A news 'Brown'-out?

May 23, 2004|By Paul Moore

MORE THAN ever, newspapers are using anniversaries of events to frame their coverage and produce special packages of articles, photos and graphics.

In 2004, The Sun produced a four-page commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the fire that engulfed and devastated Baltimore; it is also offering a continuing series of articles, "Orioles at 50," that chronicle the baseball team's first 50 years in Baltimore, and went overboard with a six-month anniversary look at the effects of Hurricane Isabel.

Last Sunday, The Sun produced an expanded, 10-page Perspective section devoted to the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court landmark ruling Brown vs. Board of Education, which made separate but equal education unconstitutional and legally integrated American public schools. The section had eight articles with graphics and photos, an editorial, several Opinion

Commentary pieces and an editorial cartoon. In addition, the front page had two "above the fold" articles that were intended to provide current perspective on the legacy of Brown vs. Board. On Monday, The Sun's front page offered another related article.

In comparison, The Washington Post produced individual stories during the previous week and published one front-page article on Monday (the actual anniversary date) and a related piece inside. The Chicago Tribune offered a three-part series that began Sunday, and The Richmond Times-Dispatch produced a 12-page special section.

Did The Sun devote too many resources and too much news space, and did the articles provide the proper context and perspective?

Helena Hall, who grew up in Baltimore and now lives in Laurel, thought the extensive section was essential "because most younger people don't know what happened." Harry S. Johnson, president of the Maryland State Bar Association, said, "Not many of the eyewitnesses to history are still alive to document what effect the ruling had. And because future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall grew up in Baltimore and argued the case, it resonates more with people here."

Jean Palmer of Baltimore saw it differently: "Pages upon pages about Brown vs. Board of Education, 50 years later, and not a single mention of No Child Left Behind? Oh wait, NCLB is something that the Republicans like. No wonder your paper doesn't mention it."

Sun columnist Gregory Kane, who has written extensively about the Brown ruling, wrote recently: "You'll hear a lot of talk about a 50-year celebration of the decision, and much flapdoodle about the `victory' black folks won. ... The sad truth is that African-Americans can ill afford many more `victories' like Brown." He added: "No matter how much celebratory talk you hear ... keep in mind the sobering statistics that show the achievement gap between black and white students."

Joseph Lamp, who grew up in Baltimore in the 1950s and early 1960s, said, "Whites were terrified of blacks and the school system did absolutely nothing to try and bridge the cultural war that took place. ... I thank The Sun for this extensive coverage, but I do hope your newspaper tells the rest of the story that is being left out."

The Sun's editor, Timothy A. Franklin, said the coverage was based on the belief that "the Brown decision was unquestionably one of the most important -- if not the most important -- Supreme Court decisions in the last century. Telling the story in a sophisticated and thoughtful way takes resources, time and news space."

Some readers were disappointed in the Sunday front-page article, "The promise of the ruling remains largely deferred." The article, which followed one student at predominantly black Randallstown High School to help document its current state of academic achievement, upset Kevin Gardner Jr., a 17-year-old junior at the school. "Why not pick a person with a 3.0 grade average to follow around for a day instead of a student with a 2.2 GPA? Even in Randallstown's standard programs, there are far more students who are successful than students who fail."

The success or failure of a special report is partly contingent on whether it forces other significant material to be underplayed. One can argue that Smarty Jones' overwhelming victory at the Preakness Stakes deserved more prominent display on the front page. The Randallstown story needed a stronger statistical analysis on black student reading levels in Maryland. The Perspective section lacked an article on how The Sun covered Brown vs. Board at the time of the ruling and during the time it was implemented. But overall, the effort was successful.

Paul Moore's column appears Sundays.

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