Communications Professor Analyzes Local Media Coverage of Japanese-American Incarceration Camps

Tule Lake Relocation Center, Newell, California. A group of 19 newspapermen, wire service, and newsreel cameramen, and representatives of OWI [Office of War Information] visited the Tule Lake Relocation Center. This was the first inspection tour granted the press.
Tule Lake Relocation Center, Newell, California. A group of 19 newspapermen, wire service, and newsreel cameramen, and representatives of OWI [Office of War Information] visited the Tule Lake Relocation Center. This was the first inspection tour granted the press.

The way media portrays a story can often be a story in itself, especially with the way recent racial controversies have been covered, like police shootings of Africans Americans or the treatment of Muslims after September 11. But how did media cover the incarceration of about 120,000 people of Japanese descent, two-thirds of them American citizens, who were forced to live in internment camps during World War Two—specifically, local community newspapers?

It’s a question Ron Bishop, PhD, a professor and head of the Department of Communication at Drexel, answers in his new book, “Community Newspapers and the Japanese-American Incarceration Camps: Community, Not Controversy,” published June 15. With coauthors and recent Drexel graduates Morgan Dudkewitz, Renee Daggett and Alissa Falcone, Bishop found that the rhetoric and journalistic approach of these local papers heralded the incarceration camps as part of the war effort and a potential economic boon, mainly because of the job opportunities to construct the camp and the work output of the evacuees.

“The equivalent today would be officials in a city or town talking about how great it would be for a major manufacturer or big box store to set up shop there,” Bishop said. “It’s a completely different narrative than we saw in coverage of the camps by the big West Coast dailies. They briefly – very briefly – gave Japanese-Americans the chance in articles to discuss their patriotism, but then, when the government fabricated news of spying, coverage turned ugly.”

Moral concerns or outrage, from either the newspaper staff or from community members, were non-existent. Positive coverage could mean anything from referring to the evacuees as “Japanese” rather than the bigoted slang “Japs” to reporting that the War Relocation Authority was ineptly managing the camps.

“Coverage had a bizarre ‘we’re all in this together’ flavor at times,” Bishop said. “I guess it’s more accurate to say that the journalists tried desperately to persuade their readers that they should think of the incarceration that way.” 

A headline reads, "Construction on Japanese Relocation Quarters Will Stimulate Local Business" on the front page of the April 24, 1942 issue of "The Casa Grande Dispatch."

Bishop and his coauthors analyzed the newspapers’ coverage from just after Pearl Harbor through President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s authorization of the incarceration with Executive Order 9066 on February 19 and ending with the opening of these 10 War Relocation Authority (WRA) relocation camps in the spring and fall of 1942.

“It is a bit unorthodox to focus on one short period in history, but the effort to persuade residents of these communities that the incarceration would be economically beneficial to their communities was also short – and intense. And just as quickly as the pro-camp coverage started, it ebbed,” Bishop said.

The camps, located in Arizona, California, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, and Arkansas, were usually built in remote areas near small towns. One such camp, the Gila River War Relocation Center in Arizona, was constructed on the Gila River Indian Reservation after the government had kicked out Native Americans living on the reserve. The local newspaper, The Casa Grande Dispatch, ignored the violation of both minorities’ rights in favor of covering the loss of cotton pickers who jumped to work for a higher salary paid by the government to build the campsite.

Bishop and his coauthors started each chapter with background on the camp and on the region. They also researched the editors and staff members of the local newspapers, and interviewed the surviving journalists or their offspring about their memories of the time and sketch out the journalists’ background and approaches to journalism.

“We wanted to know what caused them to gravitate to journalism as a career,” Bishop explained. “Nearly all of them were unabashed boosters of their communities, involved in all kinds of community groups. We tend to think that journalists tend to – or should – keep these connections out of sight while reporting the news. That wasn’t the case here. They felt their main task was to defend their readership.”

The cover of "Community Newspapers and the Japanese-American Incarceration Camps: Community, Not Controversy."

Most of the editors were small-town journalists, but some had prior journalism education or experiences at major newspapers. The Casa Grande Dispatch’s editor Thomas R. Robinson had written for The New York Times and later became vice-president and general manager of the New York Herald Tribune. Managing editor Malcolm Epley and Lois Stewart, a staffer, were nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for local paper Herald and News for their coverage of California’s Tule Lake camp, which had created a maximum-security camp for incarcerates considered disloyal and rebellious.

Bishop, a former community newspaper editor, first investigated the media coverage of this time period over 15 years ago, when he first published an article in “Journalism and Communication Monographs” about how larger newspapers covered the internment. The article, “To Protect and Serve: The ‘Guard Dog’ Function of Journalism in Coverage of the Japanese-American Internment,” analyzed the evolution of themes in print media coverage of Japanese-Americans after Pearl Harbor.

“We’re fast approaching a time when the public will say ‘no kidding – of course they helped the government out’ when it comes to describing the work of journalists and the purpose of journalism. That makes me shudder,” Bishop said. “Community newspapers may be bulletin boards where editors posts generally positive news, but they’re still newspapers. Reporting the truth is still their main function.”

Over the course of three years, the students completed their research in between classes and co-ops. Two of the authors worked with Bishop through the STAR Scholar undergraduate research program in the Pennoni Honors College, and the other was named a Humanities Fellow by the College of Arts and Sciences.

Bishop previously served as the faculty advisor of The Triangle, Drexel’s independent student newspaper, for over 10 years. Last term, he taught a communications course entitled “COM 384 - Free Speech and Censorship aka ‘It's a Wonder We're Free to Speak At All.’”