In early February, 78 reporters from the USA TODAY Network began a nationwide review of college yearbooks after startling images of blackface and a KKK hood were discovered in the 1984 medical school yearbook pages of Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam.
Reporters scoured more than 900 yearbooks from 120 schools across 25 states – from giant public universities to small liberal arts colleges – to see what a broad review of that time would reveal. We focused on the 1970s and ’80s because the era followed the Civil Rights movement. College students at that time were coming of age as equal rights advocates pushed for a reckoning on race and the need to raise a greater societal consciousness.
Throughout the reporting, we enlisted journalists from a variety of disciplines across our news network to be part of the discussion of how we should approach the story and how we should deal with important issues of fairness, context and tone, as well reporting on our findings.
We found questionable photos virtually everywhere we looked – what amounted to a montage of everyday, casual bigotry memorialized among pages that captured daily life on campuses. Many of the photos did not have captions, making it difficult in some cases to determine what was going on. It is possible that some were part of a school play or had other explanations. But we built our report around images that had little or no ambiguity.
We understand that, for many people, these images will be painful reminders of the racism and mockery they have experienced. We decided, however, that publishing them was necessary, to show their pervasiveness, to avoid diluting their impact and to be as transparent as possible about what we found.
When questionable photos included captions that identified students, we attempted to contact them to seek an explanation and to hear their thoughts as they reflected on those photos from their late teens or 20s – in relation to their lives in 2019 and evolving cultural norms. In the end, we sought to display photos in a manner that would not allow individuals to be easily identified while still capturing the wider impact of what the reporting revealed.
We also learned that USA TODAY’s editor in chief, Nicole Carroll, designed a page in her college yearbook that included a photo of two people in body and face paint at a fraternity’s Halloween party. They were dressed as Robin Givens, the actress, and boxer Mike Tyson. Carroll, who was editor of the Arizona State University yearbook in 1989 when the photo ran, immediately recused herself from involvement in this coverage.
Throughout the reporting, we were committed to advancing the story – and the nation’s conversation – by providing insights from civil rights leaders and experts in various fields, as well as observations from university officials and students themselves, as they reflected on society, then and now, and the ongoing issues surrounding equality in America.