1968: A Newspaper’s Role Between the Riots
[This article originally appeared in the June 1968 issue of Nieman Reports.]
When the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders blamed white racism for the destructive environment of the ghettos, most of the immediate reaction was unfavorable. The charge evoked images of night riders and fiery crosses. Besides, most white Americans don’t feel like racists. Most of us believe in the basic brotherhood of man, and therefore we can’t be racists. Can we?
Closer inspection of the Riot Commission report shows that we can. The racism it talks about is a passive thing, a state of mind that has permitted the structure and institutions of our society to grow and adapt to the needs of the white middle class while bypassing the Negro. This is the heart of its argument: that good feeling and talk of brotherhood is not enough. There must be structural and institutional change.
For example, in most cities there is little or no communication between city hall and the people in the Negro ghetto. City government is organized to respond to the needs of more sophisticated people who know how and where to take their problems.
Many ghetto problems are the sort that should be handled by local government—housing code enforcement, sanitation, recreation, police-community relations—but they do not get handled because the structure for communication is not there. Nobody planned it this way. It just happened. And the attitudes that let it happen are, in a subtle way, racist.
In many ways, a metropolitan newspaper can have the same communication blocks as city hall. When a president of the local garden club wants the city to plant flowers along the freeway, she can visit the editor, whom she may know personally, and enlist his support. She can find ways to get her campaign reported in the news columns. Her counterpart in the ghetto does not have this easy access.
Many editors have close personal ties to members of the black middle class, but this is not the same thing as establishing communication with the ghetto. Starting such communication takes a calculated effort; something akin to the practice of Harvard psychiatrist Robert Coles who visits a family in Roxbury every week, just to hear “how things are going.”
There is another example of unconscious racism in the habit of many newspapers of treating crimes involving only Negroes as less important and therefore less newsworthy than incidents where whites are the criminals or the victims. Police departments have been known to follow a parallel policy—of being lax in their enforcement of law in the ghetto on the grounds that the crimes involve only Negroes and are therefore not so important.
To the extent that events in the ghetto do not effect the white middle class which pays for the police department and for whom newspapers are edited, both of these policies have a certain logic. But in the long run, it is racist logic, and it is dangerous.
A newspaper, therefore, has a double problem: prodding local government into paying some attention to the ghetto, and reshaping its news strategy so that it can itself pay more attention to the problem. In neither case is it simply a moral problem. If the riots have accomplished nothing else, they have shown that what happens in the ghettos is of importance and does have potential effect on the white majority outside.
Most newspapers are much better equipped to cover riots than they are to cover the day-to-day events that underlie civil disturbance. During a riot, a city staff puts forth its best effort, morale is high, editors stay at their desks around the clock, and all the ambiguities and conflicts of everyday life are washed out in the urgent need to cover the spot news story. This is the kind of thing we do best.
But between riots, there is an equally important story, the sort of thing that James Reston was talking about when he said, “Things don’t have to ‘happen’ to be news. They can just be going on quietly.” Getting at this kind of news requires an effort that parallels the intensity of riot coverage, except that it needs to be spread out over a long period of time.
During the Detroit riot, I heard a National Guard officer telling his men how to shoot a suspected sniper. “Don’t stand back and shoot at him,” he said. “Get in that building and turn it upside down and find what’s in there.” It may not have been the best anti-sniper strategy, but it suggests a journalistic analog for overcoming the long habits of neglecting the problems of the ghetto. The place to start is not by sending a reporter out to talk to Negroes in a barbershop or on street corners. What is needed is a systematic plan to turn the ghetto upside down and find out what’s in there.
The Detroit Free Press, a member of the Knight group, experimented with such a plan in piecing together the problems that underlay the Detroit riot of July 1967. The methods were borrowed from the social sciences, a field where large sums of money and manpower are commonplace in investigations. But the applications were strictly journalistic.
The project grew out of an impromptu meeting in the city room on the Sunday night after the riot when editors and reporters began reflecting that after all the work and sweat and good reporting efforts, still nobody knew who the rioters were and why they had rioted.
