Media History Exchange, 2018 Joint Journalism and Communication History Conference

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Civil Rights Coverage and Newsmagazines: A View from the Literary Journalism
Kathleen Wickham

Last modified: 2017-11-25


While newspapers offered daily accounts of civil rights strife waged across the South in

the late 1950s and early 1960s and television brought the stories alive with film, newsmagazines brought something else to the table—stories written with narrative structures, colorful writing and terse detailing. Stepping outside the neutral bubble of daily journalism, writers for Life, Look, Time, The Saturday Evening Post, Newsweek, Jet, Ebony and U.S. News & World Report provided a picture of the world outside the realm of local reporting. Newsmagazines made sense of changes occurring in American society, and in the process made the publications a mainstay in living rooms across the nation. Simply put—magazines were how Americans found out what was occurring across the country. They provided a mirror of American culture, its views and its


This manuscript examines how the eight publications reported on pivotal civil rights events beginning with the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1954 ordering the desegregation of public schools and ending with the 1968 murder of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the range commonly accepted as the first part of the modern civil rights movement.  The research questions sought to determine how the storytellers utilized the techniques of literary journalism to craft stories that were more exciting, more personal and more dramatic than those published in the nation’s newspapers. The significance rests in Connery: “Researchers need to move away from analyzing literacy journalism primarily as literary art, and see it more as a cultural way of knowing.”

Thus, the purpose of this manuscript was to find the roots of the 1960s iteration of literary journalism in the dramatic accounts and field reporting of reporters during the civil rights years in magazines focused on broad audiences. Within their reports are found Wolfe’s criteria for literary journalism: scene-by-scene construction, dialogue, first-person experiences, usage of solo characters to carry the narrative and artful use of personal and physical characteristics. The stories provide a glimpse into the explosion of literary journalism in the 1960s by writers who earned their spurs on newspapers grounded in the objectivist paradigm of fact-based writing. News magazines were the transitional training ground. Civil rights stories became the catalyst as it became apparent that while there were two sides to the story only one side held the moral ground. The door opened to write discursively.

The results will interest scholars from various specializations within the history paradigm: civil rights coverage, newsmagazine reporting and literary journalism.


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