Black journalists face challenges that stem from systemic racism

Note: I originally wrote this for the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

The fallout from recent protests over the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor have reignited long-standing concerns on the part of many Black journalists about their roles in the newsrooms they work in, and the value they are given (or not given) by the media companies they work for, how their voices are marginalized and/or silenced, etc. In one particularly egregious case, Alexis Johnson, a Black journalist at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, was prevented from covering the protests because of a single innocuous, joking tweet. Others have also been silenced in a variety of ways, or had their work tokenized by largely white newsrooms. Journalists at the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and many other leading publications have taken to Twitter and elsewhere to talk about their experiences of systemic racism in those companies.

We brought together a group of Black journalists this week using CJR’s Galley discussion platform to talk about their experiences with systemic racism in the industry, a group that included CBS News reporter and former Washington Post correspondent Wesley Lowery, author of a recent essay in the New York Times entitled “A Reckoning Over Objectivity, Led by Black Journalists” (which sparked a related discussion series on Galley about whether objectivity has outlived its usefulness). Others who have taken part include Errin Haines, editor-at-large for The 19th, a nonprofit focusing on gender-related issues, and a former national correspondent on race for Associated Press; Karen Attiah, global opinion editor for the Washington Post; Danielle Belton, editor-in-chief of The Root; Alissa Richardson, an assistant professor of journalism at USC Annenberg and author of the recent book Bearing Witness While Black: African Americans, Smartphones and the New Protest #Journalismand Adriana Lacy and Erin Logan, who both work at the Los Angeles Times.

One theme that ran through many of the discussions was the additional work that Black journalists often have to do in newsrooms. On top of often covering stories that involve violence against other Black people, with the associated emotional trauma that can produce, many Black journalists are also called on to give advice about stories written by non-Black reporters, and to educate their colleagues about racism and its effects. “In one of my group texts, this one with two other black male reporters, we recently were all talking about how there’s been a noticeable uptick in ‘Hey – could you give this a glance?’ notes that we’ve gotten from colleagues in recent weeks,” said Lowery. “And, to be clear, almost every black reporter I’ve ever encountered is eager and happy to help, but… there is very little appreciation of the real labor involved in being every person in the newsroom’s ‘black friend.'”

“It’s really, really exhausting,” said Attiah. “And here’s the other part of it — too often we have this idea that covering ‘Black stories’ means covering pain, trauma, and racism, which in and of itself, is not only taxing, but a limited way to look at the totality of what it means to be a Black person in America. We need more stories that center us, without having to constantly cater or explain ourselves to a white gaze. We are more than just our pain and trauma.” Erin Logan made a similar point. AndRichardson, from USC Annenberg, said: “Newsrooms can re-create some of the most objectionable forms of racism when they refuse to promote qualified Black reporters, dismiss their story ideas, pigeon-hole them as only fit to report so-called ‘Black’ stories, and compound marginalization for Black women or Black queer communities. One of the reasons I left the newsroom is that I believed I could tell more stories about Black life from outside that structure. Many Black journalists leave for this reason too.”

Adriana Lacy said that as student starting out in journalism, “I knew that finding success would be challenging. I knew that I would often enter newsrooms and journalism spaces that have few Black people. Still, even knowing all of these things, it was still extremely jarring entering this industry. I’ve definitely seen my judgment called into question on issues about politics or race and felt like I wasn’t given an opportunity because of my Blackness.” Today on Galley, we’ll be continuing the discussion of these issues with Cierra Hinton, executive director and publisher of Scalawag; Jane Coaston from Vox; Alexandria Neason from CJR; Nicole Ellis from the Washington Post; Howard French from Columbia’s journalism school; Naomi Nix from Bloomberg; Kaitlyn Wells from Wirecutter; and Makeda Easter from the LA Times. And on Friday we will have a day-long roundtable discussion with all of our interviewees.

Here’s more on Black journalists and racism:

Mental health: Alissa Richardson talked about her friend and former colleague Darran Simon, a journalist at the Washington Post and a former Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma fellow who died as a result of suicide in April. “While there is so much stigma around mental health, it is time for newsrooms to examine the trauma that comes with reporting Black pain, over and over again,” Richardson said. “And while I want my friend to be defined by his incredible body of work with the Miami Herald, CNN, Newsday and the Washington Post, any conversation that we have about Black people in newsrooms that does not involve mental health seems disingenuous to me.”

Education: The only way out of this cycle is “for people to actually bother to educate themselves about those different from them,” said Danielle Belton. “As a Black woman, I couldn’t have survived high school, let alone my career in journalism, if I didn’t understand white people, white culture, white history, etc. I just wouldn’t have made it. But white people can go from birth to the grave not knowing anything about someone different from them because it’s not required of them to learn. The only way out of putting all the burden of blackness on black people is for white people to do the hard work of education themselves about race, redlining, slavery, Jim Crow, as well as other aspects of Black history.”

