Lorraine Ahearn’s new research examines civil rights media history

The assistant professor of journalism co-authored “A Commemorative Bind: How the Birmingham News Redressed Past Journalistic Failure through Contemporary Civil Rights Memory,” recently published in AEJMC’s Journalism History publication.

Lorraine Ahearn, assistant professor of journalism, served as the lead author on a new civil rights media history study published in the winter issue of Journalism History, the quarterly journal of the AEJMC History Division.

The article, titled “A Commemorative Bind: How the Birmingham News Redressed Past Journalistic Failure through Contemporary Civil Rights Memory,” focuses on what happens when journalists revisit the history of race in the United States and discover that their own media organizations were complicit with past injustice.

Lorraine Ahearn

Ahearn collaborated with co-author Barbara Friedman, a media historian at UNC’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media, to examine the Birmingham News and the crisis of memory that occurred upon a newspaper’s centennial in the 1980s alongside mainstream commemorations of the U.S. civil rights movement amid an age of apology and backlash.

In 1963, the News downplayed and delegitimized monumental protests locally that meanwhile dominated front pages and newscasts nationally. The visceral photos and footage by national media are often credited with helping to jolt public opinion, and ultimately the White House, to support civil rights legislation.

“The Birmingham Campaign was the D-Day of the civil rights movement,” Ahearn said of the spring 1963 events, which saw mass arrests of protestors including children, excessive force by police using dogs and firehoses, the jailing of Dr. Martin Luther King, and in the aftermath that fall, a church bombing that killed four African American girls attending Sunday school. “The News’ journalistic performance offers the textbook example of a broad occupational failure that characterized many white media organizations, from Raleigh to Tulsa to Los Angeles.”

The study explores how, with the mainstreaming of civil rights memory starting in the 1980s, the News tried to reposition itself and regain credibility as an eyewitness. To do this, the newspaper used its most powerful tool: investigative journalism. Amid the George Floyd protests, the News documented 500 police-involved deaths in the Birmingham area during the 20th century. And in another investigation, News reporters showed that a violent tactic reminiscent of Public Safety Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor’s era in the 1960s – unleashing police dogs on the public – remained much in play in 2020.

“Beyond what we might have expected to find, the usual ‘mea culpa’ ritual, this study suggests that it didn’t suffice for journalists to say, ‘We’re sorry we didn’t do our job when it mattered most,’” Ahearn said. “The path forward for the News was to recognize the past – understanding that it’s ‘not even past’ – and do its job in the present.”

Journalism History is the oldest peer-reviewed journal of mass media history in the United States. Continuously published since 1974, the journal features articles on topics related to the full scope of mass communication history, which may discuss individuals, institutions or events.