Southern Newspapers: Watching the Watchdogs

By Larry Noble

Vol. 1, No. 10, 1979 pp. 19-23

Daily newspapers play a key role in the lives of the people of the South. The papers provide us with commercial and economic information, with information on political and non-political events, with entertainment information and entertainment itself. They also present us with advice on what positions we should take on public affairs and furnish a controlled forum of letters to the editor.

Newspapers are also very lucrative businesses. About two thirds of the space in the daily newspapers is devoted to advertising. Traditionally, the personnel costs of newspapers has been kept low, while revenues are high - a combination of which produces large profit margins. Adding to these substantial margins is the trend over the recent decades to be fewer newspapers, hence less competition, especially in the large cities.

Newspapers, as watchdogs of our liberties, are especially protected by the Constitution. The First Amendment declares that Congress shall make no law "abridging" the freedom of the press. States also provide constitutional press protection, and in 1931 the U.S. Supreme Court went a step further and said that the national government will insure press freedom from state and local government encroachment. Despite occasional attacks on the press which have been sanctioned by the various branches of the nationalgovernment (such as the Supreme Court under the leadership Warren Burger is presently conducting) the constitutional protections remain.

The role of the press is extremely important as we seek to build a more just and equitable society. The press is proud of its assigned role, and says so, especially during National Newspaper Week once a year. But who watches the watchdogs? Is the press doing its job properly and effectively? What is the actual content of these newspapers day in and day out, year by year? What information and opinions are they giving to us?

Southern Newspaper Content

In an effort to answer these questions for daily newspapers in the South, a study was made of the decade of the 1960s. One morning daily newspaper in an important economic and political center was chosen from each of the eleven Southern states.

These newspapers were: Richmond Times Dispatch; Charlotte Observer;

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The State, Columbus, S.C.; Atlanta Constitution; Tampa Tribune; Birmingham Post-Herald; The Tennessean, Nashville; Clarion-Ledger, Jackson, Ms.; Times-Picayune, New Orleans; Dallas Morning News; and Arkansas Gazette, Little Rock.

The content of the newspapers was read, measured, coded and analyzed. A random sample was taken of the decade, twelve dates for each of the ten years. Sunday issues of the newspapers were not included. Some twelve million column inches of newspapers content were included in the study covering a total of 1,320 issues of newspapers.

For purposes of the study the content was divided into news, opinion, and advertising. Opinion was further divided into editorials, editorial cartoons, editorial opinion columns, and letters to the editor. The material was studied by geographical coverage, government level and branch, and public policy issue. Over two hundred categories were examined. A few of the findings of the study are reported in the present article. The Southern Regional Council is planning to publish the entire study later this year.

Study Findings

Only about ten percent of the total newspapers - thirty percent excluding advertising - was devoted to news about politics and government. At every level, local, state, and national, news attention was focused more on the administrative agencies than on the executive, legislative, or judicial branches. It was policy administration and not policy-making that lent itself to the heaviest coverage. Part of this stems from the character of the policy-making machinery of government. Although the people are getting more information on policy after it has been made than during the policy-making process, at least they are hearing about the end that touches them most directly. With more press attention to the production of the policy, the people would have a greater voice in the

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making of policies which affect them.

Only four political subjects received more than ten percent coverage each. These were military affairs, war and peace, education, and political parties and elections.

About half of the news dealt with events at the local level, and half of that was political or economic in nature. Slightly over one-fourth of the news covered national events. State news made up eleven percent of the news. Regional news - news about the South - got only three percent of the coverage.

International events made up ten percent of all news. Within this category, Europe received the most attention, with forty percent of the coverage. Asia, including Vietnam War reportage. received thirty-two percent. These were followed by Latin America. with thirteen percent, Africa, with eleven percent, United Nations, with six percent, and Canada, with two percent.

The newspapers examined in the study were essentially White newspapers, so the coverage of Black community affairs was almost nonexistent. Most of the newspapers cleaned up their most blatant racist practices during the 1960s. That is, classified advertising by race, designating race to Blacks only in crime stories, and segregated Black social news was abandoned except in the most racist newspapers.

The study attempted to place the newspapers on a liberalconservative continuum. Editorials and cartoons, the most local reflection of views of the newspaper, excluding letters to the editor, were examined for attitudes on six selected issues. These issues were: race, big government, business, freedom of expression, the Vietnam War, and poverty and welfare policies. It was assumed that the attitudes which were the most anti-Black, anti-big government, probusiness, antifreedom of expression, pro-Vietnam War, and anti-poverty and welfare policies would be the most conservative, and that the opposite attitudes would be most liberal. The

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attitudes were examined and rated with a percentage score. Percentage scores were then added for a total score. The scores were derived so that the highest scores would reflect the most liberal views, and lowest scores most conservative. Attitudes in editorials were scored separately, as were attitudes in cartoons, and the scores were combined. The combined rating is presented below, with scores by issue.

A perfect total liberal score would be 600, and a perfect total conservative score would be 0. The score range for each individual issue would be, from most liberal to most conservative, 100 to 0. On several of the issues, if not all, the dichotomy is ambiguous. Early in the decade, for instance, liberals were very much in favor of the Vietnam War. Liberals and conservatives both support business interests. And conservative whites are discovering that there are also conservative Blacks, who can be new allies.

