Credit: Screemshot: Los Angeles Times reckons with its record on race and racism

A headline run by US newspaper LA Times in July 1981 read: "Marauders from Inner City Prey on L.A.'s Suburbs".

The article, the first of a two-part series, set out to look at the serious social issue of crime in the prosperous and predominantly white communities of Pasadena, Palos Verdes and Beverley Hills. It cited a lack of education and jobs as the underlying cause of crime spilling over from South Los Angeles.

But the headline, and in describing the source as a "permanent underclass" in the city’s "ghettos and barrios", only reinforced stereotypes that black and Latino Angelenos were thieves, rapists and killers. A formal apology for this story last year went on to acknowledge how this coverage sensationalised the struggles of poor families, generalised south LA residents, uncritically quoted police and prosecutors, and appeared to back harsher action against these crimes.

"We probably fed into a sense of racial antagonism and unease," reflects Sewell Chan, the outgoing editorial page editor at LA Times, speaking on the podcast. "We didn’t do what we would see today as responsible journalism."

Chan will soon be moving to Texas Tribune but a key achievement in his time with LA Times is his role as chief author of the reckoning with racism initiative.

The apology for that 1981 headline is not an isolated case. In September of last year, that initiative commenced with an unflinching self-examination of a whole host of failings around coverage of marginalised groups from the owner Patrick Soon-Shiong, a public apology for where it went wrong and a pledge to do better in the future.

The executive editor at the time, Norman Pearlstine, felt there were a number of different strands that merited a whole series of editorials on the subject. Staff members within the black and Latino caucuses of The Times' news guild (its labour union representing employees) were calling for accounting and a formal apology. Meanwhile, Greg Braxton, a senior reporter with more than three decades of experience with the news organisation, wanted to reflect on his role in the 1992 Los Angeles uprisings. Chan, too, had suggested a hard look at the organisation's past.

"I believe apologies can be very important. They’re not a panacea, they’re a first step - and only a first step - to righting a wrong," says Chan.

"I felt that just apologising without really understanding what we were apologising for would be a disservice. So we engaged in as comprehensive a historical survey as we could to explain to our readers just what it is we feel sorry for now."

These apologies come long before his time with the company, and yet he says its history weights over the institution even 140 years after being founded. This is not about burying the hatchet but about acknowledging coverage that has long stood for white supremacy, wartime incarceration of the Japanese and scapegoating of marginalised groups. And then moving forward.

Many of these stories are in living memory too; the 1965 Watts uprising, the police beating of Rodney G. King in 1991, the backing of Republican Governor Pete Wilson in 1994 who supported Proposition 187 (legislation which would have cut back public benefits to immigrants if it was not later struck down by courts).

It also shows the positives and the changing attitudes. Like how the Latinos at the LA Times have helped to change its journalism for the better. A series titled simply "Latinos" won the 1984 Pulitzer Prize for public service and prompted news organisations more widely to think about the changing demographics in their communities.

The subject of racial justice was also in fever pitch last year, with the death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement. This was no doubt a catalyst but for Chan, the true impetus was trying to prove that LA Times is worth supporting it and is genuinely invested in the needs of its local community.

This is a recent pattern. Long before The Times, Alabama's Montgomery Advertiser put out a story in 2018 called "Our shame: The sins of our past laid bare for all to see". It recognised and apologised for dehumanising African-Americans in the 1950s, characterising lynching victims as guilty before proven.

In the US last year, The Kansas City Star, in Missouri, went on a similar journey seeking to rebuild after its poor historical coverage of black communities. The Boston Globe, in Massachusetts, launched its Fresh Start Initiative later with the same aim of looking inward to repair the damage it has caused. Much further afield, one of the largest New Zealand's media organisations, Stuff, apologised in late 2020 for its anti-Maori bias.

Experiences within the newsroom

Part of what The Times' reckoning with racism initiative tried to expose is that black, Latino and Asian journalists have equally had a hard time in a not-so diverse news industry. Reporters of colour - both past and present - opened up on their own experiences with discrimination.

Carlos Valdez Lozano wrote about how as an intern in 1987, his story on the murder of a young male prostitute had been rewritten entirely by a white, female reporter using his sources, quotes and material. He did not receive a byline or an apology after complaining. But 33 years later, he still works as the assistant metro editor. The moral of the story is that it is not enough to simply bring promising young journalists of colour into the newsroom. They need mentoring.

Janet Clayton, a former staff writer, editor of the editorial pages and metro editor, reflected on how she grew up in a house where the newspaper was forbidden from entering the front door. She gives a compelling account of changing attitudes and working for a newspaper her father despised: "My dad died before he saw any of that happen for me. I wish he could have witnessed the change — my mum did, with her eyes full of tears."

Five more reporters shared their perspectives, touching on themes of being the odd ones out in a newsroom, growing attitudes and getting sources to open up who normally shun the paper.

Chan worked with op-ed editor Sue Horton to come up with the full range of stories, but he regrets not having time to explore stories around indigenous communities. He says that the editor's role here is crucial to preserve the lived experience and knowledge of reporters, and giving those reporters the first attempt to distil clarity of meaning.

Impact with audiences

All of this sounds well and good. But so what? The best measure of success can be seen by taking a look at the letters in the aftermath of the initiative.

Indeed, it was not without criticism. Some readers pointed out the lack of diversity still apparent within its ranks (The Times is currently 65 per cent white): "There is horrific hypocrisy at your paper on the subject of race, and you have travelled at a snail’s pace to correct it. You have a sea of white faces that daily dominate your pages. At the same time, you constantly preach to the rest of us about inclusion and how diversity is our strength. These white faces don’t come close to matching their proportion in L.A. County by a long shot."

But there was an overwhelming amount of positivity too, many writing in to praise the organisation for having the courage to fess up to their failings, and show that bias is not as simple.

But here is a significant response and signs that such initiatives can bear tangible results: "I let my LA Times subscription lapse a while ago, partly out of frustration with the digital platform but mostly because compelling stories seemed to be in short supply.

"Your series on the paper’s reckoning with racism has been a bold move in the right direction. Entries this week from columnist Sandy Banks and others are stories that need to be heard. These personal tales shed light on a painful past, but the honesty, patience and persistence of these gifted reporters offer us the hope of a better future. I’m glad to be back with the LA Times. Keep up the good work."

To pull something like this off, what this boils down to is how serious a company is about change. For instance, The Times has gone as far as to hire a reader representative so its audiences have a direct place to turn to if they have grievances.

But ultimately, none of this is possible without a culture of acceptance in your ranks. That goes for reporters, editors and senior leaders; they must all feel empowered to admit failings. It does not end after pointing out what happened 30 years ago. The mindset needs to be ongoing.

"Journalists do make mistakes but the key is to own up," says Chan.

"Journalism at its worse can be imperious or arrogant or removed, and that’s dangerous. One of the first ways we can arrest or slow the trend of trust erosion is by being humble, open-minded, curious and empathetic. That doesn’t mean agreeing with [a reader's] unpleasant viewpoint, but you do need to understand and put the work into understanding where that point comes from."

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