From January 1995 to December 1997 at least 142 black churches were set on fire by arsonists, largely in Southern states. (1) Federal law enforcement officials and the U.S. national media began to focus on the church arsons in spring 1996, after their swelling numbers became too difficult and too regional to ignore. Pressure on federal officials to investigate the church burnings came from community leaders, politicians and ministers across the country, both black and white. (2)
The torching of almost 40 black churches in 11 Southern states over an 18-month period signaled a crisis. (3) Although arsons also occurred at some white churches in the same period, what made the white and black church cases distinct is that whites burned the black churches in most cases investigated. (4)
Press coverage of Americans of color has grown significantly since the pre-civil rights era when the press rarely focused on people of color unless involved in crime news. (5) However, U.S. press treatment of minorities today still draws criticism, most notably with the charge that news media coverage of minorities tends to be too little, too late or too stereotyped. (6) Several media scholars have argued that Southern compared to Northern press coverage of Southern racial conflicts will show differences. (7)
Given that the black church burnings occurred largely in the South, which is popularly portrayed as less racially tolerant than other quarters of the nation, and given that some scholars note regional differences in press coverage of racial issues, it is important to subject these assumptions to systematic investigation. It is well established in the mass media literature that newspapers reflect the views and values of the social setting in which they are produced, (8) thus by examining Southern and Northern editorial coverage of the black church burnings, we can obtain a picture of these values. Moreover, study of what newspaper editorials projected regarding the church burning crisis is important because research shows that editorial pages remain vital and continue to strongly impact public opinion.
This study explores whether there were regional differences in how Southern, Northern and Western newspaper editorials portrayed the black church burnings.
An abundance of black church burnings in the South has special historical resonance. Many Americans saw the fires not only as racially driven, but also as a stark reminder of America's dark era of racial strife in the 1950s and 1960s when church burnings were a major form of white terrorism against black Americans. During the civil rights movement, scores of black churches, which were the rallying points for civil rights demonstrations, were bombed or set on fire. Black Americans tended to see the black church burnings as a symbol and reminder of racism in America as well as a sign of deteriorating race relations. As the black church fires escalated, they sparked fears of a racist conspiracy by white hate groups to destroy black churches. Mary Frances Berry, chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, labeled the black church fires "a wakeup call" for Americans to deal with the nation's delicate race relations issue. Berry reported that federal investigations revealed 70 percent of the Southern black church fires were racially motivated. (9)
Responding to growing outrage over the church fires, President Bill Clinton in June 1996 created the National Church Arson Task Force to investigate them. (10) Including 200 members from the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. Justice Department, it was the largest federal task force in history. (11) A major question federal officials explored was whether the black church arsons were set by racists, conspirators, copycats or others. (12) Deval Patrick, U.S. assistant attorney general for civil rights in the Justice Department, who headed the church task force, said investigations revealed that race was only one of several causes of the arsons. …