), the most prestigious scholarly journal in its field, published 15 peer-reviewed articles focusing on African Americans.

A Divergence in Race Coverage

I assumed journalistic interest in race relations would continue. I was wrong, based on the recognized work of “print journalism”—including newspapers, online news organizations and journalism scholars in the 21st Century’s first decade. Between 2002 and 2012, the number of Pulitzer Prizes awarded for race-related work was three—the same number given in 1989. Between 2002 and 2012, the number of J&MCQ articles focusing on African Americans fell by almost two-thirds when compared to the preceding 16 years.

The work honored as broadcast journalism’s best has a different record. Between 2002 and 2011, 16 dupont-Columbia prizes were awarded for race-related stories, or 1.6 per year. That is virtually identical to the rate between 1986 and 2001, when 26 dupont-Columbia awards were given for work focusing on African Americans.

Numbers tell only part of the story. Over the past quarter-century, the award-winning, race-related stories told by print journalists have changed a great deal. During the 1980s, Pulitzer Prizes honored two series of stories demonstrating that racial discrimination remains a systemic problem in the United States and two other series detailing the battle against South Africa’s apartheid system of government. Since then, two-thirds of the Pulitzers awarded for race-related work have gone to columnists, feature writers and editorial writers. Hard news enterprise work about African Americans has been hard to come by. Two exceptions are separated by 10 years and radically different approaches. In 2004, a team of Los Angeles Times reporters showed malpractice at a county hospital primarily treating black and Latino patients was pervasive and sometimes deadly. For a 1994 series, the Washington Post’s Leon Dash devoted four years and 36,644 words to describe the life of a thieving, drug-dealing, baby-producing, child-abusing black prostitute. Racial prejudice as a structural problem was replaced by racial stereotyping.

Again, broadcast journalism followed a different route. During the 1980s, dupont-Columbia awards honored an ABC Nightline series on apartheid in South Africa and a documentary by Chicago’s NBC affiliate on the racist heritage of Cicero, Illinois. Since then, broadcast journalism’s most prestigious prize has recognized:
  • A 1994 PBS documentary tracing the year-long struggle of students and teachers to overcome racial and class differences at Berkeley High School in California.

  • A year-long NBC project in 1997 examining race relations in an Illinois town and its residents’ efforts to deal with residential and school segregation.

  • A 2001 Court TV documentary recounting Attica, the most violent prison rebellion in American history, and the media’s often wildly inaccurate coverage.

  • A 2002 report by San Diego’s PBS station based on a two-year investigation exploring the rising popularity of “White Power”—and violence—among adolescents in a working-class suburb.

  • A 14-month NBC Dateline investigation in 2004 of racial profiling by police in Cincinnati and other cities, and how the practice can produce tragic consequences.
Whether measured in quantitative or qualitative terms, the results remain the same. If you were searching the mainstream media for stories that explored the most vital issues affecting African Americans and Latinos with tough fair-mindedness, historical context and structural awareness, the message was clear: Turn on the television.

A Look Back – Print Journalism and Race

Even as I write these words, I can hear the ghosts of colleagues from newsrooms past gasping, “Flournoy, have you lost your mind?” Many believe that broadcast journalism is an oxymoron—local television news is crime (“if it bleeds, it leads”), sports, weather and happy talk, and what little moral outrage and gutsy reporting there was in network news died the day CBS honchos, prodded by gutless advertisers, banished Ed Murrow’s See It Nowfrom prime time.

Popular culture reinforces this mindset. Consider Network and All the President’s Men, widely considered two of the best films about journalism. Network tells the story of Howard Beale, a fading news anchor at a last-place network who resuscitates his career as the “mad prophet of the airwaves” under the tutelage of a sociopathic entertainment executive. Paddy Chayefsky, who wrote the Academy Award-winning screenplay, uses a news anchor—ostensibly the epitome of television gravitas—to savagely satiric effect. As Beale tells viewers, “Television is not the truth! Television is a God-damned amusement park!”

