The Los Angeles Riots, Race And Journalism
LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
This weekend marks 25 years since the riots that consumed Los Angeles for five days after a jury acquitted four LAPD officers in the beating of Rodney King. The verdict sparked a national debate about racial injustice. A debate that continues in the years since anger erupted on LA's streets. The media industry has changed drastically over the past decades. If a riot erupted today, it would surely be chronicled by citizens over social media. But in 1992, Amy Alexander was one of the reporters covering the violence. She's with me in our studios in D.C. Hi, there.
AMY ALEXANDER: Hi.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And Errin Whack is with us. She was in high school at the time of the riots. She's now an Associated Press reporter on the AP's race and ethnicity team. Hey, there.
ERRIN WHACK: Hi.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Minority representation in newsrooms is still overwhelmingly white and male these days. Twenty-five years ago, I imagine it might have been even worse. Who was directing the coverage back then? Who was your editor?
ALEXANDER: Well, there was a lovely gentleman named Terry Jackson who was our city editor, who is a white man. And then there were three or four assistant city editors. I was a staff writer at a mid-sized newspaper. And the team that I was a part of that went was comprised of myself - I'm an African-American woman - a white woman reporter - she was actually an LA native, which made her ideal - and a photographer who was Chinese-American.
I did not have at that moment a real awareness of sort of our demographic makeup and how that might interplay with what we were about to enter. But, literally, within hours after we arrived, it became apparent really quickly that I actually was at an advantage because a lot of the individuals who took to the streets who were upset - they weren't all African-American but a lot were black people. There was actually a pretty broad mix of people that were on the streets, but I never really felt threatened or imperiled in contrast to some other journalists I saw on scene that first night who were challenged, if not physically, challenged...
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Because they were white.
ALEXANDER: ...Because they were white.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Errin, you were in high school at the time. Were the riots on your radar at all? Do you remember them?
WHACK: You know, they definitely were on my radar. The Rodney King video, you know, that was really kind of - as cable news was really coming into its own and really kind of bringing the two posts and everybody in between a lot closer together and making people care about issues that were happening thousands of miles away. And so, you know, if you were a black person in America, you had seen that Rodney King video. You were familiar with it. You were horrified by it. And you were interested and invested in the outcome of that trial.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And you covered Ferguson. When you listen to Amy talk about some of the things that happened to her - some of the things she witnessed during the LA riots - does that have resonance for you? Does that sound familiar to what you saw in Ferguson in terms of some of the racial animus and how being African-American helped or didn't help when you're covering that kind of situation?
WHACK: Sure. I think that when you do have this racial tension that explodes between a community and local law enforcement, certainly, the LA riots is in the minds of that community and law enforcement. You know, they don't want that situation repeated. And so, you know, that tension was present in Ferguson. When the grand jury decision came down in Ferguson, that environment was very tense. People, you know, were trying to urge folks to remain calm and to not be violent.
And I think that there definitely were some of the ghosts of the LA riots present in that conversation and kind of going into that grand jury decision. There were definitely a lot, a lot of black goers on the ground in Ferguson early on. And frankly, a lot of them, you know, had been prompted by social media to recognize that this was going to be a national story, and it needed to be on the ground for - as soon as possible.
ALEXANDER: While Errin was describing what she witnessed in Ferguson, I find very interesting - a contrast is that in Los Angeles, the Los Angeles Police Department had been very passive that night - the first night. And, you know, there's been a lot written and a lot of policy discussions over the years and, certainly, in the immediate aftermath about whether their lack of input allowed the upset to spread.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: People come in - reporters come in when there's an event like this. But the broader question and some of the criticism has been, was there reporting on these communities and their concerns before these disturbances in both Ferguson and Los Angeles? You know, a lot of media attention when things get ugly. But before that, was there a sense that these communities were really being served by the media?
WHACK: You know, I think that a lot of what the African-American community in the greater St. Louis area would say was not that they necessarily had been voiceless but that they had been unheard in cities like Ferguson, Baltimore. I mean, the cities didn't really register on our national conscious before these police-involved killings happened. And so while there may have been some attention kind of on the local level, nationally, reporters were parachuting in and really kind of uncovering these issues for the first time. I know, you know, a lot of reporters who are really kind of astonished to learn about the level of racial tension in the heart of America. You know, the Midwest is not a place where a lot of Americans, frankly, are saying that racism is a problem, but it was, you know, nothing new to the people who have been living there.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Amy, there was a lot of conversation about how the media did after the LA riots. How did you think the coverage did now in hindsight?
ALEXANDER: I feel like the follow-up coverage sort of caught up to the facts relatively quickly. But in the immediate aftermath, there was, to me, evident gaps in the coverage that had to do with the demographic gaps that exists in news organizations. It happened in my newsroom. The editors back in the Central Valley had injected ideas and language to some of my stories that I completely found objectionable, but they made those decisions based on their own assumptions - so putting in loaded language in certain parts of certain stories that just sort of fed into certain stereotypes, you know, using words like rampage, for example, which, all the stories I wrote that week live, I would never - I never called what I witnessed rampaging. That is a loaded word, so.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, Errin, listening to Amy now, have things changed?
WHACK: I do think that things have changed. I think that, you know, we did have a pretty diverse group of journalists who were on the ground in Ferguson. Although, you know, I would point out that the decision makers have not necessarily become that much more diverse - still overwhelmingly white and male. And those people, you know, are the gatekeepers.
But you do have journalists of color who, unfortunately, have been in this scenario multiple times in multiple cities in the past few years. So they have developed sort of a macabre expertise on these issues that I think does help improve the coverage. And, frankly, social media is, of course, correcting a lot of these stories in real time.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Amy and Errin, when you look at the situation in newsrooms now, still lots of problems getting people of color where they need to be in terms of the hierarchy and in editorial positions. What needs to happen so that, you know, minority communities and concerns can be better represented today? And, Amy, I'll start with you.
ALEXANDER: It's if you have enough checks and balances in terms of diversity of thoughts, experiences, which, you know, means people from different economic backgrounds, different parts of the country - geographic diversity, different age ranges - you have a better chance, I think, of being able to sort of have someone put their hand up as a story is coming across and saying, you know, we might want to take a second look at this piece of this. We kind of want to make sure we're not making certain assumptions.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And Errin?
WHACK: It is exactly as Amy said. You know, obviously, depending on, you know, someone's background - the various criteria that make up someone's background - that is going to inform how they decide that question. I will say, I've definitely felt like, you know, being a black journalist has been advantageous to me. Really, throughout my career, I've always written about the intersection of race and various issues in American society. And so I do come at that, you know, as a black woman.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Amy Alexander and Errin Whack, thanks so much to both of you for joining us today.
ALEXANDER: Thank you.
WHACK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.