Police officers watch as tear gas is used to dispel a crowd in Ferguson, Missouri, in August

Police officers watch as tear gas is used to dispel a crowd in Ferguson, Missouri, in August

Do today’s news media, legacy or digital, have what it takes to explore the underlying sources of racial conflict like the recent troubles in Ferguson, Missouri?

There is plenty of historical precedent. The problem is finding and mustering the resources. It was difficult even when newspapers were prosperous and dominated the news business.

Next August will bring the 50th anniversary of the 1965 Watts riot in southern Los Angeles, the event that foreshadowed a series of urban conflicts, including Detroit and Newark riots in 1967.

In the June 1968 Nieman Reports, I described the way we handled it at the Detroit Free Press. The paper was part of the Knight Newspapers group, a financially successful privately held company. (It would not go public until 1969 nor merge with Ridder Publications until 1974).

My participation was accidental. The riot started on a Sunday morning after a police raid on an after-hours bar, and it was still going strong on Wednesday when Derick Daniels, the executive editor, called the Knight Washington bureau to ask for fresh reporters. It was lunch hour, and I was alone in the office, so I nominated myself and the Free Press correspondent, Saul Friedman, a 1963 Nieman Fellow. By that evening, we were both on the streets of the still-burning city.

After the fires were out, I interviewed residents of the stricken neighborhood, pored over police records, and wrote a long narrative piece trying to put the riot into some kind of context. Then, on the Sunday after the riot, we started discussing ways to get at the underlying causes. I suggested a public opinion survey, focused on residents of the riot area. It would have two requirements: know-how and money to pay the field costs.

I had some know-how because research methods in social science were the main focus of my just-completed Nieman year. And I had contacts at the University of Michigan. But the money was a problem.

The financial success of newspapers in those days made them super conservative. They would spend money on special projects, but only if there was a line for them in the annual budget. No one had expected a riot.

Managing editor Frank Angelo saved the day. He was a Detroit native, knew everybody, and patched together a scheme that would let the Free Press accept charity without embarrassment.

The Detroit Urban League agreed to be the sponsor of record for the survey. Two charitable foundations and one individual put up the money. They were the Shiffman Foundation, the Campbell-Ewald Foundation and Henry Ford II. The Free Press donated my services as project director in exchange for first use of the data. As described in my 1968 Nieman Reports piece, it worked. The survey stories began in late August, a month after the riot.

Once management appreciated the value of such a study, it was an easy matter to get projects into the budget the following year. There was no central office for the Knight Newspapers except, as my boss Edwin A. Lahey, a 1939 Nieman Fellow, liked to say, “in Jack Knight’s briefcase.” But Lee Hills was executive editor of both the Free Press and The Miami Herald, and that was all the coordination we needed.

Hills got a line in the Herald’s budget for 1968 for what we privately called a “pre-riot survey.” Its purpose was to assuage our guilt over waiting for Detroit African-Americans to riot before we became sufficiently interested in them to do our survey. And the Free Press budgeted for a one-year follow-up study in Detroit.

That was the decade of too much news. I was working at home in Washington, D.C., on April 4, analyzing the data from the Miami survey, when Martin Luther King Jr. was shot. The media were full of speculation about what would happen to his nonviolent movement. Predictions of worsened violence got the larger headlines.

Putting on my social science hat, I saw an opportunity. We had in Miami a baseline for a panel survey, one that interviews a single group of people at different points in time. Our pre-riot data had detailed information on how African-Americans felt about various civil rights strategies, including violence. With that comparison point established, we could go back, talk to the same people, and see how attitudes had moved after the assassination.

But it was the Detroit problem all over again. There was no budget for it.

One of my Washington reporting beats was the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO). I mentioned my problem to T. M. Tomlinson, a psychologist who oversaw evaluation studies there. He mentioned it to his boss, Robert A. Levine, who had a swift and unexpected reaction. OEO would pay the field costs of the research. The government wanted to know, as badly as we did, the effects of King’s death on the civil rights movement.

You see the problem. Accepting money from private sources to pay for news reporting, as we did in Detroit, was considered unethical on its face. Accepting money from government was even worse. But I flew to Miami with the offer, and nobody blinked. We took the money and had the survey in the field on May 23.

Both the Miami and Detroit surveys in 1968 showed an unexpected optimism among African-Americans. In Miami, King’s death had made his nonviolence philosophy more visible and more accepted. I wrote a formal report on the Miami panel for OEO, and it later became my first academic publication.

The news organizations of that period took pride in having what the military calls “surge capacity,” the ability to mobilize extraordinary resources for extraordinary situations. Gene Miller, a 1968 Nieman Fellow, called it the “Sunday punch.” For example, The Miami Herald detached him to Ohio in 1970 to help the Akron Beacon Journal staff cover the Kent State massacre. (The staff won a Pulitzer Prize.)

Today, with newspapers struggling, there are still ways to find surge capacity. Charity now plays a much bigger and routinely accepted role in news funding. If any were to turn their attention to Ferguson, they would find that social science methods still have explanatory power.

The city of Ferguson was 74 percent white in the 1990 census, 45 percent in 2000, and 29 percent in 2010. So why isn’t there black political power? Here’s a clue: neither whites nor blacks are very interested. Turnout in Ferguson’s 2013 municipal election, according to the Detroit Free Press, was only 6 percent among blacks, 17 percent among whites.

What’s holding them back? It would be nice to know. There are well-established survey questions that measure one’s sense of political efficacy, political knowledge, anomie (the breakdown of social values), and social capital (the ability of people to work together for mutual advantage). The University of Michigan has national data on political participation going back to Harry Truman’s unexpected victory in 1948. If I were studying Ferguson I would ask some of its questions of blacks and whites for comparison and contrast.

And the growing body of reporters who can manage big data sets surely includes someone who could comb through the Census or the American Community Survey to identify other Ferguson-like situations.

In England, the Guardian teamed with researchers from the London School of Economics to use survey research to discover the causes of the riots that swept the country in 2011. Among the findings: economic deprivation, anger at police, social injustice.

Sometimes the main benefit of such a survey is that it is done at all. If attention is what the rioters are seeking, it has to help. In Miami, I went back after the second wave of the survey to talk with some of the panelists.

“I was surprised to see that many people thought the way I thought,” said one of the younger respondents.

A German sociologist, Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, had a theory to explain this. Many people will keep quiet about their opinions if they believe that only a few share them. She called it “the spiral of silence.”

Even in the age of Twitter and Facebook, the spiral of silence can still be a problem. Modern news media, with careful reporting and a little help from social scientists, might help break it.

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