Looking back at Chicago’s 1919 race riot, we’re asking Chicagoans to produce a new call to action for shaping equitable, ethical local news today.
By Darryl Holliday
One hundred years after Illinois’ deadliest race riot exposed how news media can exacerbate racial conflict, City Bureau is drafting a campaign to learn from past wrongs and ensure more equitable media for the future.
On April 4, 2019, we partnered with Chicago’s Newberry Library for our 102nd Public Newsroom about news coverage of the 1919 riots and what, if anything, has changed in today’s media. An intergenerational group of nearly 100 people from across the city gathered at our South Side newsroom to hear from myself (City Bureau co-founder and News Lab Director); Ethan Michaeli, author of The Defender: How the Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America; and Angela Ford, founder and executive director of the Obsidian Collection. More importantly, they stayed for guided, small group conversations on local news and information.
In their groups, attendees crafted 30 declarative sentences to describe their thoughts and feelings for what equitable local news should look like based on their lived experiences and in-person conversations. These “declarations” got us off to a great start (see below for more), but we think more people should have the opportunity to draft a new contract for local news.
In May our Public Newsroom team will host two more free, public “Local News Contract” conversations that follow up on discussions at past Public Newsroom events and a piece I wrote in June 2018, “Reframing the Monitorial Citizen: A New Contract for News Media.”
“A new contract is needed: a commitment that reframes the traditional consumer-producer relationship into one of co-creation, with journalists and communities working together to produce this essential public good…The new contract between journalists and the public will frame journalism as an act of citizenship rather than an entity for and separate from citizens.”
Each workshop will be on a different side of the city, partnering with a different local outlet as a beginning to shape this contract. We want the Public Newsroom to be a space where residents across the city can reimagine local news and put those ideas into action, either individually or as coordinated campaigns.
Read on to see how we arrived at our first event campaign, after more than 100 civic media workshops, by way of the race riots that irreparably altered our city.
Can’t make it to one of out Local News Contract events? Ready to weigh in now? Add your declaration for local news below and we’ll add it to our list.
Remembering Chicago’s 1919 Riots
On July 27, 1919, a 17-year-old Black boy named Eugene Williams was swimming with friends in Lake Michigan when he crossed an unofficial barrier between the city’s “white” and “Black” beaches. Eugene was floating on a railroad tie when a white man began to throw rocks at him and other boys to drive them away from the beach. Eugene was struck in the forehead and drowned.
The ensuing riots escalated when police refused to hold white attackers accountable at the beach, instead they chose to arrest a Black man. The riots lasted nearly a week, spreading from the beach around 29th Street across what was, at the time, Chicago’s Black Belt.
Thirty-eight people died and over 500 were injured when white Chicagoans beat, shot and burned Black bodies, pulling people from cars, homes and public spaces. Today, we can see the riots in the context of what was happening nationwide: Chicago’s riots are considered the worst of the “Red Summer,” when race riots spread across the country in at least 25 cities. In Chicago, the riot came from a confluence of racial factors, including the white supremacist backlash to the rapidly rising Black population; an influx of returning veterans from World War I which created competition for political power, housing and employment; police inefficiency leading to unpunished crimes against Black Chicagoans; and news media lies about urban crime, according to former NAACP leader Walter F. White, who wrote about the riots in October 1919 for The Crisis magazine.
Local mainstream newspapers—owned and run by white people—often exacerbated racial tensions and sided with white perpetrators. In White’s words, “many wild and unfounded rumors were published in the press, incendiary and inflammatory to the highest degree.”
Today: Coverage Is “Biased, Racist and Unfair”
News ethics have no doubt improved over the years, but journalism’s racist past has not yet been exorcised, as presenters showed during our Public Newsroom.
Instead of scandalous headlines demonizing non-white communities, stories use coded language and editorial decisions stem from racist practices that have never been critically examined. We see it in recurring reports of “wilding” that criminalize youths of color in public spaces; we see it in visuals, like mugshots — typically sent directly from police stations to newsrooms ahead of judicial convictions — that depict a skewed view of local crime; and we see it in the makeup of newsrooms that are disproportionately more white than the communities they cover, ensuring a single, dominant narrative remains uninterrogated in newsrooms.
At City Bureau’s Public Newsroom event, we used the digital tool Mentimeter that allowed every attendee with a smartphone to reply to prompts and polls then display results in real time.
Among all respondents, 34 percent hailed from Chicago’s South Side, 34 percent were from the North Side, 9 percent from the West Side and 22 percent from the suburbs and out of town.
We asked attendees to describe local, race-related reporting in three words. The top responses were “biased,” “racist,” “unfair,” “incomplete” and “uninformed.”
When asked how much reporting on race has changed since 1919, 55 percent of responders said it has only changed “somewhat,” with 8 percent saying it hasn’t changed at all and another 8 percent saying it has changed a great deal.
Audience Feedback: Local News Needs…
After unpacking the above, we directed attendees into small groups to discuss how they’d reimagine local news with regard to race. Each of the 10 groups was to produce three “declarations” with prompts such as:
What can newsrooms do to improve coverage of Chicago communities?
What code of ethics should newsrooms operate on?
What should the demographic make-up of a Chicago newsroom be? Should local newsroom reflect local demographics?
What are the historical facts we need to acknowledge when considering reporting as it relates to race?
How and why should newsrooms engage with the public?
We offered some suggestions on how to begin a declaration:
“We expect local newsrooms to . . .”
“In the past local news has ______; In the future local news must ______.”
“Information should be…”
We asked each group to open up with introductions — no small thing in a room full of strangers, but part of creating a “brave space” means getting uncomfortable, and we found our guests were willing to follow us on the journey. Then participants drafted ideas by sharing experiences and talking through topics.
We broke into 10 groups formed around five issues: local news coverage, newsroom hiring, journalistic ethics, community engagement and historical reckoning. Here are some of the results:
“We expect local reporters to be more accessible at the hyperlocal level.”
“When covering marginalized groups and people, local news shouldn’t be afraid to let them propose solutions to the problems they are facing. Too often, news features let real people tell stories about their own suffering, then pivot to experts to propose constructive solutions. People living inside problems are often the best experts on those problems.”
“We expect diversity and representation to be prioritized throughout every level of leadership.”
“Transparency in funding is essential for building ethical newsrooms.”
Produce “more multi-lingual reporting.”
“Hire LOCAL contributors and writers.”
“We would like local news to foster communities”
We’re starting off with the 30 declarations created by Chicagoans at our newsroom, but we’re not stopping there. On May 23 we’ll continue the conversation in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood in collaboration with Austin Weekly News and in Back of the Yards with The Gate Newspaper on May 30, culminating in an actionable Local News Contract project based on input from news constituents across Chicago.