New Orleans Times-Picayune Series on Racism
In the early 1990s, the New Orleans Times-Picayune deviated from traditional journalism in a major way in the manner it tackled two controversial subjects. First, the paper abandoned the principle of objectivity and aggressively used news columns as well as editorials in a concerted campaign to defeat a former Ku Klux Klan leader who was running a strong race for governor. Later, the paper published a sensational, trail-blazing series of articles on race relations that, among other things, documented the Times-Picayune's own racist past. No other newspaper had ever taken such a searing look at its own role in perpetuating segregation and white supremacy.
To teach this case in one class period, you could assign some questions to the students—suggested below—the night before they read the case. Then they read the case and come ready for class discussion. Some of questions are included in the narrative, but you may want to pose additional questions as part of the discussion. Several questions are listed below; you can choose among them according to the flow of the discussion. At any time, you might think it worthwhile to take a class vote on whether a self-examination was the right thing for the paper to do.
The Issues in this Case
Questions for the students
The Times-Picayune editors were justifiably concerned about both relations among members of their staff and the series' potential impact on the paper's readers. Disputes were so common among staffers working on the project that some friendships were ruptured. Work on the series was so emotionally draining that many staffers said that in the end they were exhausted and never wanted to work on another project of that kind. While the editors hoped the series would educate the community and help improve race relations, they were also concerned that readers would react so negatively that the series could be counterproductive. Indeed, reader reaction, as expressed in mail and telephone calls, was largely negative. But because the series provoked open public debate about a controversial subject that most people had chosen to ignore, editors felt that overall the series impact on the community was positive.
As troubled as the Times-Picayune's newsroom was during the work on the project, editors and reporters agreed that the project would not have turned out as well as it did without the diversity workshops. Even the editor and publisher said the workshops better equipped them to provide leadership for the series. On the other hand, some staffers thought the workshops exacerbated racial tensions in the newsroom and contributed to the rupturing of some friendships.
This was not a decision that all staffers found palatable. Some whites thought it impinged on the independence of white editors and raised the issue of whether other groups would be justified in demanding that they be granted the right of prior review when articles are written concerning them. What about Hispanics? Asian-Americans? Jews? Arabs? Or even gays?
As the Times-Picayune case demonstrated, people of different ethnic backgrounds bring different perspectives to news coverage, especially when it involves emotional subjects like race. In fact, without the persistence of Keith Woods, the black city editor, the newspaper probably would not have initiated the race relations series. And without the strong urging of Woods and other blacks the series might not have included two of the most controversial topics—slavery and the Times-Picayune's own record covering racial issues.
Tracing race relations from the days of slavery validated the arguments of black staffers that whites needed to confront the horrors of slavery and the evolution of the oppression of blacks to understand race relations today. White staffers also came to agree with that assessment. Kristin Gilger, the project editor said, "We all finally agreed that you can't deal with our problems today unless you go back and figure out where they came from—and that history helps shape what race is in New Orleans today." Most confronted whites with an important, but unpleasant fact—that whites were responsible for slavery and all of the oppression of blacks that followed.
As the Times-Picayune case demonstrated, it takes an editor dedicated to the project and a publisher who is willing to commit the financial resources and stand firm behind the project while enduring the hostility of readers and even some advertisers. As Jim Amoss, the editor, said, Ashton Phelps Jr., the publisher, never blinked and told him "go ahead" when he suggested a special $30,000 diversity workshop for the staffers working of the series.
A newspaper cannot fulfill its responsibility to accurately reflect its community—its people, problems, progress, and possible solutions to problems—without covering all segments of the community. And that means covering the reality of the community, not just the stereotypes. In the case of minorities, it means not just covering the athletes and entertainers and those who may be involved in crime. It means covering community leaders and people in profession, business and industrial fields. And it means coverage throughout the paper, including the feature and society pages.
It did not require a long debate among Times-Picayune editors and reporters to decide it was essential to examine the paper's own record in order to establish credibility when reporting on institutional racism involving other businesses and institutions. In fact, of all the articles written for the series, the one on the paper stands out as the favorite of most of the staffers. No other newspaper had ever published such an in-depth look and its own serious shortcomings in covering a critically important subject. The staffers felt that more than any other single thing, the article on the paper's record underscored the Times-Picayune's credibility in publishing the series.