Based on this scoring scheme, the newspapers fall into three groups. Little Rock, Charlotte, Atlanta and Nashville can be called most liberal. New Orleans, Tampa, and Birmingham are in the middle. Richmond, Dallas. Columbia, and Jackson are most conservative.

Letters to the editor were scored using the same methods as were used for editorials and cartoons: The results ran from most liberal to most conservative as follows, with total scores in parentheses: Little Rock (365), Atlanta (322), Charlotte (314), New Orleans (291), Nashville (290), Tampa (267), Columbia (232), Richmond (221), Dallas (185), Birmingham (184), and Jackson (152).

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The letter groupings were similar to those for editorials and cartoons. The range from liberal to conservative was smaller among letter writers, and letter writers seemed less liberal than liberal editors and less conservative than conservative editors. Birmingham writers probably reflected the editorial position of the local editor more than the editorials and cartoons. That newspaper is part of the ScrippsHoward chain, and many of the editorials were not written locally.

The editorial material was further examined to see if it urged citizens to vote or to take other action, if policy changes were urged at various governmental levels, if policy was ever critized, or if policy was praised. The theory was that newspapers which were effective watchdogs would be critical, would urge specific changes, would encourage citizens to seek action, and would praise where justified.

The study showed that only a tiny percentage of the editorial material urged citizens to vote or to act. The conservative papers urged the most policy changes at the national level and the least at the local level. Local -government received very little criticism from any newspaper, but a great deal of criticism was aimed at the international level. There was generally more criticism than urging or praise. Positions of praise accounted for about one-third of total positions, and there was a high level of praise for national government, though praise for local and state governments combined exceeded the national amount of praise.

About half of the letters to the editor were critical. The national government received the most criticism, followed by local, state, international, and regional. Letter writers in the conservative newspapers were heavily critical of the national government, writers in liberal papers were less so. Editors of papers published in state capitals used letters to produce the most criticism of state government.

Most political opinion columns were of the nationally syndicated type, devoted almost exclusively to national and international issues. Columns contained slightly more praise than criticism, and had few suggestions for policy changes.

Some one-fourth of the editorials suggested specific policy changes. About one-half of these suggestions were for the national level, and onethird for the state entities. Only onefifth of the letter-writers made policy suggestions, and these were mostly at the state and local levels.

The biggest advertisers in the newspapers were the department stores of all types, food stores, and businesses that sell, maintain, and in any other way deal with automobiles. Classified ads made up about thirty percent of all advertising in space used. The largest newspapers by number of pages might be expected to have the most advertising and the most text. In fact, the largest papers had such a large volume of advertising that the text in those papers did not amount to much more than the amount of text in the smaller papers. When the newspaper grows in size, it makes more and more money through advertising, but it does not give a commensurate amount of news and other features.


This very brief sampling of a voluminous study gives us only a clue about what our daily newspapers were presenting to us during the 1960s. Most of them were conservative on selected issues, and most letter-writers were also conservative. On the other hand, very conservative editors were more conservative than the writers of the letters which they published, and very liberal editors were more liberal than the writers of their published letters. The newspapers were not urging us to act, and although they did provide a commentary on governmental issues, they did not suggest specific policies for change.

The newspapers were apparently making a lot of money. Ninety percent of the newspaper was devoted to something other than the watchdog function of attending to political and governmental matters. About two-thirds of the newspaper was advertising. Newspaper revenue comes from two main sources, circulation and advertising - three parts advertising and one part circulation. To get a rough estimate of the income of a newspaper, figure the circulation revenue from the circulation figures and subscription rates and prices (it ill be a rough figure) and multiply by four.

Local and national affairs were covered well on the basis of allocation of text space. State, international, and regional affairs got much less attention. Yet editorially, attention went outside the local community, especially critical editorial concern.

Very little attention was paid to the affairs of the Black community by these white newspapers. That might have been expected. African affairs, in the decade of liberation on that continent, received the smallest amount of international coverage. There was six times more news about Europe.

These newspapers are locally rooted economic institutions with strong interests in protecting their powerful positions. During the 1960s, they directed critical attention away from the actions of state and local governments, and focused instead on the national government. A pattern of newspaper behavior emerged revealing little coverage or criticism of local and state policymakers. In addition, these newspapers were covering only one segment of the community the white segment. These and other practices raise serious questions about the performance of these Southern daily newspapers during the 1960s.

Attitudes shown by editorials and cartoons in selected Southern daily newspapers during the 1960's
Liberal to Conservative, high to low, attitudes in editorials and cartoons, by percentage of agreement.

Paper Race Big Bus. FExp. VietW PosW Total
Little Rock 90 75 58 89 76 88 476
Charlotte 77 41 59 87 71 87 422
Atlanta 73 66 35 83 32 94 383
Nashville 43 74 55 77 41 81 371
New Orleans 33 48 28 40 27 75 251
Tampa 37 37 40 61 37 30 242
Birmingham 35 25 36 44 33 69 242
Richmond 18 19 30 29 28 14 138
Dallas 26 14 6 34 4 10 94
Columbia 2 4 9 30 11 23 79
Jackson 10 32 4 9 5 6 66

(For instance, Columbia, was 98 percent opposed to positions favorable to Black people; 96 percent opposed to big government; 91 percent favorable to business; 70 percent opposed to freedom of expression; 89 percent in favor of the Vietnam War; and 77 percent opposed to pro poverty and welfare policies.)

Larry Noble teaches political science at Atlanta University.