When the news media covered the Black Lives Matter protests of the summer of 2020, it grappled with questions about “objectivity.” Some reporters spoke out against traditional journalistic standards they thought constrained who could report on the protests and whose views were deemed neutral. The movement culminated with Wesley Lowery’s New York Times opinion piece, “A Reckoning Over Objectivity, Led by Black Journalists.” Since then, some outlets have made changes to their policies that include permitting reporters to participate in certain forms of protest.
As outlets debate their ethics policies, Black reporters have raised the question: Whom were these “classic” journalistic standards originally intended to serve? As Lowery pointed out, “The views and inclinations of whiteness are accepted as the objective neutral.” In fact, the White press in America has a history of playing fast and loose with its ethics and disguising racism behind the veil of objectivity.
A key example came 65 years ago, when 20 newsmen from New England participated in a pro-segregation tour of Mississippi and reported on the state’s race relations. In 1956, that group of reporters and editors from the New England Press Association took a trip to the Magnolia State, where a state-funded segregationist organization wined and dined them on a mission to create positive press about the state’s “separate but equal” status quo. After the week-long, carefully curated tour, many of the journalists returned home to publish articles and editorials sympathetic to Mississippi’s “Negro problem.” The junket was a propaganda coup for Mississippi.
It was also a desperate attempt to preserve a white supremacist power structure that Mississippians felt slipping away. Two years earlier, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional.
Shortly after the Brown ruling, White officials created the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission (MSSC), a state-funded organization with the purpose of maintaining segregation. Outwardly, the commission presented itself as a public relations department, claiming its mission was to educate the American public about life in Mississippi. Behind closed doors, however, the organization functioned as both a spy agency and a propaganda hub — surveilling Black Mississippians and civil rights workers and working to quash civil rights advances while shaping coverage of segregation outside the South.
One of the priorities of the MSSC was to stifle Northern criticism of Southern segregation. Hal DeCell, the MSSC’s first public relations director, was also the editor and publisher of the Deer Creek Pilot, Sharkey County’s most-read newspaper. DeCell’s role as editor and co-owner of the Pilot gave him a firm position in the all-White boys’ club of the 1950s mainstream newspaper industry.
Obsessed with spinning positive representations of white supremacy in the South, DeCell took a trip to Cape Cod to attend a meeting of the New England Press Association. There he invited journalists on a week-long, all-expenses-paid tour of Mississippi to “see the state’s racial situation for themselves.” He flew the 20 men to visit the state from Oct. 6 to Oct. 14, where he entertained them and took them on a tour designed to present Mississippi as “separate but equal.” After Brown v Board of Education, public perception of segregation was growing increasingly critical. DeCell recognized this — his goal was to challenge the Supreme Court’s ruling and forge an image of Black Southerners thriving under segregation.
“Mississippi has been the target of more unfounded acrimonious and antagonistic falsehoods and/or misrepresentations — amounting to the mass slander of all Mississippians — than any other state in history,” read a MSSC-created pamphlet that was sent to news outlets the same year as the tour.
The group spoke with Gov. James P. Coleman. For two hours, Coleman pushed an anti-integration agenda, claiming that the state wouldn’t integrate for the next 50 years. “We must have segregation if we are going to have any public education at all,” Coleman told the journalists.
Throughout the week, the group was shuttled to locations hand-selected by the commission to exemplify the state’s “separate but equal” facilities. The journalists were allowed to do their own exploring at night, but, in an unfamiliar state with no tour guide, it was difficult for them to wander far from the towns in which they were staying.
The tour’s destinations included the predominantly Black Delta region, the nearly all-Black town Mound Bayou, the state’s newest and best all-Black schools, a steamboat trip on the Mississippi River and a weekend at a resort area on the Gulf Coast. Save the resort, DeCell handpicked these locations to paint the best image he could of a contented Black community in Mississippi — intending to prove that segregation was beneficial for all.
The problem wasn’t only that this was a lavish trip, presented to the journalists as an expenses-paid vacation. Although the ethical standard that prohibits journalists from accepting gifts was not officially established until 1975, when the American Society of Newspaper Editors adopted a Statement of Principles condemning the practice as a conflict of interest, even some libertarian editors in 1956 would have raised an eyebrow at the MSSC junket.
But the problem was also, more importantly, the way the mainstream news industry conflated objectivity — a professional standard well-established since the 1920s — with White perspectives. These White New England journalists who visited Mississippi may have believed they were analyzing the facts rationally and without bias. But their journalistic “objectivity” often served as a cover for the prejudices inherent in their coverage of Mississippi’s race relations.
Some articles were critical of the state and segregation. (Time magazine published an article that compiled some of the criticism.) But some of the reporting was sympathetic to segregation and displayed an array of racist ideas.
“I cannot see integration happening in the state of Mississippi in my time,” read an editorial written for the Associated Press by Foxboro Reporter editor J. Clark Samuel. The editorial, which portrayed Black Southerners as content to remain in a segregated society, was carried by at least 19 papers across 13 states, including the Miami Herald. “We were served in hotels and restaurants by cheerful Negroes who seemed proud of themselves and their jobs,” the editorial went on. “They were merely simple people going about their daily work.”
The Mansfield News wrote that Mississippi is “happy as it is” and is “perfectly happy to establish ‘equal but separate’ facilities for negroes.” The Belmont Citizen claimed that Black Mississippians didn’t shy away from the polls because of voter intimidation but because “the status of the average Southern Negro is such that he just isn’t interested in voting.” The Wellesley Townsman acknowledged that “Mississippi has a problem” but held that it should be “resolved by Mississippians.” While all three of these articles included Black Mississippians as sources, most were cherry-picked to appear in support of segregation. Even the Boston Globe, which provided a detailed, critical accounting of Mississippi’s “way of life,” wrote that “neither race is ready for integration.”
Practically every article used the terms “Mississippi” and “Mississippians” to refer to White citizens of Mississippi, as if Black people were not truly part of the state. That is, the New England journalists assumed Whiteness as the normative perspective for Mississippians — and for themselves and New Englanders, too.
To flaunt its PR success and justify the spending of taxpayer money, the MSSC published “The Report to the People,” a compilation of the trip’s press coverage. “It is our opinion that the tour was tremendously successful and will prove a great benefit to the state for years to come,” DeCell gloated.
The Northern press, dominated by White owners, editors and reporters, was complicit in amplifying the pro-segregation message that Mississippi officials crafted for them. The “objectivity” standard led many not only to privilege powerful White official voices over those of Black leaders and Mississippians, but also to reproduce existing power and social caste hierarchies while claiming neutrality.
So, if not objectivity, then what? Masha Gessen and Lowery might suggest “moral clarity,” an ideal that gained traction after Lowery’s piece appeared in the Times and Gessen published “Why Are Some Journalists Afraid of Moral Clarity” in the New Yorker. To both, moral clarity is a quest for the truth that is guided by facts, context and clear moral values that might have been put aside under journalistic objectivity.
Objectivity, which originally meant evidentiary rigor but has too often been practiced as naive empiricism and neutrality, remains the status quo. Many news organizations still reinforce traditional hierarchies that have allowed standards to remain unchanged for decades. In the next few years, journalism may see a shift as younger newspeople advance into leadership. Today’s generation of up-and-coming journalists, namely students, women and people of color, stands poised to reform these standards.
“We need to fundamentally reset the norms of our field,” Lowery tweeted in summer 2020. “The old way must go.”