Kansas City Star Apologizes for Racism in Decades of Reporting

By John Eligon and Jenny Gross

The newspaper said it had “disenfranchised, ignored and scorned” generations of Black people. The apology comes after one in September by The Los Angeles Times.

The Kansas City Star examined how it had disregarded the city’s civil rights struggle and had helped support racial segregation in housing.
The Kansas City Star examined how it had disregarded the city’s civil rights struggle and had helped support racial segregation in housing.Credit...Michael Beiriger/Alamy

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — When Mará Rose Williams, an education reporter for The Kansas City Star, was assigned to cover a local Black Lives Matter protest over the summer, she was struck by the difference between what she said she witnessed and what had been reported in previous days.

While much of the coverage had focused on vandalism and protesters clashing with law enforcement, there was little focus on the police — in riot gear and with chemical spray — who she said had acted as the aggressors. That contrast made her wonder how much the newspaper, where she has worked for more than two decades, had been responsible for perpetuating false narratives of Black people over the years.

An archive search was unsettling.

“What I started to find just kind of sickened me,” said Ms. Williams, who is Black and joined the newspaper 22 years ago.

She approached her editors, and that conversation led to a series of articles the newspaper published on Sunday, including an apology on its front page for having “disenfranchised, ignored and scorned” generations of Black residents through much of the early history of Kansas City, Mo., saying the apology was long overdue.

“Before I say more, I feel it to be my moral obligation to express what is in the hearts and minds of the leadership and staff of an organization that is nearly as old as the city it loves and covers: We are sorry,” wrote Mike Fannin, editor of The Star, in the opening essay, “The Truth in Black and White.”

Mr. Fannin, who has been with The Star since 1997 and the editor for the past 12 years, wrote that an investigation of thousands of pages of articles, archives and other documents had shown that the newspaper, over decades, had denied the Black community dignity, justice and recognition.

“Today we are telling the story of a powerful local business that has done wrong,” Mr. Fannin’s essay began, before delving into how The Star had fallen short.

Across more than 10 pages, the articles, written by Ms. Williams and three other reporters, examined how the news organization had disregarded the city’s civil rights struggle and had helped support racial segregation in housing that remains to this day. It also had for decades portrayed African-Americans as criminals, and in its 1977 coverage of a deadly flood, it fixated on the property damage of a high-end shopping area instead of the 25 people who had died, including eight Black residents.

In its coverage on Sunday, The Star also announced the formation of an advisory group of residents and civic leaders to help inform the news organization’s coverage of communities of color.

In a year in which widespread protests for racial justice prompted companies to examine their own biases and histories of systemic racism, newsrooms also began examining their coverage of nonwhite communities.

In September, the Los Angeles Times editorial board apologized for decades of biased coverage of the city’s nonwhite population, which it blamed on a shortage of Indigenous, Black, Latino, Asian-American and other minority groups in the newsroom. For at least the paper’s first 80 years, it said, it was an institution that was “deeply rooted in white supremacy.”

The effort by The Star, founded in 1880, is among the boldest moves in its scope and ambition.

“I think that it is a visionary moment that hopefully other media outlets will be following their lead,” said Stacy Shaw, a lawyer and activist in Kansas City who is part of The Star’s newly formed advisory group. “A lot of times people don’t even acknowledge all of the horror that they have wrought against the community. I think that is the first step, saying, ‘We got this wrong, now how are we going to fix it.’”

Mr. Fannin said in an interview that the depth of The Star’s racist coverage was appalling — coverage that helped cement inequalities that continue to plague the city. He pointed to the paper’s founder, William Rockhill Nelson, mentoring and supporting J.C. Nichols, a developer who used racial restrictions to create neighborhoods that were all white, and remain overwhelmingly white to this day.

Not only did The Star give Mr. Nichols favorable coverage of his developments and space for him to advertise his segregated developments — “A Place Where Discriminating People Buy,” read one of them — but it also gave him a lofty eulogy when he died in 1950.

“Nichols stands as one of the very few city leaders of vision that carries beyond his time,” the paper wrote then in an editorial.

While the ambition of Sunday’s series of articles has earned The Star praise, it also has placed new scrutiny on the newsroom’s demographics: About 17 percent of the reporters are Black in a city where Black residents make up about 28 percent of the population. Until it hired Ms. Williams’s son, Trey Williams, this year to oversee race and equity coverage, the paper had been without a Black staff editor for more than a decade.

Apologies by news organizations are important because they “give communities the chance to understand what really took place that may have been obscured by white-controlled media,” said Collette Watson, a co-creator of Media 2070, a project that seeks to uplift the history of the media’s harm against Black communities and foster conversations around repair.

But what organizations like The Star do after the apology is just as important, said Ms. Watson, who works for Free Press, a nonprofit group that advocates for media reform. She said the success of The Star’s advisory group will depend on how much power it has to inform coverage.

“They have to start out with the premise that no one is a better expert on the community than the community itself,” she said.

Ms. Williams, who pitched the idea for the series, said she had long found her colleagues well-meaning and conscientious about race, but not always aware.

“We didn’t question ourselves as much as we probably should,” she said. “There have been lots of things missed.”

She recalled raising a red flag a few years ago when she saw a draft headline for a project on human trafficking: “The New Slavery,” it said. Ms. Williams said she explained to the reporter and editor that such framing could come off as dismissive of the enslavement of African-Americans. They understood her point and changed the headline.

The current introspection has been an opportunity for everyone in the newsroom, herself included, to reflect on its coverage of race. One of the articles she wrote for the series examined The Star’s failure to cover how the Kansas City public school system had flouted desegregation laws. As she reviewed the archives, it made her feel that she needed to be more inquisitive of the school officials she covers today, and guard against taking what they say at face value, she said.

Where The Star’s series showed its own journalistic negligence, it also highlighted the importance of the Black press, which covered stories that were ignored and gave the perspectives of the city’s Black residents.

Eric Wesson, the managing editor and publisher of The Call, a Black-owned weekly newspaper started in 1919, said he appreciated that The Star gave his publication credit for preserving the community’s narrative. But he also noted that it was of little real value to shoestring operations like his own that have long kept true to Black communities.

“Now will it lead to grants so I can keep the doors open?” he asked. “That’s a series right there of how financially difficult it is for Black media to even exist.”

Mr. Fannin said it was not lost on him that his organization still had a lot of work to do to be embraced by a community that it had long shunned.

“I judge investigative work by the impact of it and the tangible results that come from it,” he said. “If we don’t have that to show by the time it’s all said and done, then we’ll have failed again.”

John Eligon reported from Kansas City, and Jenny Gross from London.