None of us are blind to racial injustice in America. Currently, most of us are involved in covering protests against that injustice whether we are the smallest of weeklies or the largest of dailies, because these protests are happening everywhere in our state.
This brings up, for newspapers, the delicate issues of race and our collective past that we must be prepared to address when our communities and our readers ask us to be accountable for such things.
The newspaper my late husband Chad and I have been a part of since began in the middle 1980s doesn’t really have to reckon with much of a past — we began well after desegregation and the days where you might get a brick through your office window for printing a photo of a person of color in your pages.
But, for most of the rest of us, we must realize this is an issue that, in the current age of accountability, we may be forced to grapple with. How your publication and staff handle this could determine your newspaper’s relationship with people of color in your communities for decades to come. It could also impact your paper’s relationship with advertisers.
Thus, it is important we be honest and forthright with our communities. There are two issues you are likely to face in the current climate: your publication’s past and how you currently handle stories concerning persons of color.
In terms of your publication’s past, unless your paper is still in the same family it was 100 years ago, chances are your current management and ownership are far removed from ads in the 1850s to capture runaway slaves, or a generation of community journalists working for your paper who referred to Black people by racial pejoratives, or who editorialized inappropriately about lynching and mob justice, and integration and desegregation.
All newspapers in this country must grapple with our institutional history. People in your community may even call upon you to apologize for things your paper printed 100 years ago.
On the second portion of this, most of us have seen the community newspaper front page that has been circulating around social media with the large art of a car wreck and outsized mug shot of a black man arrested for DWI, while the white man arrested for homicide is in the side column with a half column mug. Your community may soon be asking you tough questions about mug shots, police reports, and more.
We, as providers of news and information to our communities, must be willing to engage in dialogue with our readers about both our past and our present.
If your community has hard questions for you about your newspaper’s past, work with a local historian and try to answer those questions, or at least address the concerns if you have no answers.
Engage in a dialogue with persons of color on how best to address this. Remember that a single apology for something written 50 or 60 years ago does no good for your newspaper or your community if there is no dialogue about how to move forward.
Here are a few things, in the short term, Texas newspaper leaders should consider:
• Does our editorial or opinion page have voices from persons of color?
• Are we covering communities of color and their events and activities in the same way we are covering white communities? If not, why not, and what dialogue is necessary to make that happen?
• Is there anything glaring in our newspaper’s past we should be proactive in addressing? An embarrassing 1960s editorial? A racist cartoon? Begin a dialogue about these things with persons of color in your community and consider addressing that which you are already aware of.
• Should we be publishing mug shots of lower-level alleged criminal offenders--who in most communities are disproportionately persons of color – for offenses like DWI, drug possession, theft, etc. What true purpose does having those mug shots on an A1 cover serve in a small community? Is a mug shot for a state jail felony as important as a mug shot of someone accused of murder?
• Should we continue to include racial identifiers in police reports or jail book-in reports?
There are no easy answers to the challenges that may face us in the current environment. However, dialogue within your community is the key to a path forward for us all.