Transcript of Bridging the Gap Episode 5: Analyzing Representation and Coverage in The Chronicle

Nadia Bey

Welcome back to Bridging the Gap, a commentary on discrimination, marginalization, race and identity at Duke. I’m your host, Nadia Bey.

This episode will focus on a history of The Chronicle itself, particularly regarding representation and how that has impacted our coverage of marginalized groups. We’ll be focusing on Black students in this episode, but it is important to acknowledge that students of other backgrounds may have different perceptions of The Chronicle and its coverage.

The idea for this episode was conceived over a year ago, although it wasn’t originally meant to be a podcast. Shortly after the murder of George Floyd, Chronicle leadership released a statement about the paper’s commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, after months of internal discussions about the same subject. While reading the statement, I remember thinking that I could count the number of Black staff members on two hands. Our organization has about 130 staff, excluding opinion columnists, and in spring 2021, six percent were Black, which is down from seven percent in spring 2017.

After the statement was released, I was looking through the library archives when I came across The Chronicle’s spread in the 1970 edition of The Chanticleer. In the center of the page was a photo of a Black female student, Adrenee Glover, and it was in this moment that I realized I didn’t know much about the history of Black students working at The Chronicle. There’s never been a Black editor-in-chief, let alone a Latine or indigenous editor. Other positions are not as well-documented as the editor position, making it a bit harder to identify who held a title and when.

So, I went looking for answers. What started as an attempt to highlight the staff members that may have gone unnoticed expanded into a larger story about The Chronicle’s relationship with Black students and about building trust in journalism.

Before we dive in, we want to start off with a land acknowledgement. We here at Bridging the Gap want to take a moment to acknowledge the land that the greater University occupies as the ancestral lands of the Shakori, Eno and Catawba peoples. If you are not currently on campus, we encourage you to take a moment to recognize the traditional owners in your area.

Now, let’s get started from the very beginning.

In the years following the integration of Duke’s undergraduate student body in 1963, multiple Black students made contributions to The Chronicle as staff writers, editors and photographers. Some, like woman’s page editor Cheryl Smith, were publicly recognized for their work by other staff, but Adrenee Glover was the only one whose perspective on the organization was explicitly captured.

The first time Glover was mentioned in The Chronicle was during Black Week in February 1969. A few weeks later, she was one of the signatories asking for a speedy trial for her involvement in the Allen Building takeover. By fall 1969, she had a byline as a reporter. She served as Thursday news editor, supplements editor, and assistant editor for The Chronicle before graduating from the Women’s College in 1971.

In an interview conducted in fall 1970, Glover said she joined staff to ensure accurate reporting on the Afro-American Society, which she was a prominent member of. In that interview, Glover described a disillusionment with Duke and The Chronicle. She said the following:

Adrenee Glover, read by junior Mihret Gebru 

And as for The Chronicle, it has changed quite a bit from that paper I first became involved with. The accused slantedness of the Chronicle at that time were merely the open expression of sincere political and social concern and awareness which is quite unlike the supposedly fair, but highly de-personalized and bureaucratic Chronicle we have now. A paper should strive for excellence, but should not forget the humanity of the people that work to make it so.

Nadia Bey

Glover unfortunately passed away in 1992 at the age of 42. In lieu of hearing from her directly, I sought out other Chronicle alumni that might have been familiar with the organizational culture in that time period. This included people like Bob Ashley (Trinity ‘70), who described staff as being deeply committed to campus activism, and Harvey Linder (Trinity ‘72), who told me about his stint as a Chronicle photographer and shared stories about the Black Duke community. Both said they weren’t familiar with many Black staff at the time.

Despite this, Ashley said there was a fair amount of interaction between The Chronicle and organizations like the Afro-American Society. I eventually spoke to Tom Campbell, a former editor-in-chief and opinion editor, about what he described as The Chronicle’s brand of “participatory journalism.”

