Newsrooms Are Struggling to Cover Race

A chart from the Shorenstein Center report
A chart from the Shorenstein Center report "In the Shadow of Kerner: Fifty Years Later, Newsroom Diversity and Equity Stall". Other major newsrooms declined to provide numbers.

The role of race and racism in American politics has always been significant. These days, it is central to the political divide in our country. Understanding and being able to explain its complexities is essential to cover this moment coherently. And yet the gaze of our elite American newsrooms remains intractably white and male. So they fail.

If news organizations are to move forward, they will need to do four things:

  1. Improve staff diversity
  2. Improve source diversity
  3. Avoid loaded language and narratives
  4. And fully confront the racism of Donald Trump and a wide swath of his political base

The need for staff diversity is key. Jelani Cobb (@jelani9), the director of Columbia University’s Ira A. Lipman Center for Journalism and Civil and Human Rights and a staff writer at the New Yorker, wrote a manifesto of sorts in the Columbia Journalism Review in the fall of 2018. It should be required reading in every newsroom:

The implications of the media’s representation problem could not be more clear. As race emerged as a central theme of the 2016 elections, crucial decisions about coverage were being made in institutions employing few of the people Donald Trump maligned. Euphemisms appeared when unblinking assessments of racism and religious bigotry were warranted. A persistent theme of “economic anxiety” was cited to explain away an animosity that was clearly connected to much darker objections. As a corollary to this, the work of journalists like Adam Serwer, Nikole Hannah-Jones, and Jamelle Bouie—which pointed to the centrality of racism as a motivating factor for Trump voters—came under attack. (Subsequent studies have validated their contentions.) Debates over the role of race in political coverage remain deeply predictable and dispiriting—as in the story of crime in the Bronx, where white journalists dominate, the most familiar and comfortable narratives hold sway.

There’s another reason why diversity matters. The media exists in a climate of unprecedented hostility. The relationship between the White House and the press, frequently rocky, has devolved into a circumstance in which the president of the United States has referred to us as the “enemy of the people.” Trump’s attacks are facilitated by the fact that, in the past two decades, trust in the media has plummeted. This is a crisis of democracy, since the press’s role as a guardian of democracy is founded upon the trust of the public. But at least some portion of that distrust is a product of people who rarely see themselves or their stories depicted in the media they consume. A great deal must be done to rebuild public trust. But it can begin by including the voices of all Americans. The press, tasked with protecting American democracy, is best secured by reflecting the American people.

Case in point: After the New York Times initially headlined a story “The Rise of Right-Wing Extremism, and How We Missed It,” Cobb tweeted:

Just after Trump’s election, New York Times opinion columnist  Jamelle Bouie (@jbouie), then working at Slate, wrote about the “empathy without clarity” that is endemic to white reporters:

For the past year, political journalists across the ideological spectrum have worked to understand Donald Trump and his voters. What drove their frustration and anger? Why did they gravitate toward Trump versus other political figures? A cottage industry sprang up around the drive to answer those questions, with stories that followed a kind of template: nuanced, empathic portraits of working-class whites living in former industrial towns and cities that have long since fallen from their former glory.

Few of these stories were bad, but most of them suffered from the same blind spot: race. In telling the story of the white workers who backed Trump, they missed the perspective of the black ones who rejected him. This is important. Without that perspective, you risk downplaying the consequences of Trump support—not for supporters, but for the groups Trump has targeted throughout his campaign. Empathy without clarity leads to a place where Trump’s material threat to nonwhites—“stop and frisk,” mass deportation, Muslim surveillance, etc.—is treated as incidental to the story of Trump and his support, when it’s the opposite.

After Trump made overtly racist remarks about Baltimore in July 2019, Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery (@WesleyLowerytweeted: “Racism often manifests as subtext and implication. Black & brown ears can hear the racism clearly while our white colleagues engage in fruitless, if earnest, pedantic games.”

Nikole Hannah-Jones (@nhannahjones), who writes about racial injustice for the New York Times Magazine, tweeted:

Responding to yet another botched attempt by a New York Times writer to write coherently about race, Rolling Stone senior writer Jamil Smith (@JamilSmith) tweeted:

Farai Chideya (@farai), working on what would be a May 2018 report for the  Shorenstein Center at Harvard, asked major news organizations to provide the demographic breakdown of their political staffs, but only four out of 15 provided the data she asked for. The New York Times political staff for the 2016 election was 90 percent white.