To find out, it was decided to conduct a systematic survey of attitudes among riot area Negroes. A quick liaison was established with the Detroit Urban League, which agreed to pay the field operation and data processing costs, and with a social scientist at the Institute for Social Research, University of Michigan, who was hired as a consultant.
The goals of the survey were basically those of a reporter who talks to people on street corners to try to judge the mood of a community—as many reporters for many different organizations did after the Detroit riot. But its methods were systematic and powerful.
A probability sample was drawn, so that every Negro 15 years or older living in the riot area would have an equal chance of being interviewed. …
Negro interviewers were hired. All were college educated and most were schoolteachers. Each was given a list of specific addresses to visit and a procedure for choosing the persons in each household to interview, which took the matter of respondent selection out of her hands. Thus, chance alone and not human bias, conscious or unconscious, determined who fell into the sample.
The questions that they asked were not the kind that a reporter would ask, at least in format. They had to be carefully designed so that each interviewer would ask the questions in the same way, and so that they would produce simple, multiple-choice responses that would make the interviews comparable to one another.
A reporter, talking to people on the street corner, draws comparisons intuitively, almost unconsciously. When dealing with large numbers of people—437 were interviewed in the Detroit survey—intuition is not enough. It takes a computer to count and sort and analyze the thoughts of that many people, and the input must be consistently structured.
Some of the questions were derived from previous attitude surveys. Social scientists have been in the business of asking questions long enough so that they have a pretty good idea of what works and what doesn’t. There had even been a previous survey which asked the ultimate question: “Were you a rioter?”
It was conducted by faculty members of the University of California at Los Angeles in Watts, and the Free Press survey used its riot question, slightly rephrased: “Would you describe yourself as having been very active, somewhat active, or slightly active in the disturbance?” Someone who was not in the disturbance at all could, of course, volunteer that fact, and 63 percent of those surveyed did. Only 25 percent refused to answer and more than 11 percent admitted some degree of activity. The interviewers maintained an attitude of sympathetic neutrality.
Completed interviews were turned in to the Urban League command post at an average of 70 a day, checked for quality, and relayed to Ann Arbor for transcription to punched computer cards. The last interview was completed and the last card punched just two weeks after the city room decision to proceed with the survey.
The third week was devoted to analyzing and interpreting the data and writing the stories for a Sunday edition deadline. The computer’s task was simple and straightforward. It did exactly what an army of clerks would have done in pre-computer times. First it counted all of the answers to all of the questions, and then it sorted the rioters from the non-rioters and printed out tabulations describing the differences.
Such output is useful both for the things it tells that you didn’t know before and for the added weight it can give to what you already suspected. This survey did both. For example, it contradicted the popular notion that rioters are displaced Southerners whom the cities couldn’t assimilate. Persons born or raised in the North were three times as likely to be rioters as immigrants from the South.
Education and income were not good predictors of whether a person would riot. Unemployment was. Ironically, most Negroes felt that conditions in Detroit were as good or better as in Negro areas in other Northern cities. This lent support to what has become known as the relative deprivation theory of rioting. The theory holds that discontent is highest where there is most opportunity for advancement, because every person who moves ahead is a visible reminder of defeat for those who are not moving.…
The Free Press survey also revealed that, contrary to the impression created by TV footage of burning buildings and looters, there was no basic breakdown of respect for law and order. The vast majority of Negroes in the riot area thought of looting, burning and sniping as crimes.
They favored fines or jail for looters and jail for more serious offenses. Even admitted rioters felt this way. To a large extent, then, the rioters were people caught up in the emotion and peer group pressure of the moment. They were, as a Watts rioter once told me, “just going along with the program.”
Finally, the survey provided a comprehensive view of the grievances of the ghetto. It verified the suspicion that the arsonists did not throw their firebombs at mere random targets of opportunity. The kinds of businesses burned and the kinds of businesses most complained about were startlingly parallel.
Although it was organized and executed with journalistic speed—nearly two years elapsed between the Watts riot and publication of the UCLA study—the Free Press study was still clean and precise enough to qualify as social science. Dr. Nathan Caplan, the chief academic consultant to the project, later reanalyzed the data and used it, along with material from a Newark study, to construct the widely quoted “profile of a rioter” found in… the Riot Commission report.