Tom Campbell, Trinity ‘70

I started on The Chronicle my second semester sophomore year. That would’ve been spring of ‘68, I guess. And then my junior year, there was a lot happening then. That was the year, that spring, Black students took over Allen Building, there was the rioting in the quad that followed that. The one story about that I don’t think many people know is the night before, they told five of us on The Chronicle that this was going to happen the next morning. They said, “we’ve got something to tell you, but you have to first say you’re not gonna tell anybody.” They told us that, because they wanted us to contact the national media first thing, which we had to do by telephone back then. We had to make phone calls. And we had contacts, and looked up some other contacts, the network news, the New York Times, UPI [United Press International], Associated Press, the local newspapers, et cetera et cetera. I remember I was living on campus then and going back to my dorm room and I set the alarm for like six in the morning. My roommate goes, “What? What are you doing?” And I said, “Oh, I can’t tell you, you’ll find out tomorrow.” The feeling for the Black students was that this would protect them, that Duke would not be as quick to call the police, if they knew that the media was watching. That turned out not to be the case.

This was North Carolina state police in 1968. They were looking for a fight. They were more than happy to tear gas and charge. I was just by one part of the side door of Allen Building at this time to see what was going on, you know. There was a blur between us participating but I was also trying to report as to what happened. One of the funny things was, there were a lot of football players who had gathered off to the side of [Allen Building], were taunting, the people that were gathered on the doors, the idea of gathering around the doors was to protect the Black students inside, you know, to keep the police away from them. 

Anyway, that was an unusual day. I guess the year before that, there had been the vigil that I participated in but I wasn’t reporting on it at that time. There are other ways. I remember after Martin Luther King was assassinated, the vigil, and then the next year there was a leader in Durham called Howard Fuller, who was organizing boycotts of white-owned businesses downtown and marches through downtown, things like that. And he wasn’t real popular with the powers that be in Durham at the time, but some of us went and met with him. It was a mixture of an interview, but it was also we were interested in finding out what he was planning to do. So that one, we'd be ready to cover it. And two, we could maybe prepare the ground with news stories and editorials and things like that.

We saw ourselves as I joke about it, you know, years later, as we did participatory journalism. And there’s something to that, you know, there’s always a part of journalism that the reporters’ take on things comes through in the story. Especially if it’s a charged political story as these things were back then. From the bounds of strictly professional journalism these days, we crossed the lines of what that was. And we did it knowingly. It was like, okay. These are not your new ordinary times. We felt that it justified what we were doing. On the other hand, you know, reading back through The Chronicle, I could see that in some ways we were preaching to the choir. We probably didn’t convince a whole lot of people to change because of our approach. So that was the downside of how we did things. 

Nadia Bey

As Campbell mentioned, The Chronicle’s approach to journalism at the time was not entirely in line with what some would describe as “objectivity.” To many, journalistic objectivity means taking a neutral stance on the subjects you write about. If you’re a member of a marginalized group, it may not be as easy to do that. This is likely what Glover was referring to when she brought up humanity.

Nevertheless, as The Chronicle evolved over the years, it continued to position itself as a neutral outlet for all ideas. Although some editors tried to temper the content that reached publication, others emphasized freedom of expression. The Chronicle’s approach to publishing content, combined with its attempts to be detached in its coverage, has historically resulted in tension.

Although I was not able to pinpoint when exactly the shift that Glover described occurred, by the early 2000s, it was clear that the mutualistic relationship between The Chronicle and Black students had changed.

In spring 2003, the standing Duke Student Government president was arrested after a fight on campus. The Chronicle’s reporting on the situation resulted in controversy, as Black students felt it reflected poorly on their community. I talked to David Ingram, former editor-in-chief and a current NBC News correspondent to learn more.

David Ingram, Trinity ‘03

This happened in late March of ‘03. So I had been editor of the paper for about a little less than a year. It was toward the end of my time as editor, and toward the end of the DSG president’s term as president as well. 