Network premiered in 1976. So did All the President’s Men. Screenwriter William Goldman, who’d won an Academy Award for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, took home another after portraying Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein as solely responsible for uncovering the Watergate scandal. (The film’s most memorable line—“follow the money”—came not from Deep Throat but from Goldman’s imagination.) As Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee tells the two reporters in the film’s penultimate scene, “Nothing's riding on this except the First Amendment to the Constitution, freedom of the press, and maybe the future of the country.” The camera cuts to Woodward and Bernstein working in a mostly deserted newsroom while a teletype machine moving at machine-gun speed heralds a who’s who of criminal convictions and, finally, Nixon’s resignation. U.S. District Judge John J. Sirica, the Senate hearings and the Watergate tapes are never mentioned.

Got it? Television news is our freak show, print journalism our savior.

Scholarly types have laid bare whole forests in their efforts to map the pernicious influence of television journalism. In Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy, James Fallows says television corrupted the newsgathering process by transforming reporters into celebrities, creating a system that “erodes the quality of the news we receive and threatens journalism’s claim on public respect.” He finds hope in a newspaper reporter’s commitment to his craft. Fallows concludes, “It was a serious responsibility, a public trust, which deserved the very best that was in him to give.”

But during the first half of the 20th Century, was there any greater journalistic responsibility than reporting the humiliation and horror inflicted on African Americans in the Jim Crow South? For those in the mainstream press, it was an opportunity as well as a responsibility. Yet they failed to seize it. Indeed, with rare exceptions, they blew it. From east to west, newspapers ignored black Americans. Studies of the New York Times covering 1900 to 1953 found that, except in isolated instances, the Times devoted no more than 1% of its average daily content to black Americans.

There was one exception—crime. In 1949, the Southern Regional Council examined more than 1,000 stories in mainstream Southern newspapers and found almost no mention of African Americans unless they’d allegedly committed a crime. The 1946-47 class of Nieman fellows at Harvard University echoed this view on a national scale. At the end of a year-long study, this remarkable group concluded, “North and South, most newspapers are consistently cruel to the colored man, patronizing him, keeping him in his place, thoughtlessly crucifying him in a thousand big and little ways.” As pictured in many newspapers, the Negro is either an “entertaining fool, a dangerous animal, or ... a prodigy of astonishing attainments, considering his race.”

It was no coincidence that big-city newsrooms in the 1950s were white, male and opposed to change. In 1952, the Washington Post hired Simeon Booker as its first black reporter. Booker had 10 years of experience at two of the country’s top black newspapers and had just completed a Nieman fellowship. But at the Post, editors wrote racial slurs on his copy and DC cops questioned him whenever he tried to cover a story. Booker resigned in 1953 and went to Jet magazine, where he did a superb job covering civil rights. In The Race Beat, Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff argue that white and black journalists reported civil rights as a journalistic brotherhood, citing the Emmett Till murder trial. “They conducted the same interviews, exchanged notes, [and] filled in one another’s quotes,” they wrote. Booker, who covered the trial, painted a very different picture of the relationship between black and white reporters. “We never knew one another,” he told me in a 2006 interview. “We worked different sides of the street.”

Race Reporting in the 21st Century

The first decade of the 21st Century has not been kind to newspapers. Classified advertising dropped 70%. Subscription revenue plummeted. The result: In 2008, the stock value of the nation’s 15 largest newspaper companies dropped 83% (more than twice the 38.5% decline in the S&P 500). Some 7,500 print journalists lost their jobs in 2008. They had represented 15% of the nation’s newsrooms.

And yet mainstream newspapers, in some cases collaborating with web-only news organizations such as ProPublica and, continue to produce the kind of journalism that would have made Lincoln Steffens and Ida Tarbell proud. The Washington Post’s Dana Priest and Anne Hull exposed mistreatment of wounded military veterans at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in 2007. The following year, the Las Vegas Sun’s Alexandra Berzon revealed a high death rate among construction workers on the Las Vegas Strip. Each series prompted significant reforms, each received a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. The economic model of newspapers may be broken, but print and digital reporters demonstrated they can still put together social-justice journalism. However, race does not appear to be on their to-do list.

Since 2002, Columbia University has awarded 121 Pulitzer Prizes for reporting, feature writing, commentary, criticism and editorial writing. Three recognized journalism focusing on African Americans. In 2005, the Los Angeles Times received the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for its gripping expose of patient mistreatment at Los Angeles County’s Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center. In 2007, Cynthia Tucker, an African-American columnist with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, was honored for her work analyzing the intersection between politics and race.Tucker praised the legacy of Coretta Scott King and called out the Republican Party for seeking to suppress minority voting. But she unleashed her real fury on black elected officials and civil rights organizations. She criticized a black Congressional member for “recklessly playing the race card.” She mocked “the usual suspects—the NAACP, the Urban League and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference”—for ignoring the plight of black men. She savaged former Atlanta mayor and UN ambassador Andrew Young for comments that gave African Americans “an excuse to embrace bigotry.”