Chideya’s report concluded that “the lack of urgency, resolve or both to address issues of journalistic diversity and equity means newsrooms must be prodded into action.”

Racism Is Not a Valid Opinion

In the UK, the BBC’s short-lived censure of BBC Breakfast co-host Naga Munchetty in the fall of 2019 — for mentioning her own experience with racism while discussing some Trump comments –- prompted a group of British broadcasters and journalists of color to make the following points:

  • Racism is not a valid opinion on which an “impartial” stance can or should be maintained;
  • For communities and individuals who experience racist abuse – including Munchetty – being expected to treat racist ideas as potentially valid has devastating and maybe illegal consequences for our dignity and ability to work in a professional environment, as well as being contrary to race equality and human rights legislation;
  • To suggest a journalist can “talk about her own experiences of racism” while withholding a critique on the author of racism (in this case President Trump) has the ludicrous implication that such racism may be legitimate and should be contemplated as such

And while white political reporters are, by necessity, writing more about racism these days, their approach is too often to look at Trump’s comments as political strategy, to use euphemisms and to leave out context.

As Jon Allsop (@jon_allsop) wrote for CJR after Trump posted racist tweets targeting four Democratic representatives of color, racism is a moral problem. But:

So far, many news outlets have focused on assessing the short-term political implications of racist rhetoric. The New Yorker described “Donald Trump’s Calculated Racism,” as both a campaign play and a distraction tactic. Yesterday, the BBC asked, “Do Trump rally taunts mark new 2020 strategy?” The Associated Press looked across the aisle: “How to beat Trump? Dems divided as he rams race onto ballot.” The headline of today’s top New York Times story reads: “Trump Disavows ‘Send Her Back’ Chant as GOP Frets Over Ugly Phrase”; the first paragraph makes clear that the “fretting” is about the party’s electoral prospects, more than the bigotry. Reuters has a near-identical framing….

Broadly speaking, however, coverage that accepts Trump’s racism as a strategic move feels credulous. First, it’s not clear that there is any coherent plan here—when has Trump been known for that?

Advice From Politicians

I normally scoff at media criticism from politicians because it tends to be so self-serving, but some of the best advice I’ve seen for political journalists recently has come from  politicians of color.

Consider this insightful tweet thread from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez:

And Democratic presidential candidate Julian Castro had some wise thoughts as well:

Here is his full comment:

The challenge for American journalism is that American journalism and journalists are so steeped in a “both sides” dynamic that they find it difficult, I think, to address these moments — especially hard news reporters who feel like they can’t break out of character, so to speak. And that presents a problem when things are generally right-and-wrong on these events, or black-and-white on these events, and I think some of the things that would help would be more diversity in the newsroom, definitely. I think other things that would help would be for, as some journalists have recognized, there are some times when you have to step out of that traditional character a little bit. I believe this is one of those moments and this is one of those presidents — political leaders — that deserve that.

Trump is a Story About Race

Ta-Nehisi Coates, writer in residence at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, wrote a powerful article about Trump for the Atlantic in October 2017, headlined “The First White President“.

It is often said that Trump has no real ideology, which is not true—his ideology is white supremacy, in all its truculent and sanctimonious power. Trump inaugurated his campaign by casting himself as the defender of white maidenhood against Mexican “rapists,” only to be later alleged by multiple accusers, and by his own proud words, to be a sexual violator himself. White supremacy has always had a perverse sexual tint. Trump’s rise was shepherded by Steve Bannon, a man who mocks his white male critics as “cucks.” The word, derived from cuckold, is specifically meant to debase by fear and fantasy—the target is so weak that he would submit to the humiliation of having his white wife lie with black men. That the slur cuck casts white men as victims aligns with the dicta of whiteness, which seek to alchemize one’s profligate sins into virtue. So it was with Virginia slaveholders claiming that Britain sought to make slaves of them. So it was with marauding Klansmen organized against alleged rapes and other outrages. So it was with a candidate who called for a foreign power to hack his opponent’s email and who now, as president, is claiming to be the victim of “the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history.”

That is essential context for what reporters covering the White House and the 2020 campaign write every day — no matter their color.

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