At that time, generally, the way we learned about actions by Duke police was through email. I don’t quite remember how we learned about the charges, but I think we probably got an email from Duke police sometime Sunday afternoon or evening, where they said that they had charged three students. This was a busy time for The Chronicle. There was a lot of news happening. There was a big story that we were working on that same Sunday about the impending resignation of a top dean, who was returning to teaching. That ended up being our top story Monday morning. And then the story of the DSG President and the two other students being charged also ran on the front page the next day. 

It was clear from the beginning that it was an important story. And that it was a story that was going to require thoroughness in reporting and sensitivity to race, to the reputations of the people involved, and that it will require a lot of work to make sure we got the facts correct.

It was pretty rare, I think, at the time at least, for Duke police to charge students, especially with a violent crime. And it certainly was unusual for a student leader to face charges. When we first heard about it, we weren't quite sure that it was correct. We wondered whether the names that they included in their announcement were accurate. We weren't sure if it was the DSG president who had been charged because it seemed like such an unusual thing to have happened. I don't recall the time when we put stories online, whether we would have put it online immediately Sunday evening or if we waited until Monday morning. That was still relatively early days of The Chronicle having a website, I think less than 10 years. And it became an ongoing story for The Chronicle over the next couple of weeks, as the campus reacted, as we tried to get more details about what happened and as the Student Government reacted as well. We wrote several stories, we ran letters about what had happened, and we ran an editorial and some columns as well. It was a major story for the campus at the time.

Looking back, I think The Chronicle got the fundamentals correct on this story. The stories that we ran, told the basic details of what happened. You know, our job was to try to tell the campus as much detail as possible. What had happened on a Saturday night. And the basics were that there was a fight on campus between several Duke students, several off campus visitors. And the police decided to charge three Duke students. There was a lot that wasn't known, at least by most students at the time. And I think The Chronicle did a thorough job of attempting to find out what really happened. What caused the fight, who was involved, what it meant for the student government, for the students involved. Reading back through the coverage, there was a lot that was unsaid. People who were involved in the fight did not want to talk about it afterward and were sometimes critical of the coverage. It was difficult to tell all sides, because some students understandably didn't want to talk about an issue that had at that point moved into the criminal justice system. That did keep The Chronicle from, I think, telling a fuller story of what happened. Looking back, I think I would have been more critical of the police. I think I didn't question closely enough why Duke had made the decision to charge these students, why this was even a criminal matter. Fights happen among students. Sometimes students get injured in fights and there aren’t always criminal charges involved. So why did the police make a decision here to charge these students? That wasn't a question that we pursued hard enough.

Nadia Bey

Black students were concerned that The Chronicle’s portrayal of the situation would sway public opinion about them. Additionally, The Chronicle’s reporting mentioned that the involved parties were affiliated with National Pan-Hellenic Council fraternities. The president of Spectrum, a multicultural organization, later called the decision “deplorable” and “irresponsible, especially on a predominantly white, racialized campus like Duke where minority Greeks are extremely misunderstood.” For many, this incident was not the first strike for The Chronicle.

David Ingram

Relations at that time between The Chronicle and Black students were close to a low point, I think, even before this had happened. For context, there's an important piece of the story here from 2001, from two years earlier, when The Chronicle made the decision to run an inflammatory ad from sort of a conservative provocateur named David Horowitz, who decided he would take out ads in multiple student newspapers across the country, including The Chronicle, criticizing the idea of reparations for slavery. The Chronicle ran that ad in 2001. And there were protests afterward, including from many Black students who questioned The Chronicle's judgment in running the ad. I was a sophomore when that happened. And I was a staff writer at The Chronicle. And two years later, I was editor when these charges were brought. Roughly half the student body, in 2003, had been there two years earlier when The Chronicle had run the Horowitz ad. And I think that among other things, had really strained relations between The Chronicle and Black students.

Nadia Bey

The anti-reparations ad wasn’t the first to receive community backlash. Ten years earlier, The Chronicle was heavily criticized for running a Holocaust denial ad. The reasoning for running both ads was the same—The Chronicle was committed to freedom of speech. However, this came at the expense of the organization’s relationship with marginalized students. One week after the Horowitz ad was published, the co-chair of the Black Student Alliance political action committee said that it was the last straw for The Chronicle.

