On civil rights coverage, a look back
By Meg Heckman
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.
“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. Read more in the Columbia Journalism Review.