Teaching Our Journal: Using Allegations of Media Bias During the Civil Rights Movement to Better Understand Those Found Today

By David Wallace, University of South Carolina Upstate

This article explores allegations in southern editorials against the outside press during the civil rights movement in the United States, providing a more thorough understanding of the environment in which journalists worked and the threats they faced. In the exercises below, students are asked to not only further examine the arguments made in the article, but to also address more contemporary charges against the press and the potential ideological factors behind them. Furthermore, the exercises incorporate the importance of the African American press in the struggle over public opinion and ideas during the movement.

The exercises are meant to develop archival research skills as well as the critical consumption and analysis of media products from any time period. The article relied heavily on primary sources and a detailed analysis of editorials saved on microfilm through the Facts on Film collection. If available, Facts on Film will be a valuable resource for students completing the exercises below and help demonstrate the importance of non-digitized collections. However, Facts on Film is not required, and many of the exercises can be assigned using the digitized archives now available through ProQuest and other databases accessible through your university library.

The assignment instructions can be fine-tuned to better fit the objectives and time constraints of a class. In most cases, set guidelines for answer lengths or the number of articles to be analyzed have not been provided. Also, the specific newspapers on which students should focus can be determined by those available through your individual library.

Exercise 1

In addition to mainstream southern newspapers, accusations against the outside press could be found in the publications of pro-segregation groups such as the Citizens’ Council. Using the digitized collection at Ole Miss, review issues of the Citizens’ Council, the organization’s official newspaper, and find at least two examples of stories addressing the outside media. Next, answer the following questions.

  • What are the headlines of the articles addressing the outside media you found?
  • What dates did the articles appear in the Citizens’ Council?
  • What arguments about the media were the articles making?
  • How could you see these articles influencing southerners’ opinions or treatment of the outside press?
  • What, if any, relationship do you find between the articles in the Citizens’ Council and those in the editorials discussed in the research? Are similar arguments made? Are the same writers used or referenced?

Exercise 2

A recurring theme in the accusations against the outside press was the stereotyping and oversimplification of southerners and the preferential treatment of African Americans. Review media coverage in the New York Times surrounding a major civil rights event such as the integration of Ole Miss or the Birmingham protests and answer the following questions.

  • What civil rights event are you analyzing and what specific dates have you chosen to review?
  • What, if any, evidence do you see for these claims of stereotyping and oversimplification? Be specific.
  • What did you find that might counter these claims? Again, provide specific examples.
  • What, if any, specific evidence do you see for the claims that African Americans were given preferential treatment in the outside press?

Exercise 3

Pro-segregation ideology was apparent throughout the editorials analyzed in this article and ultimately impacted how the outside press was characterized. However, this same ideology had the potential to also influence the reporting of movement events found in the hard news sections of the papers. Choose a major civil rights event and compare and contrast how it was reported in a southern newspaper discussed in the article versus in an African American newspaper such as the Chicago Defender, Pittsburgh Courier, or Baltimore Afro-American. Answer the following questions.

  • What civil rights event have you chosen to analyze?
  • What two newspapers have you chosen to compare, and what dates are you reviewing?
  • What are the headlines of the stories you’ve found in the two newspapers?
  • What differences, if any, do you see in how the newspapers covered the event? Be specific.
  • If differences were found, how might they influence a reader’s perception of the civil rights event and the civil rights movement overall? What about perceptions of segregation and civil rights opposition?

Exercise 4

As discussed in the article, the southern press largely served as an ally to the segregationist cause, including through editorials. Considering this, what role did editorials play in the African American media during this time? Choose a month during the civil rights period and analyze the editorials found in a newspaper such as the Chicago Defender, Pittsburgh Courier, or Baltimore Afro-American and answer the following questions.

  • What newspaper and time period did you choose to analyze?
  • Using specific examples, what civil rights issues were addressed in the editorials you found?
  • How might the arguments in these editorials come into conflict with those supporting segregation and maintaining the “southern way of life”?
  • What references, if any, did you find to the importance of public opinion or the national media to the civil rights cause? What about references to the white southern press?
  • Would you characterize the African American press as an ally to the movement to the same degree the white southern media supported the segregationist cause? Explain your answer.

Exercise 5

The article addresses the themes of credibility, motivation, and consequence in the accusations against the outside press. During the 2016 presidential election, the concept of the pro-Clinton liberal press was common in campaign rhetoric found in social media, blogs, and editorials. Find an example of a blog post, op-ed, or editorial that addresses (supporting or challenging) the idea of the pro-Clinton liberal press and answer the following questions.

  • What is the link to the op-ed, editorial, or post you’ve found?
  • Can you identify any of the themes of credibility, motivation, or consequence in the writing? If so, explain what you’ve discovered.
  • Next, perform some basic background research on the writer (previous editorials/posts, demographics, profession, etc.) and the outlet in which the post, op-ed, or editorial appears. How might these factors influence the writer’s perceptions of the press in this context?
  • Based on your own experience as a media consumer during the election, what similarities and differences do you see between these more recent allegations against the press and those discussed in the article during the civil rights movement?