Associate Professor Sid Bedingfield’s research focuses on journalism's role in democratic societies during times of political and cultural change.
Journalism’s roots are closely entwined with the rise of democracy. But does journalism have the power to shape political outcomes? That question is at the heart of Sid Bedingfield’s research. An associate professor and Cowles Research Fellow in Journalism, Democracy, and Race, Bedingfield studies journalism and its impact on racial politics in the United States.
Bedingfield defines journalism as an interpretive act of communication that seeks to inform and influence deliberation of public issues. “Put simply, journalism is an intervention in a community’s public sphere,” he said. “At its best, that intervention can be an independent, good-faith effort to enhance rational deliberation and build a consensus notion of truth. But at its worst, journalism can be a propagandistic, bad-faith effort to undermine rational debate and aid one group or faction over another.”
Bedingfield’s first book, Newspaper Wars: Civil Rights and White Resistance in South Carolina, 1935-1965 (University of Illinois Press, 2017), argued that black- and white-owned newspapers were political actors that shaped state and national politics during the mid-20th century. A Black newspaper played a central role in catalyzing civil rights activism in the 1940s, and in response, editors of the state’s largest white, mainstream newspapers assumed prominent roles in organizing a countermovement—the so-called “massive resistance” campaign against civil rights. White journalists did this while loudly declaring their deep commitment to objectivity and strict political neutrality in journalism. “In fact, they sought to delegitimize Black journalists by claiming they were the ones who failed to report objectively,” Bedingfield said. “That research opened my eyes to a new way of looking at political journalism in the nation’s past.”
The book won the 2018 George C. Rogers Book Award from the South Carolina Historical Society, and it led directly to Bedingfield’s next major project: a collaborative book called Journalism and Jim Crow: White Supremacy and the Black Struggle for a New America (University of Illinois Press, 2021). Bedingfield and fellow journalism historian Kathy Roberts Forde co-edited and contributed chapters to a collection of research essays that documented the role of the white press in building and protecting white supremacist political economies across the Southern states from the 1870s to the 1920s. The book shows how newspapers collaborated with political parties, corporations, law enforcement, and other institutions of power in their communities to build and sustain the Jim Crow system. In addition to strong reviews, Journalism and Jim Crow has won three awards from the American Historical Association, the American Journalism Historians Association, the AEJMC History Division, and was a finalist for two others (AEJMC James Tankard Book Award and Frank Luther Mott /Kappa Tau Alpha Research Award.).
Traditionally, political historians had discounted the press as an agent of change, Bedingfield said. In this view, media simply convey information about public events; it is those underlying events, not the press accounts, that alter political and cultural life. In the United States, the rise of professional journalism across the 20th century encouraged this perception of the press. Proclaiming their commitment to the new professional ideology of objectivity, journalists presented themselves as disinterested sources of information who operated above politics. But as an interpretive act, journalism goes beyond mere description and seeks to make sense of public events, Bedingfield said.
Journalists make dozens of choices that shape political perspectives. “They decide which story to tell, what angle to emphasize, whom to interview—and whom to ignore,” he said. By making these choices, journalists present a particular view of the world. They shape the cultural context in which citizens make political decisions.
“Unfortunately, white, mainstream journalists have often intervened on behalf of white supremacy,” Bedingfield said. “Black journalists and activists have always fought back, but their efforts have been limited by lack of access to the nation’s mainstream. Their voices were too easily marginalized or silenced altogether.”
Bedingfield is working on new research into journalism’s role in building a Jim Crow system of discrimination in the northern and western United States during the 20th century. Journalism and Jim Crow distinguished the Jim Crow South from its northern counterpart not by the codification of the discriminatory system—de jure vs defacto—but by the near-totalitarian nature of the southern regimes, Bedingfield said. “Yet we also acknowledged the insidious power of Jim Crow North—a racist system so deeply entrenched in public and private institutions that it was hiding in plain sight, overshadowed by the horrors of Jim Crow South and receiving precious little journalistic scrutiny,” Bedingfield said.
The role played by the press in creating, supporting, and obscuring the existence of a Jim Crow North deserves greater attention, he said. Increasingly, other historians are also rethinking the political role media outlets play in their communities.