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:
-What happened?
-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 included:
· 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, Inc.
· 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.

The media
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 racial disturbances."
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 events were going 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 information 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; more 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 events and if print media has recognized the existence of blacks, and even further, the way that small local newspapers in Southeast Texas kept readers abreast of the Civil RIghts Movement and pertinent local and national events.


Protesters picket integration of a public school.

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Copyright 2003 Nyree Doucette