The resulting disconnect between The Chronicle and Black students remained evident years later. In fall 2003, a student wrote in The Talking Drum, a publication for Black students, that people were still waiting on an apology for the ad. Throughout the 2000s, the belief that The Chronicle was not representative of the interests of marginalized students stuck.

David Ingram

The Chronicle had Black students on staff, The Chronicle had other students of color on staff. I do think diversity was a problem at The Chronicle at that time, and as editor at that time that was on me. I take responsibility for the fact that the Chronicle was not as diverse in its staff as it should have been. I think other editors before me would probably say the same. But nonetheless, it took a long time for The Chronicle to begin, I think to improve relations, including after the Horowitz ad.

Nadia Bey

The Chronicle’s perspective on free expression in advertisements also translated into its opinion section. To some, this laissez-faire approach was harmful. In January 2000, a student wrote in a letter to the editor, “I for one am totally fed up with this free speech argument whenever totally inexcusable remarks are made concerning race.” That statement was in response to a column that included “derogatory comments toward blacks, homosexuals and single mothers.”

Although many opinion columns see the light of day without controversy, some are more polarizing. A more recent example is an opinion column called “The plight of Black America.” Amrith Ramkumar, former editor-in-chief and sports editor, and a current member of the board that oversees The Chronicle, told me how that column and the resulting backlash shaped his perspective on his work.

Amrith Ramkumar, Trinity ‘17

That column in question came out in May 2015 right after I became editor-in-chief of The Chronicle. Like a lot of people, I was not ready to be editor in chief of The Chronicle. I don't think anyone really is and it's an immense amount of responsibility.  Clearly, one of the things looking back that I've thought a lot about that I could have done better is made clear that columns of a certain nature and about sensitive issues need to be given a much more thorough editing process before publication. The opinion editor traditionally is allowed to oversee column publication, but it was definitely a case where it was the summer, people were not in the same place, we were working remotely before everyone was used to working remotely. This was in 2014, 2015, again in May 2015. So it was just a hard situation, where the column was published, I think, pretty late at night, or overnight or early that morning and wasn't given the proper oversight. And it was written by Jonathan Zhao, who was the opinion editor at the time. And I woke up, again, like everyone else, to just kind of a giant mess, where, again, it just didn’t go through the proper channels of editing internally. It was one of those things where since it was a column, you're in a really tough spot at that point. He had cited sources and taken some steps that he thought were fair. And it's really hard to get things to a point where they're pulled off the website or retracted, especially if they’re opinions. So yeah, we decided the best way to respond was by putting out an editor's note and kind of handling it internally and making clear that columns that deal with those topics need to be very thoroughly reviewed in the future and making our standards clear internally. Externally, I tried to convey that as best I could, without throwing people under the bus, so to speak. It's hard to view anything in that situation in a positive light, given what was going on. And I know the damage that it caused to people emotionally, to our brand, to my staff.

It was a tough situation. And I took a lot of heat publicly for how that was handled. But yeah, I think it's more broadly, got at the heart of a very tough question, which is like, what is news? What is opinion? Do people understand the differences? Are they clear on the website? Are standards and processes clear with the public? And at that time, I don't think they were as much and I know people have taken a lot of steps, luckily, to improve that. I tried to work on that when I was around and make clear to the people that came after me that that should be a priority. So yeah, it definitely was a column that did a lot of damage, and it was really unfortunate because it could have definitely been avoided if things had been structured more carefully. It bothered me at the time. It's bothered me since and definitely will be part of my legacy, so to speak, as Chronicle editor, unfortunately in a negative way. I think it’s just one of the things you have to go through and I'm glad people have been so careful in the years since and luckily we haven't really had huge issues like that at least that I'm aware of.

Nadia Bey

Zhao declined to comment, citing personal and professional obligations.

