Michael L. Umphrey
Two students at Polson High School wore t-shirts to a pep assembly that many deemed inappropriate. Each class was assigned a color, and the Homecoming week contest selected the winning class based on how many students wore the assigned colors. The seniors were assigned black, juniors white, sophomores blue and freshmen green. One junior girl wrote “white pride” on her t-shirt, a decision her mother said was related to the class contest and not to white supremicism or racism. “For god sakes she is part native!” said her mother. Another student wore a white t-shirt with a confederate flag on the front, along with the word “Redneck.”
Inevitably, some other students were offended by the shirt and also inevitably the assistant principal intervened and asked the students to change their shirts. According to school administration, they did so.
The events took on a life of their own on social media–mainly Facebook–where it was claimed that the entire class of students wearing white t-shirts was an intentionally racial activity endorsed or tolerated by staff. A photo of the students was posted in which KKK hoods had been photoshopped on them.
How did local journalists handle the story? The Daily Interlake reported this:
Photos circulating across social media showed that at least two students included racial references on their garb. One student was pictured wearing a white T-shirt boasting the words “white pride” and “Trump 2016.” The student had braided her hair, which some in the native community have interpreted to be insensitive “cultural appropriation” of Native American heritage. Another student was wearing a white shirt with a Confederate flag with the word “redneck.” Another student wore a shirt with the phrase “white power” written on the back.
The reporter counted the front and the back of one girl’s shirt as two students, which led to inaccuracy about how many students were involved. But more important, the reporter did not quote or refer to the many inaccurate stories that were spreading on Facebook. One would think the online frenzy complete with rumors, inaccurate statements, hateful and exaggerated claims and doctored photos would make it into any responsible journalistic coverage.
The reporter then moved on to cite advocacy groups who sided with the outraged people, without tempering the accusations of racism by including that the outrage was a response to exaggerated and inaccurate claims on social media. The report leaves an impression that staff at PHS were causing or endorsing or supporting racism, though the facts known so far do not adequately support that.
The Missoulian did a much better job. Reporter Vince Devlin saw that the main story was the huge discrepancy between what school administration said had happened and what angry people said on Facebook. So he not only quoted the superintendent’s press release, he also quoted from some of the Facebook posts that were driving the frenzy:
Some of the pictures of the junior class in the gym are cropped, but still show more than 50 students dressed in white shirts. Accompanying comments often suggested that several, many or most of the students were wearing “white power” shirts when only one of them was.
One person who posted photographs said it looked like “white supremacy day” at the school. Another claimed the school “allowed these students to wear shirts that read ‘white pride,’ ‘white power’ with Confederate flags and Trump support. No one was sent home. They even took a junior class photo. Not racist? Just school pride?”
He didn’t cite the most inflammatory posts, but he gave enough so that a reader could determine what had actually happened. He also reported that Dustin Monroe, “chief executive officer of Native Generation Change, a Missoula-based group that works on Indian reservations across Montana to tackle issues that challenge the native community” was calling for a protest at the Polson Homecoming football game Friday night. That was part of the story.
By contrast, the Daily Interlake provided extended space for Monroe to give his opinions, though his information is barely sourced, from unnamed disgruntled people who he said contacted him and others that he said he talked to in Missoula. Why is an uninformed partisan from Missoula given so much space? He’s allowed a long question-begging position statement that assumes that the accusations of racism are well-founded and accurate, with no apparent investigation beyond social media and complaints from aggrieved parents. Determining how well-founded the accusations are should have been the focus at this point in the story.
It’s hard to see what journalistic reason led the Interlake to print Monroe’s theories, such as the one that the girl’s braids are “evidence” of “cultural appropriation.” It introduces a new topic that has to do with Monroe’s agenda that isn’t linked in the story to anybody connected to the Polson event. If it comes into the story, readers would be better served if, at minimum, the reporter gathered other points of view on whether it is a sin for people to adapt customs or ideas from other cultures as well as whether the custom of braiding hair is unique to Native Americans.
In emotionally-charged situations, journalists can provide a valuable–an indispensable–service to the community by gathering the relevant facts and reporting them in a somewhat calm and detached manner. Kudos to the Missoulian for doing just that.