In 2009, the judges awarded a Pulitzer Prize to another African-American columnist, the Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson. The jumping-off point for his work was the 2008 presidential election, particularly Barack Obama’s bid to become the nation’s first African-American President. Robinson does a masterful job of conveying his own sense of wonder that a black man might be elected to the nation’s highest office and reinforces this with historical context. And he never forgets those who know despair far more than hope. In “Two Black Americas,” the columnist reminds his readers that one-quarter of African-American families continue to struggle with poverty, poor education and diminished expectations.

Mass communication scholars displayed no more interest in race relations than mainstream newspapers and websites. Since 2001, Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly has published an average of one article per year focusing on African Americans. This is a tiny slice of its peer-reviewed pie. In 2011, for example, J&MCQ published 36 articles. Most of the dozen race-related articles pay no attention to actual media reporting on African Americans. Only three look at coverage of events involving black Americans—women in the Black Panthers in the 1970s; the murder of James Byrd in Jasper, Texas in 1998; and the Jena Six, six black teenagers charged with beating a white teenager in 2006. Half of the articles employed experiments or surveys in an attempt to measure various hypothetical questions involving race and journalism. I was unaware mass communication had attained the status of science.

Broadcast journalism again was the unexpected exception. In the ten years between 2002 and 2011, Columbia University handed out 133 dupont-Columbia awards. Sixteen, or 12%, have honored race-related stories. The work is wide-ranging, compelling and timely:
  • A PBS documentary in 2003 on a little-known effort at school desegregation in the tiny Arkansas town of Hoxie by its all-white school board.

  • An NBC Dateline program in 2007 that follows a young, African-American teacher as she navigates an inner-city school in Atlanta during her baptismal year in the classroom.

  • An extraordinary PBS series in 2008 detailing health disparities in the United States and their connections to income and race.
The level of quality in broadcast reporting impressed me. The precipitous decline in mainstream print/digital race-related reporting astounded me. The work of the mass communication scholars matched my low expectations. Despite their differences, all three have something in common: They missed the most important story affecting African Americans in the past quarter-century: prisons.

The facts are, to quote a former editor, like poison gas. The United States imprisons more of its citizens per capita than any country in the world. In 1954, approximately 100,000 African Americans were in state and federal prisons. Today, some 900,000 are behind bars. Black Americans, who comprise less than 13% of the population, account for 38% of inmates. Four of the five states with the highest incarceration rates—Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Texas—are Southern stalwarts of the Old Confederacy. Based on current trends, one in three black males born today will spend time in prison, compared with one in 17 white males. It is, in the words of one African-American law professor, “the New Jim Crow.”

Mainstream media organizations have not been silent about America’s prison boom. The problem is that they treat it as a daily story. This means someone with a vested self-interest in prisons—a contractor or warden or law-and-order legislator—initiates the story and defines it. When a Texas state senator complained in 2011 that a death row inmate’s last meal request was extravagant, the legislator garnered national media action and a quick end to the practice.

What the print and television and digital reporters have not done is take on the system, its history, its winners, its cost to taxpayers, its impact on inmates’ families, its political repercussions, its relationship to crime rates and what it means when one of the world’s oldest republics sees fit to lock up more of its people than any other country. Is this too much to ask? True, the white guys in the newsroom missed the old Jim Crow. Maybe the addition of women and minority reporters will change things.

Postscript: In May, the New Orleans Times-Picayune published a riveting eight-part series examining the prison system in Louisiana, which has the world’s highest incarceration rate. Lead reporter Cindy Chang shows that private companies and local sheriffs are the major beneficiaries today, much as they were under the convict-leasing system a century ago. In June, the Newhouse family, which owns the Times-Picayune, announced it would cut its print edition to three days a week and fire 84 of the 173 persons in its newsroom. Management told Chang she still had a job but not as a “special projects writer.” My guess is that Chang will find a way to do kickass journalism.

Craig Flournoy , a PRRAC Board member, teaches journalism at Southern Methodist Univ. Previously, he was an investigative reporter at the Dallas Morning News.

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