Although thousands of citizens did respond, most of them negatively, there was a notable lack of reaction from community leaders. In retrospect, some staffers thought the series might have had greater impact if community leaders had been consulted in advance and made aware of the project's goals. On the other hand, springing the series on the community without advance notice was so shocking to many in the community that it stirred tremendous public debate.
Keith Woods, the Times-Picayune city editor, felt strongly that reporters should "make sure we didn't just allow people to make categorical statements that were immoral and wrong without in some way indicating where we stood on these issues." For example, Woods objected to a quote from a white slave owner's descendent who said that slave owners protected and took care of their slaves. Woods satisfied his own objection by juxtaposing the woman's view of slavery with a slave descendant's views about brutal treatment of slaves.
[The following represents some comments and questions in looking back after six years. You might introduce it late in the students' discussion, which might well have produced some of the same comments and questions.]
The Times-Picayune's race relations series was hard-hitting, in-depth journalism that could not have occurred without a strong-willed editor willing to buck tradition and a supportive publisher willing to incur the expenses the coverage entailed and the wrath of many of the newspaper's readers. And the series would never have materialized had it not been for the persistence of Keith Woods, who is now on the staff of the Poynter Institute. Amoss says, "Keith was the father of this journalistic child, he nurtured it into existence." Gilger called Woods "absolutely essential, a true leader who could navigate between the black world and white world with credibility on both sides."
One of the most wrenching moments for Amoss, who had been with the paper for 19 years and editor for four years, came when Woods and other black staffers argued that the series should report on the Times-Picayune's own racist past. Although he agreed with the demand and was supported by Phelps, he said, "It was painful for Ashton, and it was painful for me."
On the other hand, the series might have had more impact and been better read if it been much shorter and more focused. It was so massive and sprawling that even staffers who were enthusiastic about the series suggested its bulk probably asked too much of the reader.
A major disappointment in the eyes of some staffers was that after the series was published the paper produced no follow-up. Editors and reporters talked about it, but could never agree on how to proceed. "I would like to have had a second shot," said Keith Woods. "But to a man and a woman we didn't know enough to turn the corner. Most people involved were happy not to even talk about it very much because the series involved so much personal strain."
At the same time, the series, together with the diversity workshops, created a newsroom atmosphere that became much more conducive to effectively covering race issues. That conclusion underscores the findings of Stacy A. Teicher, who wrote a comprehensive study of the Times-Picayune series for a 1998 master's thesis at the University of Missouri-Columbus Graduate School of Journalism.
Teicher found it difficult to measure the series' lasting impact, but concluded: "At least, individuals learned and say they put into practice some significant lessons about coverage of race issues and ethnic minority groups. Editors in the newsroom say the project created a more open atmosphere and gave journalists a vocabulary for discussing race. Although style policy is constantly evolving, most people believe that the comprehensive racial identification policy took hold because of the lessons learned through the project. The most significant aspect of the racial identification policy, for this study, is the way a rigorous, systematic examination of the relevance of race has replaced what several people referred to as a knee-jerk (in other words, common sense) tendency to apply racial labels, especially in crime stories."
The Times-Picayune series, "Together Apart/The Myth of Race," published in 1993 in six installments: May 9-ll; June 13-18; Aug. 15-19; Sept. 12-15; Oct. 17-20; Nov. 14-18.
The Akron Beacon Journal series, "A Question of Color," published in 1993, Feb. 28-Mar. 2; May 2-4, Aug. 22-24, Oct. 31-Nov. 2, Dec. 26-29.
The Report of the National Advisory on Civil Disorders. 1968. New York: Bantam Books.
"Coloring the News," a special report in The Quill, 1991, by David Shaw.
"Taboos in the Newsroom," by Reese Cleghorn, Washington Journalism Review, 1995.
"Racial Tensions in the Press," by Howard Kurtz, Nieman Reports, 1993.