Getting the busing story right, 40 years later

Renewed criticism of busing coverage raises valid concerns, but improved reporting will require nuance — and putting education reporters in charge.

For three weeks now, news outlets have been pumping out stories about busing, a topic unexpectedly restored to prominence by a dramatic Democratic primary campaign debate moment when Senator Kamala Harris challenged former Vice President Joe Biden on his record opposing busing students to integrate schools.

Several news outlets have tried to fact-check Biden’s past history on busing. Many have reported the candidates’ current desegregation positions, or simply covered the controversy. A few have looked back at the busing experiences of Harris and her classmates in Berkeley or other places. Others have looked at the lackluster history of recent federal desegregation efforts.

While surprising and abundant, this wave of school desegregation coverage hasn’t been as helpful as it could have been, according to a handful of prominent researchers and journalists who argue that media outlets have been talking about busing the wrong way, using the wrong terms, focusing on the wrong things.

These experts raise several important concerns about coverage of integration, some of which go back 40 years and are being repeated in the present.

“It is unlikely that we will ever again see an effort to deconstruct our system of caste schools like what we saw between 1968 and 1988,” wrote New York Times reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones in a recent opinion piece. “But at the very least, we should tell the truth about what happened.”

The widespread notion that busing failed —  at the time and in some of the recent coverage — is a highly flawed, simplistic narrative. Desegregation’s successes deserve much more attention than they have received, both at the time and more recently. Journalists need to do better at describing what really happened — and why.

However, it’s also important to approach any blanket statements about the success of the school desegregation era with appropriate care and skepticism.

Desegregation efforts resulted in the loss of jobs for a generation of black educators, were not universally effective or durable, and did not work equally well for different kinds of students.

“At its best, [busing] gave black kids systematically better educations and exposure,” said the New York Times’ Farah Stockman, who won a 2016 Pulitzer Prize for her series on busing efforts in Boston. “At its worst, it sent them into crappy schools far from their homes, where they were hated, and it destroyed black schools with strong traditions.”

A good first step might be for news editors to put education reporters in charge of the coverage, rather than relying on political reporters and think pieces.

At its best, [busing] gave black kids systematically better educations and exposure… At its worst, it sent them into crappy schools far from their homes, where they were hated, and it destroyed black schools with strong traditions. –  Farah Stockman

Concerns about past coverage of integration efforts have been known since at least 2016, when Dartmouth’s Matthew Delmont published “Why Busing Failed,” which among other things explores the media’s role in shaping public opinion about desegregation efforts.

In recent op-eds in the Washington Post and The Atlantic, Delmont has pointed out the New York Times’ hostile coverage of efforts to reduce school racism and inequality in its own backyard and lamented the “chorus of voices insisting busing was an inconvenient, unfair, and failed experiment.”

Busing failed politically “because the narrative that came out of it from the media and politicians was almost only negative,” Delmont said in a recent interview with Chalkbeat.

Busing isn’t the only education issue in which past coverage has come under renewed scrutiny. Coverage of New York City’s 1968 teachers strike and the 1996 Ebonics debate are other examples that come to mind.

And Delmont isn’t the only one to raise concerns about the accuracy of past depictions of busing efforts.

“Busing came to be seen as a failure in part because the media focused on the violence in Boston, rather than the dozens of cities that integrated peacefully,” argued University of New Hampshire history professor Jason Sokol in a recent Boston Globe op-ed. “Everywhere that busing was tried, it had mixed results … But the media focused on places like Boston, which erupted in violence.”

“To the extent to which journalists reproduce this language of failure, they’re reproducing the language and logic of white opponents of busing,” Northwestern’s Brett Gadsden said in a phone interview.

Indeed, the widespread belief that court-ordered desegregation efforts failed is “one of the most successful propaganda campaigns of the last half century,” according to New York Times Magazine reporter Hannah-Jones — aided by media depictions that focused narrowly on busing, highlighted anti-busing arguments, and failed to credit busing for its accomplishments.

For more about Delmont’s critique of media coverage of segregation read New book exposes flaws in media coverage of Northern integration efforts

Nikole Hannah-Jones’ exploration of the debate over school segregation, including the media’s role.

According to Hannah-Jones and others, school desegregation was enormously successful, especially in the South, and had strong positive benefits for students who participated in the experience.

But it was infrequently depicted that way. And now, past tropes about desegregation are being picked up again, with media outlets too often starting the school integration story with busing rather than with the refusal to integrate the schools that often preceded, focusing narrowly on the conflicts surrounding busing rather than its successes, and downplaying its effectiveness in favor of reporting on antagonism and conflict.

Positive experiences with integration have remained “the under-told narrative in the media,” said Penn State’s Erica Frankenberg in a recent phone interview.

“To the extent that current articles continue to frame busing as something that white people don’t like, then they’re simply continuing to distort the issue in the way same way,” Sokol told me in a phone interview.

Last week’s column, by veteran journalist Issac J. Bailey, featured six key recommendations for reporters writing about desegregation that echo many of these criticisms.

For more about Hannah-Jones’ rise to prominence and enormous influence on education journalism, read Nikole Hannah-Jones, the Beyoncé of journalism.

It is unlikely that we will ever again see an effort to deconstruct our system of caste schools like what we saw between 1968 and 1988… But at the very least, we should tell the truth about what happened. – Nikole Hannah-Jones

While they make many good points, critics of desegregation coverage sometimes sound unreasonable in their calls for new ways of writing about what happened: Don’t call it busing. Don’t say it failed. Don’t focus on the conflicts that accompanied its implementation, the obstacles to its continuation, or to viable alternatives.

It also doesn’t help that they haven’t specified particular pieces of journalism in their takedowns of present-day coverage that can be examined.

The LA Times story School busing and race tore L.A. apart in the 1970s. Now, Kamala Harris is reviving debate would seem to fit the description of a media narrative focusing on conflict. The Washington Post’s recent piece Effective but never popular, court-ordered busing is a relic few would revive would seem to be an example of a story focused on the experiences of white busing opponents. Only a few recent stories — among them the New York Times’ ‘Do You Support Busing?’ Is Not the Best Question and Chalkbeat’s Did busing for school desegregation succeed? — would seem to avoid the pitfalls. But we don’t know exactly which stories Delmont, Hannah-Jones, and others are objecting to.

However, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t important takeaways for journalists called on to write about this topic. Integration’s successes do not get the attention they deserve, and media depictions include some obvious flaws. But integration shouldn’t be treated as a panacea and its demise shouldn’t be attributed narrowly to media-fueled propaganda against it.

Journalists writing about desegregation efforts should capture the full range of programs and varied outcomes these programs achieved, not an overly negative or unrealistically positive depiction. (Stockman recommends a Twitter thread from researcher Sarah Reber that looks at different plans and their various outcomes.)

The trick is to find a balance between knee-jerk antagonism and excessive sentimentality.

One obvious strategy would be for editors to assign education journalists to take the lead, rather than political reporters and campaign correspondents. The national education reporters at the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, NPR, and Washington Post have been all but entirely missing from coverage of this front-page story.

Tasking the talented journalists who know the topic best to cover the debate would greatly increase the chances of producing high-quality coverage.


‘Complicating the narratives’ in education journalism

New documentary highlights the need to deepen school integration coverage

Alexander Russo is founder and editor of The Grade, an award-winning effort to help improve media coverage of education issues. He's also a Spencer Education Journalism Fellowship winner and a book author. You can reach him at @alexanderrusso.

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