This year was marked by a movement towards racial reckoning in America, including a recognition of the historic injustices done towards Black people in this country via policing and also from a whole host of other institutions.
Now another entity has stepped forward to acknowledge its role in perpetuating racial injustice. The Kansas City Star newspaper on Sunday issued an apology to the Black community in Kansas City, Missouri, for what it called a history of reporting that “disenfranchised, ignored, and scorned” the region’s African American residents.
Accompanying the apology is a package called “The Truth in Black and White,” highlighting six key stories from past decades which impacted Black people in Kansas City. Editor and president of the Kansas City Star, Mike Fannin, said the stories had been previously sidelined by the outlet and its sister paper the Kansas City Times, or framed in ways that painted Black people disparagingly.
Like most metro newspapers of the early to mid-20th century, The Star was a white newspaper produced by white reporters and editors for white readers and advertisers. Having The Star or Times thrown in your driveway was a family tradition, passed down to sons and daughters.
But not in Black families. Their children grew up with little hope of ever being mentioned in the city’s largest and most influential newspapers, unless they got in trouble. Negative portrayals of Black Kansas Citians buttressed stereotypes and played a role in keeping the city divided.
In the pages of The Star, when Black people were written about, they were cast primarily as the perpetrators or victims of crime, advancing a toxic narrative. Other violence, meantime, was tuned out. The Star and The Times wrote about military action in Europe but not about Black families whose homes were being bombed just down the street.
Even the Black cultural icons that Kansas City would one day claim with pride were largely overlooked. Native son Charlie “Bird” Parker didn’t get a significant headline in The Star until he died, and even then, his name was misspelled and his age was wrong.
Hannin noted that Black residents in Kansas City throughout the years had called out the papers’ coverage for being biased, and in his apology also said that a former editor of the Star reportedly remarked during the height of school desegregation, “we don’t need stories about these people.”
The marginalization of Black people in the papers’ news coverage continued beyond the civil rights era, Hannin admitted.
In 1968, five Black men and one Black teenager were killed over three days of rioting in Kansas City at the time the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was to be buried, having been assassinated by a white man’s bullet only days prior. At least four and perhaps all were shot by police. A mayor’s commission determined that most were “innocent victims,” and yet there was no follow-up newspaper probe as there would be today, no independent investigation, no calls for the officers to be charged, or for the police chief to resign.
Nearly a decade later, raging waters surged in the deadly flood of 1977. The Star and Times quickly dubbed it “The Plaza Flood.” That set the stage for the papers, both lacking the staff diversity to challenge assumptions, to focus mainly on property damage at the Country Club Plaza, not so much the 25 people who died, including eight Black residents.
Hannin also made sure to point out that Black-owned publications, The Kansas City Call and The Kansas City Sun, had consistently covered issues that the Star did not.
“It still pains me personally to know that in The Star’s monopolistic heyday — when it had the biggest media platform in the region — the paper did little to unify the city or recognize the inherent rights of all Kansas Citians,” the editor said.
He added that the paper now has a race and equity editor on staff who was hired this fall, and that the Star is working to make its newsroom more diverse as part of efforts to better represent people in the entire community of Kansas City—not just those who are white.
Any meaningful change has to come with a serious acknowledgement of the wrong that is being redressed. That the Kansas City Star has taken this honest approach makes its promise of progress more believable than the many PR statements that came from various corners in America this year. Kudos to them for making that start.