Free and fair: Journalism is one of the pillars of democracy, said Errin Haines, “and if we are not constantly striving for a more free and fair press, we are not doing our part as part of that democracy to perfect this union.” The question for Black journalists need to answer, she said, is “are you working in a newsroom where you are celebrated, or just tolerated? Newsroom culture matters; as with any workplace, journalists should expect the working conditions and support that allow them to do their best and highest work. It is immoral to ask journalists to confront systemic racism in its pages, on air or online, only to have to confront the systemic racism in their newsrooms. Newsroom leaders should be asking themselves in this moment: Am I part of the problem, or part of the solution?”

Other notable stories:

Jack Crosbie interviews Ben Smith about his job as media writer for the New York Times, and finds that Smith “doesn’t want to pick a side,” as Crosbie puts it, when it comes to some of the moral or ethical questions that are being debated in the industry around objectivity, bias, etc. “I care about the story. I want to read the story. I don’t care that much about the tactics,” says Smith. “I think that sometimes for reporters, it’s more valuable to see these as tactical questions rather than moral questions. Like our job is to bring people information and there are different ways to get there.”

An independent audit of Facebook’s content strategy criticized the social network for allowing hate speech and disinformation to thrive and potentially posing a threat to the November elections, according to a report in the New York Times. The 88-page document said that the company had not done enough to protect people on the platform from discriminatory posts and ads and that its decisions to leave up President Trump’s inflammatory posts were “significant setbacks for civil rights.” Meanwhile, a BuzzFeed report found that while Facebook claims to be against hate, it is running an ad placed by a white nationalist group warning of a so-called “white genocide.”

CNBC has signed former Fox News journalist Shepard Smith to anchor a new one-hour evening news program that will debut this fall in the seven to eight PM time slot, the network said Wednesday. Many see the introduction of Smith’s newscast as a significant shift in the network’s programming strategy, which currently relies on what the Wall Street Journal calls “light, unscripted fare.” One of the first on-air hires at Fox News when it launched in 1996, Smith left the channel last October amid what appeared to be increasing tensions between him and the network’s opinion side, specifically Tucker Carlson.

In her regular weekly newsletter for the Journalism Crisis Project, a joint venture between CJR and the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia, Lauren Harris looks at the financial crisis confronting local news, and whether government support is one of the solutions to that problem. A new report suggests that allocating federal advertising budget funds to local media outlets could provide a form of relief: in mid-April, nearly 250 House members drafted a letter in support of such a move, and in mid-May, Congressman Tim Ryan sponsored the Protect Local Media Act, which includes amendments to PPP funding requirements so they would apply to more small news organizations.

Facebook has announced that the Oversight Board it is putting together to review its content and policy decisions will not launch until “late fall,” in other words after the elections that many are worried will involve manipulation of Facebook content. The board explained that while it would like to “officially begin our task of providing independent oversight of Facebook’s content decisions,” it will be unable to do so for a number of months. The board was first discussed by Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, in 2018. One critic argued on Twitter that it should be renamed “the Hindsight Board.”

Local Independent Online News (LION) Publishers and the Google News Initiative are piloting an eight-week virtual bootcamp on journalism entrepreneurship, run by Phillip Smith, founder of the Journalism Entrepreneurship Training Co. Smith developed and tested the idea for a bootcamp while he was a Knight Fellow at Stanford University. The curriculum is focused on helping people understand and try to mitigate the risks of entrepreneurship, he told the Nieman Journalism Lab, by interviewing potential customers, potential sponsors, and advertisers and “getting into the weeds of what their business is going to be.”

Journalists need to be more prepared to admit and contextualize ambiguity and uncertainty when reporting on things like the coronavirus, Jon Allsop writes for the summer issue of CJR’s print magazine. “With masks, much of the coverage parroted whatever the official guidance was at the time, with scant scrutiny,” he writes. “Expertise, many news organizations felt, was to be defended against bad-faith attacks. Though many good articles acknowledged that science is a process, not a ready-made consensus, plenty of others fixated on batting down whatever the right-wing position was—and, in doing so, accepted the premise that there are two “sides” in competition for truth.”

After months of downplaying the effects of the pandemic, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro has tested positive for the coronavirus. Bolsonaro, one of few Latin American leaders who has not imposed a national lockdown to limit the spread of COVID-19, was tested in March, but refused to release the results of his test until a court told him to do so. And after Bolsonaro took his mask off during a news conference on Tuesday where he confirmed his positive test results, the Brazilian Press Association announced that it will be suing the president for putting journalists at risk of contracting the virus.

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