Magazine article Nieman Reports

Journalism and Black America: Then and Now

Magazine article Nieman Reports

Journalism and Black America: Then and Now

Article excerpt

Black and white journalists, at times working as colleagues, at other times separately, have produced the first draft of our nation's difficult history of race relations. In this issue of Nieman Reports, journalists examine reporting at the intersection of black and white America and look at the racial conditions, climate and conversations in newsrooms.

Our series of stories begins with journalists' remembrances of covering the emergence of the civil rights movement and subsequent calls for "Black Power." Jack Nelson, who covered the civil rights struggle from 1965 to 1970 as the Los Angeles Times's Atlanta bureau chief, observes that "... many journalists, no matter what else they might have covered, look back on that period as the highlight of their careers--a time when the press had a profound impact on the most dramatic and important domestic revolution of the 20th century." Jack Bass, the coauthor with Jack Nelson of "The Orangeburg Massacre," reminds us of the national news media's reluctance to report on the February 1968 shooting deaths by state police of three students at Orangeburg's almost all-black South Carolina State College. "In the aftermath of major urban riots, the national media's interest in civil rights faded, and what happened on the campus of Orangeburg, where the victims were black, was out of tune with the times and not considered 'news,'" writes Bass.

The Maynard Institute History Project preserves the unique contributions of African-American journalists, including the journals of Earl Caldwell, a former New York Times reporter and Daily News columnist. In writing about Caldwell's experiences, Dori J. Maynard, the institute's president, notes that reporting on the Black Power revolution was "the only time that mainstream media put an important story entirely in the hands of black reporters." Larry Muhammad, a reporter with The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Kentucky, writes about the 176-year-old black press, its past and present and its impact on ethnic progress. Today, he writes, "... black papers must attract younger readers."

When documentary directors and producers Whitney Dow and Marco Williams went to Jasper, Texas to tell the story of the brutal dragging death of James Byrd, Jr., they divided their reporting by race. Whitney, who is white, relied on a white crew to interview white residents of Jasper. Marco, who is black, worked with a black crew to hear from black citizens. Dow and Williams edited their stories together to make "Two Towns of Jasper," and here discuss their technique and the challenges they confronted. Jack E. White, who wrote the "Dividing Line" column for Time, explains why he writes about race no longer. "The debate has gotten so fractious I can't hear myself think." White urges coverage of critical issues such as the "yawning academic achievement gap between African Americans and every other ethnic group in the nation." That challenge is being met by Tim Simmons, a reporter for The (Raleigh) News & Observer, whose minority, education beat provides the platform to examine such issues in-depth in projects such as "Worlds Apart: The Racial Achievement Gap" and "The New Segregation." As Simmons writes, coverage such as this might never have happened if the paper "didn't have a reporter specifically assigned to a minority education issues beat."

The Jayson Blair situation at The New York Times awakened interest in issues revolving around the work environment of minority journalists. Neil Henry, a journalism professor at the University of California at Berkeley, heard from many former students who are black and working in newsrooms. …

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