behind the news

On civil rights coverage, a look back

Some newspapers have apologized for ignoring black voices before and during the civil rights era. More papers should.
August 28, 2013

For the last several months, I’ve worked alongside law students in the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project at Northeastern University. I’m a graduate student in the university’s journalism school, and I was asked to support the project’s investigations into cold murder cases from the civil rights era.

The law students’ work often starts with a few inches of text in an old newspaper describing how an African American, usually young and male, went out one day and never came home. The most thorough stories come from black papers; if the mainstream press acknowledged the death at all, it’s usually in vague, dehumanizing terms. Factual errors abound. The word of the local authorities is seldom questioned. The victim goes unnamed, labeled instead as a “negro youth.”

These stories left me wondering how modern journalists should handle such omissions and mistakes. Most newsrooms struggle to cover the events that are unfolding right now, but devoting some resources to looking backwards makes sense as we mark the 50th anniversary of the best-known period of the civil rights movement.

In the last decade, a handful of newspapers have pursued this kind of hindsight reporting, either through formal apologies, projects that supplement the historical record, or in-depth investigations of cold cases. Such work proves that accuracy has no expiration date and that journalists can help their communities understand dreadful historical events.

In 2004, the Lexington (KY) Herald-Leader published a front-page clarification saying, “We regret the omission.” The apology was pegged to 40th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and was released in tandem with stories and photos that offered a detailed account of the time. In 2009, shortly before President Obama’s first inauguration, the Meridian Star apologized for its “gross neglect” in coverage of civil rights work in eastern Mississippi. (Another interesting apology came from the Hartford Courant, which in 2000 acknowledged its role in an older form of racially-motivated violence: the slave trade.)

Formal apologies aside, many news organizations have addressed the complexities of the era by supplementing and digitizing their archives. One particularly powerful example comes from the Birmingham News, where in 2004 photojournalist Alexander Cohn discovered a box in a storage closet. Inside were thousands of negatives from the paper’s coverage of the civil rights movement. Most had never been published. Two years and dozens of interviews later, Cohn and his colleagues published a special section featuring some of those photos. Many more images, plus multimedia projects and stories, are available in a digital archive. The research was difficult, and Cohn struggled to find the right tone.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

“How do you address this in way that comes off as genuine without looking like you’re advancing the publication or rewriting history?” he said.

Other journalists have taken an approach similar to the one used by the law students at Northeastern, investigating decades-old murders, and sometimes convincing law enforcement agencies to reopen the cases. The Clarion Ledger in Jackson, MS, has pursued this kind of work for years, and many of its stories are available in on a website devoted to the project. Another example is this detailed narrative by Ben Montgomery of the Tampa Bay Times about recent developments in the investigation of the 1934 lynching of Claude Neal.

This kind of journalism is hard, time consuming, and fraught with complexities. Key figures may not cleanly fit the roles of heroes, villains, and victims. Eyewitnesses may be dead and crucial documents missing. When journalists do decide to revisit the past, it’s important that they carefully consider their role and devote the resources necessary to avoid repeating the mistakes of their predecessors. They should engage all segments of the community and invite conversation around the work.

With all the pressures newsrooms face today, it’s tempting to sidestep these challenges and leave the past alone. But the basic tenets of our profession argue in favor of such work. As journalists, we must seek even the most complex truths, give voice to the voiceless, and hold the powerful accountable–even when the powerful is us.

Meg Heckman is an assistant professor of journalism at Northeastern University where she teaches in the Media Innovation graduate program. Find her on Twitter @meg_heckman.