Coverage of U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith’s comments with racial overtones, intentional or not, was among the Jackson Free Press’ most viral stories of the year. Ashton Pittman’s report on her history with segregation academies was the JFP’s most viral story ever and spawned many national news follow-ups and analysis pieces.
Photo by Ashton Pittman.
JACKSON During an eventful 2018 in the United States, and Mississippi, the Jackson Free Press news team presented hard-hitting, enterprising and contextual journalism not available from any other news outlet in the state. Below is our list of most viral and vital stories with local, state, national and even international implications to revisit for lessons and context to take into the new year.
- Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith's comments on "hanging," squelching votes and her history with Mississippi's segregation academies was our most-read reporting of the year as part of 2018 elections coverage by Ashton Pittman and Ko Bragg presenting context and positions of candidates that other media spent little or no time on. The most-viral JFP story of the year—in fact, in our history—was the in-depth feature Ashton did on Hyde-Smith's enrollment in a Confederacy-focused segregation academy the year the U.S. Supreme Court forced public schools to integrate, and the fact that she sent her daughter to one that opened the same year. This story came in the wake of her "public hanging" comment in a state with the most lynchings—which she waved off without a discussion of the difficult race history it conjured or a serious apology. Challenger Mike Espy then came closer to defeating her than any Democrat has managed since 1982. Ko did stellar coverage of the get-out-the-vote effort black women led in the state, with a follow-up after the election.
- One of Mississippi's most in-depth features of 2018 resulted from JFP reporter Ko Bragg's Bringing Home the World fellowship from the International Center for Journalists that sent her to Liberia, New York City and to a former plantation where many were sent "back to Africa." Ko explored the ongoing effects of the "racist movement" here and in Liberia in a long-form, deeply reported and beautifully written story that drew social-media comments such as "My lord—this piece by @keaux_ is a phenomenal read."
- The JFP's work on crime, policing and violence prevention had several strong impacts locally. Ko's reporting on the Jackson Police Department's long-time practice of releasing mugshots of minors accused of crimes, as well as "perp walks" staged by request from media outlets for photography, including with minors, resulted in an executive order from Mayor Chokwe A. Lumumba stopping the harmful practice. Her journalism on the spate of officer-involved shootings since Lumumba took office—with few details or even names of the officers released—resulted in a task force recommending that names of officers be released within 72 hours. However, to date, the City of Jackson and the mayor have not released those names.
- The mayor's sister, Rukia Lumumba, shouted out JFP Editor Donna Ladd's journalism and editorials in recent years on "credible messengers" and "violence interrupters" at a city hall press conference in December 2018, announcing that Jackson has seed funding to start the evidence-based program that the JFP first described in this article—a strategy Lumumba already supported. She stood with two former criminals at City Hall, Terun Moore and Benny Ivey, who are being trained as the capital city's first credible messengers. Lumumba discovered Ivey, a former white gang leader, due to a profile Ladd on him did first in The Guardian, and then a follow-up and more localized cover story in the Jackson Free Press.
- For the second year in a row, the Jackson Free Press did the only substantive coverage of ill-considered gang legislation pushed by Republican lawmakers and the Mississippi Association of Gang Investigators, which would further criminalize being a member of a gang rather than than the actual commission of a crime. A story by Donna Ladd showing that only African Americans had been prosecuted under the state's existing gang law, despite high numbers of white gang members in the state, also went viral nationally. Even the bill's backers admitted on social media that the JFP's gang-bill coverage by Donna Ladd and Arielle Dreher kept the bill from passing for the last two years.
- Ashton Pittman did significant, and nationally read, enterprise pieces during the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings. The one with strongest Mississippi emphasis was "Kavanaugh and a Mississippi Judge: Did Nominee Mislead Congress on Pickering?" The piece described the role Kavanaugh played then as a political operative to get Pickering confirmed as a judge, and detailed the judge's and his law partner's little-known or reported role in the fight against integration in 1960s Mississippi.
- Arielle Dreher continued the JFP's tradition of being the only media outlet in Mississippi to do in-depth coverage of the statewide story about efforts to remake the Pearl River through Jackson for both flood control and economic development. Her reporting culminated in this in-depth cover story on the plan, co-written by Marie Weidmayer, including its weaknesses. Rep. Bennie Thompson soon filed a long memo listing his concerns about the project, and a report about the project's "catastrophic" costs to bridges soon emerged. The story is ongoing.
- Arielle Dreher did the only substantive state coverage of the deal "Brexit Boys" of Cambridge Analytica fame brokered through Gov. Phil Bryant to do a controversial data project at the University of Mississippi.
- Arielle also did the most in-depth coverage of a lawsuit over prison conditions in Mississippi, culminating in this powerful cover story, "Private Prison on Trial: Inmates at 'Bleak' Facility Tell Harrowing Stories."
- Ko Bragg and Donna Ladd's coverage of the Jeff Sessions-led Project Safe Neighborhoods' launch in Jackson as "Project Eject" was the only substantive coverage of the controversial project. The JFP revealed that the criminologist behind strategy the U.S. attorney said it was modeled on is staunchly against the practice, which he believes can increase crime and is racially discriminatory. The City of Jackson is participating in the project, despite Mayor Lumumba's campaign for criminal-justice reform.
- Ko Bragg's coverage of District Attorney Robert Shuler Smith's ongoing legal woes was the most substantive and least biased one way or the other of any "DA Files" trial coverage.
- Arielle Dreher broached the difficult and complex topic of felony voting before other media in a series of stories, including about the racist history of laws preventing certain people who have served their time from voting, and the fact that many are confused about whether they can vote or not.
Read about awards the Jackson Free Press received in 2018 for 2017 coverage here. Follow the news team on Twitter at @keaux_, @ashtonpittman and @donnerkay.