Mainstream news media outlets aren’t very good at covering communities of color and issues of race and class and there’s a pretty obvious reason why not: they’re mostly white.
After the 1967 race riots, President Lyndon B. Johnson created the Kerner Commission to analyze why the riots took place, finding that institutional racism and poverty were the driving force and singling out the news media for not reporting on communities of color deeply enough.
“The media report and write from the standpoint of a white man’s world,” it said in its report.
The ills of the ghetto, the difficulties of life there, the Negros’ burning sense of grievance are seldom conveyed. Slights and indignities are part of the Negro’s daily life and many of them come from what he now calls the “white press” — a press that repeatedly, if unconsciously, reflects the biases, the paternalism, the indifference of white America.
This may be understandable, but it is not excusable in an institution that has the mission to inform and educate the whole of our society.
Fifty years later, journalist and author Farai Chideya has taken another look at how the demographic nature of newsrooms has influenced coverage of another historical event — the 2016 election — and found not a lot has changed, the industry trade publication Current reports today.
She requested demographic data on the political teams that covered issues in the campaign from more than a dozen institutions. Only four, including NPR, responded.
“It was even difficult to get reporters and editors to talk about the issue,” Chideya said in her report.
Often, they would do so only if they were on background or off the record, which is curious given journalists champion transparency when it comes to other institutions. That raises the question of whether journalists are afraid of retaliation if they speak on the record about the race and gender dynamics of their reporting teams.
The #MeToo era has certainly shown that what goes on inside the newsroom is not always apparent from the outside.
She said newsroom managements are still not welcoming reporters of color.
“To say that I’m disappointed today by the entire situation, not only at The New York Times, but in my chosen profession, is an understatement,” Paul Delaney, who worked at the New York Times for two decades, wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review last year. “However, truth be told, I’m not surprised at all. It’s still a racial and racist thing the nation cannot seem to take hold of nor shake, after all these centuries.”
Chideya says it would help if newsrooms were more transparent about their demographics.
“Newsrooms often operate under the assumption that major civic organizations—government, nonprofits, business—should be transparent. Yet journalism does not always hold itself to the same standard,” she said.
And major awards — the Pulitzer committee, for example — could require public disclosure of diversity metrics as a qualification for acceptance of a prize.
And journalists could follow their employers’ money. “There has not yet been a major journalistic examination of payments by news outlets to settle cases involving race, ethnicity, age and sexual orientation, she said.
But, 50 years after the Kerner report prodded news organizations into action, Farai Chideya is forced to do the same thing.
In retrospect, the Kerner Commission report seems almost hopeful. Although it outlines a grim problem, it presents its issues clearly and with the expectation that the rallying cry will produce action.
Today, the lack of urgency, resolve or both to address issues of journalistic diversity and equity means newsrooms must be prodded into action.
The words of the Kerner Commission remind us why action is necessary. To re-frame their sentiments for our industry and our times: Our newsrooms are moving towards two different ethical and functional frameworks: one which views the lack of racial and gender equity as inconsequential, and one which realizes the American news industry is not a functional meritocracy. Work remains to be done. This deepening division is not inevitable. The movement apart can be reversed. Choice is still possible. Our principal task as journalists is to define that choice and press for accountability, remedy and resolution in our newsrooms and industry.