The Kerner Commission
Following the devastating riots in the summer of 1967, President
Lyndon B. Johnson created The National Advisory Commission on Civil
Disorders and charged it with the task of finding out:
-Why did it happen? and
-What can be done to prevent it from happening again?
The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders was also known
as the Kerner Commission, as Otto Kerner, the governor of Illinois,
was the chairman of the commission. Other members of the commission
John V. Lindsay, mayor of New York and vice chairman of the commission
Fred R. Harris, Oklahoma senator
Edward W. Brooke, Massachusetts senator
James C. Corman, U.S. representative 22nd District of California
William M. McCulloch, U.S. representative 4th district of Ohio
I.W. Abel, president of United Steelworkers of America (AFL-CIO)
Charles B. Thornton, chairman of the board and CEO of Litton Industries,
Roy Wilkins, executive director of the NAACP
Katherine Graham Peden, commissioner or commerce for Kentucky
Herbert Jenkins, chief of police of Atlanta, Ga.
This commission answered all of the questions set forth to it
by the president and produced the “Report of The National
Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders” in 1968.
A chapter in the report titled “ The
News Media and the Disorders” examined
the media’s role during the riots.
The president wanted to know: What effect do the mass media have
on the riots? After much research, interviews, and statistical
analysis, the commission said that “the question didn’t
lie solely with the performance of the press and broadcasters in
reporting the riots properly, but the analysis had to include the
overall treatment by the media of Negro ghettos, community relations,
racial attitudes, and urban and rural poverty."
Though the commission came up with the conclusions that the news
media made a concerted effort to give a balanced factual account
of the 1967 riots, the commission also said that the portrayal
of the riots did not accurately reflect the scale and character
and caused an exaggeration of the mood and event. The commission
also found that the media failed to report adequately on the causes
of and consequences of civil riots and race relations.
What should be done
The Kerner Commission believed the media caused people to form incorrect
impressions of events during the summer of 1967.
As part of its research methods, the commission conducted content
analyses of newspapers and found that some newspapers printed “ large
scare headlines” that were not representative of the milder
stories that followed.
In addition, the commission said that such media practice produced
what is called a cumulative effect were “people began to associate
normal sights and sounds, such as police sirens and flashing lights,
burning buildings and suspects in police custody, as linked to the
The commission also believed that media coverage was not representative
and failed to communicate with both the black and white audience.
Also, we believe that to live up to their own professed standards,
the media simply must exercise a higher degree of care and a greater
level of sophistication that they have yet shown in this area – higher,
perhaps than the level ordinarily acceptable with other stories” (Executive
Order No. 11365, 1967, pp. 202-203).
Ignoring local events
In addition, the commission reported that newspapers
tended to play riots as a national issue, particularly when the
on their own backyards. Wire stories concerning other riots in
other cities were used and given more attention, and events in newspapers’ own
cities often went uncovered or underreported. Also, as stated earlier,
many of the stories didn’t discuss the riots, but rather
legislation to try to stop the turmoil.
Recommendations to media
The Kerner Commission made many recommendations
to media organizations that it felt would improve coverage of
race-related issues in the future.
The commission made several recommendations to the media to help
avoid such a situation from occurring again. Those recommendations
included: a need for better communication between law enforcement
and reporters; mutual orientation between reporters and their
official sources; designation of information officers to disseminate
to the media; a better relationship between out-of-town reporters
and media organizations and local law enforcement; general
guidelines and codes on behavior, procedures, moratorium agreements;
blacks in journalism; and that the media should recognize the
existence of blacks (Executive Order No. 11365, 1967, pp. 208-212).
Many studies have focused on the media’s interpretation of
the Civil Rights Movement and how well media organizations
have heeded the Kerner Commission’s recommendation, yet little
attention has been paid to the historical perspectives of past
and if print media has recognized the existence of blacks,
the way that small local newspapers in Southeast Texas kept
readers abreast of the Civil RIghts Movement and pertinent local
and national events.