During our conversation, Amrith asked why I chose to highlight the column I did, and I think that’s an important question. Although the column came out in 2015, people were still discussing it when I arrived at Duke over four years later. This is not so different from students being upset by the Horowitz ad years after its publication. As Duke’s paper of record, The Chronicle’s decisions will often outlast the people that make them, even when we think the dust has long settled. Those decisions can either build community trust or damage it.

Amrith Ramkumar

I never really viewed it as tensions between people in the Duke community and The Chronicle explicitly, but that there's definitely been that underlying vibe.

So yeah, I mean, from then on, we were really intentional about explaining, again, publicly, like our process, why kind of that happened, why it was wrong, where we were taking steps to improve that. And, yeah, I think those tensions were there between The Chronicle and students, between students and Duke at large, until I graduated in 2017. And it was something we had to work on a lot. Again, it's something we're still working on. That's why we're talking about this now, I think. But yeah, it was just an interesting situation, because it happened at a time when a lot of difficult things were going on. And then, you know, the incident with Tallman Trask came to light in an investigative story I worked on and then there were widespread protests after that. And that was in 2016. And, yeah, I think like, the issues between The Chronicle and how issues of diversity and like covering students of color and talking about these things publicly, all of that was still in the background. And yeah, I don't really know that. It went away. I think we tried to convince people that it was an opinion piece written by one person that didn't reflect the views of The Chronicle, which is something that, you know, we always try to make clear, I still think it's not always clear to people. And that has a lot to do with the digital age, digital representation, people jumping to conclusions where they might not be there, but also again, like the fundamental errors that were made and issues so yeah, that's a really interesting question as far as repairing trust and relationships. Things seem to have gotten a little better. And like they're improving but it's hard when The Chronicle has had a history of issues when it comes to talking about the experiences of students of color and people of color.

I've thought about it a lot because now I work at the Wall Street Journal, which is known for having a very conservative opinion section and the journal is even different in that the opinion section doesn't even report to the journal’s editor-in-chief. But it's the same thing where damage is done by columns that are put out on some of these topics at times, emotional damage, damage to the journalist brand, all this stuff at times potentially. And yeah, it's like an existential question for media right now. But yeah, to your specific question, I think there was that conflict. And it was at basically the front of my mind as long as I was around, and I know it is still for the current Chronicle staff too.

Nadia Bey

Some considerations go beyond content.

David Ingram

I think a lot of people would have preferred that the story not get any attention. One of the complaints that I heard at The Chronicle was that we shouldn't have run the story on the front page. And I think it was a big story. I think it was a page one story because he was a role model for other students. It was a serious crime that he was charged with. And I think students would have wanted to know about it. I met with some students who were concerned about our coverage to try to learn more about their concerns, to try to address them. We would question ourselves and we had internal debates about whether this should have been a front page story, whether we used the right wording, whether the story was structured the right way, whether we were doing enough to find more witnesses and get more people to speak. This was not something that we took lightly at all.

Nadia Bey

This is by no means a complete history, and there are most likely other scenarios in which The Chronicle could have approached a situation differently. Organizations cannot change their pasts, but they can always look forward to the future.

Today, The Chronicle is attempting to improve its relationship with the community by being more transparent about its demographics and practices. There’s still work to be done, but the introduction of the equity and outreach coordinator position last year and the DEI leadership program this year are starting points. We are always open to feedback from students, staff, parents and alumni, and you can find masthead contact information on our website.

Outro: We’d like to thank everyone who made this episode possible. Community voices are what drive this podcast, and we’d like to keep the conversation going. If you are an individual or affinity group interested in producing Bridging the Gap or being interviewed for the podcast, reach out to editor-in-chief Leah Boyd for more information.

Thank you for tuning in, and until next time.

Nadia Bey profile
Nadia Bey | Digital Strategy Director

Nadia Bey, Trinity '23, was managing editor for The Chronicle's 117th volume and digital strategy director for Volume 118.


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