Reporting Race in the 21st Century

Article excerpt

Overview

In the late 1980s, the mainstream news media embraced race relations. Witness the fact that in 1989 three Pulitzer Prizes were given for racerelated 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 dupontColumbia 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, babyproducing, child-abusing black prostitute. Racial prejudice as a structural problem was replaced by racial stereotyping.

Again, broadcast journalism followed a different route. …

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