Useful as it was in telling the story behind the Detroit riot, the survey project was, in a sense, too late. Negroes should not have to riot before public attention is paid to their problems and grievances. With the effectiveness of the survey tool demonstrated by the Free Press, editors of its sister paper, The Miami Herald, decided to use it to measure the mood and grievances of their still-peaceful Negro community.…
The survey technique is not an all-purpose problem solver. All it does is what any reporter tries to do: It points out the existence of problems and outlines their nature and structure. It is only a beginning, but it does get one quickly beyond those tiresome questions that are always asked when race relations are discussed: “Who speaks for the Negro, and what do Negroes really want?” If it did nothing else, the survey method would be worthwhile for demonstrating that there are many different Negroes with many different spokesmen and that different Negroes want different things. No one viewpoint deserves all the attention to the exclusion of others.
Whitney Young, Executive Director of the National Urban League, has complained that radical leader Stokely Carmichael has a following of but 50 Negroes and 5,000 white reporters. There is something to this. But the intensity of Carmichael’s followers makes them more important than their numbers suggest. And the error of the press is not in over-reporting Carmichael’s activity but in under-reporting what is going on in the rest of the Negro community. It is the structural problem again. Carmichael has press conferences. The hungry family with the jobless father whose members nevertheless shun violence does not. Reporters need to start going into the ghetto on a regular basis, and a social science-oriented survey can help map out the strange and unfamiliar terrain for them.
With survey data in hand, a reporter can tell not only how many people a Negro leader speaks for, but what kind of people they are. And he can make a start at covering the Negro protest movement in the way that specialized reporters in industrial cities cover the labor movement or in the manner of political writers covering action in local politics.
Some editors instinctively start looking for a Negro reporter for this kind of an assignment. This could be a mistake. In fact, it suggests a kind of enlightened racism. Negro reporters should be hired, but it might be better to put them on police beat or city hall or general assignment. A Negro reporter for the white establishment press is going to encounter suspicion, distrust and a certain amount of unpleasant pressure when he tries to establish news sources among black militants.
White reporters are suspect, too, of course, in the minds of these news sources, but the suspicion is open and everyone is aware of it. White reporters and black militant sources can work at the arm’s length stance and with the sense of mutual, respectful distrust which the best reporters always establish with their sources.
The black reporter is too likely to be confronted with the “you are either with us or against us” charge. To avoid this uncomfortable position, he should confine his writing on racial matters to human-interest subjects, where a black face might be of help in gaining rapport, and no long-term relationships with sources are required.
One other problem faces any newspaper that decides to take extraordinary measures to enter the ghetto and find out what’s there. It is the fear that talking about Negro problems, especially in the context of past or possible future violence, will increase the probability of violence. A psychologist addressing one of the Department of Justice seminars for law enforcement officials recently made a reference to the “incredible slums” of the West Coast city where the seminar was being held. Afterward, an angry police chief approached him with the charge, “It is people like you who cause riots.”
“That’s funny,” retorted the psychologist. “I thought it was people like you.”
Discussing problems may indeed be dangerous. But not discussing them is even more dangerous. I suspect that editors who balk at airing Negro grievances do not really believe that discussion causes violence. The real fear is that if discussion is followed by violence, the newspaper will get blamed.
In Detroit, since last November, there has been a painful example of what social scientists call a “natural experiment.” A city with racial tension has been deprived of its newspapers and the effect of the absence of the information variable may be seen. Local observers, including city officials, agree that Detroit without newspapers is a more tense, frightened city with more potential for violence than it would be if the Free Press and the News were publishing. City officials demonstrated their awareness of this fact when they sought, unsuccessfully, to get a moratorium on the strike after the assassination of Martin Luther King. A steady reliable source of information is the best way to counter fear and anger that is aggravated by rumor. And the need to tell it like it is extends to the longer, quieter periods between peaks of racial tension.
A good newspaper does not turn its back on a problem. The more the race problem is discussed, analyzed, dissected and turned upside down to find what’s there, the sooner there will be workable solutions.
Philip E. Meyer, a 1967 Nieman Fellow, is a reporter for the Knight Newspapers. The staff of the Detroit Free Press, a Knight newspaper, was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in May for its coverage of the riots.