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Athens: An Untold Narrative

By: Anna Birk

Photos by: Evie Sears & Isabella Brazzale

Patterns.

Patterns in fashion create a continuous flow of motion, repeating from one form to the next. When those patterns bleed into the social world, however, stereotypes become perpetuated, and certain groups are left out of the narrative.

When the Civil Rights Movement began in 1954, The Athens Messenger began to cover the unrest that proceeded. The extent of that coverage, however, was limited for the next several decades. 

The August 28, 1963, March on Washington, made waves in history that would ripple for decades to follow. It was where civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. spoke his famous words, “I have a dream.” 

In Athens County, The Athens Messenger newspaper covered the event by using an article from the Associated Press. The article spoke volumes of the current discrimination of the United States toward Black people. 

The front page of the August 29, 1963 newspaper began with a front-and-center article that read, “The historic rights march on Washington … has dramatized the wants of Negroes in America, but leaders faced the task today of trying to turn drama into action,” wrote Stanley Meisler, a reporter for the Press. 

The decision to use “dramatize” in that context can mislead readers, perpetuating the narrative that Black people in America were asking too much to have the same rights as their white counterparts. The choice for The Athens Messenger to use that article, with the claim that those events were “dramatic,” helped to strengthen stereotypes about Black people in an area that had been predominantly white. 

With the presence of The Athens News, founded in 1977, however, these harsh patterns seemingly began to slow. In 2020, after the horrific death of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and hundreds of others in Ohio alone, several articles covering violent and non-violent protests were published online. A top story for The Athens News was written by Sydney Dawes, an Athens News editor. 

The article, published on June 2, 2020, is headlined “Athens protesters stand in solidarity.” The photo title, also taken by Dawes, depicts dozens of protestors holding signs to call those in power accountable for the violent deaths of Black people. Dawes goes into detail describing the demonstration itself and including statistics from a Washington Post database. 

“According to the … database that tracks fatal shootings by on-duty officers … in Ohio, 154 people were fatally shot by an on-duty officer from 2015 to now,” Dawes wrote. 

Breaking it down, the rhetoric chosen within the article breaks a pattern of Athens reporting on Black lives with dismissive tones, by including state-wide and national statistics about police brutality. The article also did not include some of the racist and derogatory terms that those of the 1960s did, showing a change in society, journalism and the tone of news in Athens. Dawes’ article, and others, were published during the height of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020. 

Examining other narrative patterns that have been broken down over time, one should look no further than the rights of women. The Athens News ceased to exist until 1977, therefore, the articles from that time period in Athens County come from The Athens Messenger. 

At a glance, there seems to be little coverage of the Women’s Liberation Movement in the 1960s or much coverage on women’s issues at all. In an August 18, 1969 spread, a small segment was allotted to cover women’s issues, holding hardly more than a dozen sentences. 

The article headlined “Women’s Rights and Violence,” paints a predicting picture of women becoming violent if further discrimination toward them went unnoticed by lawmakers. A behavioral scientist was also referenced for his interview in Forbes magazine at the time, stating women will become violent if those needs are not met. Historically, the portrayal of women has displayedthem as hysterical, especially when advocating for their own rights. 

A few years later, the paper opted to publish an opinion column written by James Kilpatrick regarding the one-year anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision to legalize abortion. 

In the January 28, 1974 article, Kilpatrick voices that the court decision was a, “monstrous example of plain bad law,” calling it an “unhappy pronouncement.” Once again, women come under written attack for their right to choose, and the narrative that women are irresponsible is maintained. 

Jumping ahead to the Women’s March in 2019, which took place in late January, local coverage highlights a different narrative of women. The local march, a sister event to the Women’s March in Washington, D.C., took place in Uptown Athens. 

An article written by Kayla Beard for The Athens News, depicts courageous women marching through Athens in dreary weather conditions but with lively spirits. Rhetoric within the article changes the narrative that women held 50 years prior, telling readers of the protestors’  power, persistence and strength. The article itself was also written by a female news reporter for the paper, giving a stronger voice to the female narrative. 

Some patterns remain the same within news reporting, and certain voices are left out of the story. In the same 1969 newspaper spread that “Women’s Rights and Violence” was published, an Associated Press article was published, detailing the unionization of Mexican-Americans in the Southwest. 

The article, written by Richard Beene and titled, “Mexican-Americans Begin Organizing,” is a descriptive piece, highlighting that Mexican-Americans are more than just a stereotype and includes the voices of many different Hispanics. While the rhetoric in the article doesn’t disempower those of Hispanic heritage, it is one of few articles written about Mexican-Americans, even today.

According to demographic data from 2019, the population of Athens county is 81.9% white and 2.82% Hispanic. For those who fall into the minority percentages, news coverage is incredibly important. Stories about Hispanic people, and other minority groups, help to show that their culture matters; that events specific to them don’t go unheard. Similarly, people are more trusting of news organizations that report on people and events that are similar to themselves. 

Change has taken place within the news rhetoric in Athens County over the past several decades. More diverse voices have been included in the narrative, and more inclusive verbiage is being used. And although those aspects hold a positive outlook for inclusivity in both news coverage and the newsroom, there is much that  news organizations can improve to halt the perpetuation of stereotypes. 

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