It was more than two years ago that the story known today as the Jena Six began to unfold.
Two nooses were found hanging from a tree over a picnic table at Jena High School in Louisiana. A few months later, someone set the school on fire. Then a fight broke out in the schoolyard between white and black students. The following year, 20,000 people came to Jena and marched in support of the Jena Six, a group of black teenagers accused of beating a white student at Jena High.
Though the story was picked up by national media, two young local reporters were on the ground first: Abbey Brown of The Town Talk and Bonnie Gonzalez of KLAX-TV, both in Alexandria, La. They’ve continued covering the story long after the national media moved out.
At the 2008 SPJ Convention & National Journalism Conference in Atlanta, Brown and Gonzalez spoke about their role in covering the Jena Six and how it’s shaped their lives. Though the focus of the session was supposed to be on lessons the two learned, it morphed into an eye-opening chat on the challenges local news organizations face when a story attracts national attention.
Brown and Gonzalez had each received calls from national reporters sent to Jena who wanted a quick tutorial on what was happening in the small town. The two local reporters said they tried to be as helpful as possible while still doing their own jobs.
“It was hard to help people and we’re still trying to report ourselves,” Gonzalez said.
Despite their goodwill, in the end the two reporters still felt slighted.
Gonzalez said her station gave video to national stations. Several used it but didn’t give KLAX-TV any credit.
Brown said she noticed that whole parts of her stories were cut and pasted into the work of national journalists.
The two reporters also criticized how the national media chose to tell the story. They said national coverage often wasn’t as clear, accurate, thorough or thoughtful as it should have been.
Brown said that when one national reporter asked her for the back story to the Jena Six, she gave it to him.
According to Brown, the national reporter said, “That’s not the story my editor sent me to tell. This is what he thinks is going on. This is what the world thinks is going on, and if I come back with a different story, he’s not going to be OK with it.”
This particular reporter was told to report on the six angels who were being wrongfully accused. The other prevailing theory, Brown said, was the idea that the Jena Six were a group of thugs who’d been bad kids from Day 1 and decided to go after an innocent white kid.
“I think what happened is somewhere in the middle, but gosh if I know,” Brown said. “I say tell both sides. Let the reader decide ‘This is what happened.’”
Though Gonzalez has moved on to a new job in her home state of Texas, Brown continues to cover the aftermath of the Jena Six.
It isn’t easy.
People in Jena don’t think very highly of the media these days.
“I’d have to talk to 50 people to get five to talk on the record,” Brown said. “The mayor slammed a door on my foot. … I had someone steal a notebook from my hands and tear pages out.”
She’s also received hate mail and found dead animals in her car and a noose left on her door.
“Those are things that at age 26, 27 … 57, you shouldn’t have to deal with as a reporter,” Brown said. “Sometimes I wonder if all the lessons were worth it.”
But what happened in Jena and what continues to unfold there is an important story to tell not just about a small town, but about America, Brown said.
A solid majority of the 20,000 people who came to Jena in September 2007 to march in what was described as the largest civil rights movement in years didn’t come solely to support the kids in Jena, Brown said. They came because someone they know and love is being treated unjustly because of race, religion or gender.
“This story was the straw that broke the camel’s back. … I feel like this story illustrated a problem we’re having in [the] entire world. There’s little Jenas everywhere.”