Detroit — The media’s progress – or lack of – in reporting news from diverse perspectives since Detroit’s 1967 riots was the focus of a panel on Saturday at The Detroit Historical Museum.
How newspapers, radio and TV stations in Detroit covered the tumultuous events of the summer of 1967, when civil disorders erupted in Detroit and across 15 urban areas around the country, was put under the microscope by the panel, which include current and former members of the Detroit media, a former Detroit city council member and others.
Karen Hudson Samuels, executive director of WGPR TV Historical Society, organized the panel with the Dectroit chapter of the National Association of Black Journalists and the Detroit 67 Project which was held inside the Detroit Historical Museum. About 50 people attended.
Samuels said the discussion was designed to closely examine the effect of media coverage on the events of 1967 – including a media blackout that occurred from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. in the hours after the July 23 riot began – and what effect and role the media plays today. The blackout was part self-imposed and done at the request of the city.
“We have oral histories, there are film and books. Journalists are the first recorders of history,” Samuels said. “I don’t know that journalists know their work was critiqued. So let’s talk about that.”
Panelists included Detroit Free Press columnist Rochelle Riley, former Detroit city council member Shelia Cockrel, New Detroit president Shirley Stancato, author and associate media professor Tim Kiska, Brenda Peek who conducted surveys after the riot and Bill McGraw, veteran journalist, author and founder of Deadline Detroit website.
Stancato, with New Detroit, a racial justice organization formed in response to the 1967 riots, said she recalls the morning of the riots heading to church with her father and mother. No one in her family knew what had happened overnight, despite the fact that her family read the newspapers and watched TV.
“There was no information early on for many of us in the city,” Stancato said.
The panel discussed conclusions and recommendations by the the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorder, which came to become known as the Kerner Commission, which looked into what happened in the summer of 1967 including the President’s specific request to answer: “What effect do the mass media have on the riots?”
McGraw said both The Detroit News and Detroit Free Press covered the riots the week of July 23. They each had different financial resources but had one thing in common, he said.
“It’s stunning how much news they covered every day during the week of July 23,” McGraw said. “There are stories about the activities on the street on every section literally.”
Diversity in newsroom and in media has improved since that time, many panelists agreed, but storytelling from the perspective of minority reporters remained critically important and remained lacking in many cases.
Panelist Keith Owens, senior editor of The Michigan Chronicle, said he saw more black reporters in a Detroit newsroom in the 1990s than in Florida where he had worked earlier. Owens said he thinks the 1967 rebellion brought that change.
Owens remembered working as an intern at the Los Angeles Times when a veteran reporter at the paper told interns that when the Watts riots erupted the newspaper had no black reporters to send out. They had a black man working in the mailroom.
“They gave him a notepad and sent him down the riots and told him to bring back his notes...he became the first black reporter for the L.A. Times,” Owens said.
Luther Keith, founder of ARISE, a coalition of community groups and a former reporter, editor and columnist at The Detroit News, said living in a world with “fake news” accusations, the role of a diverse media is more important than ever.
“This is the time for the media to step up. The world needs the media. We can’t afford to have cowards in our newsrooms today,” Keith said.