Journalism’s racial reckonings: How funders and publishers confront systemic bias

From the smallest single-person newsroom to the largest media conglomerate, journalists are grappling with how to address prejudice inside the industry, and how to report responsibly about the deep rifts around race, gender, class and ability. Several sessions at the 2021 Knight Media Forum addressed these issues head-on, challenging both funders and news executives to interrogate their own biases and change the ways in which they allocate resources and address historical disparities.

The conference took place in the shadow of the Jan. 6 insurrection, in which perpetrators carried Confederate flags and white supremicist symbols while violently seeking to halt the certification of the presidential election. Speaker Isabel Wilkerson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents,” stressed the gravity of this transgression during an inspiring and eye-opening talk. However, she noted, it was not, as many have claimed, a betrayal of what America stands for, but rather “the consequences of unaddressed history.” 

It might have looked like a different country, a different century, she said, “but it is ours… This is the country’s karmic moment of truth.” Both journalism and philanthropy have a role in unraveling the narratives that uphold the American caste system, and unveiling the ways in which the ideologies of slavery still distort our assumptions about whose lives have value.

She described the striking image of masked Black janitors, cleaning up after the attack. While the rioters were ushered out with little violence, she observed, “if people looking like the janitors in that crew deigned to break into the U.S. Capitol — well, we know what would have come of that. It is inconceivable. They would not have lived to tell.” 

Calling journalism and philanthropy to account

A panel titled “Dismantling Systemic Racism: The Way Forward for Funders and Newsrooms,” tackled these issues directly, with a panel of women of color who have been advancing bold correctives in the midst of 2020’s “racial reckoning” in journalism. That, in turn, came on the heels of firings of many high-profile media personalities and executives as a result of the #MeToo movement.

Both journalism and philanthropy “demand a lot from others…but don’t necessarily do the work to look inward,” said moderator LaSharah Bunting of Knight Foundation, who wrote a  critique of failed newsroom diversity efforts in 2019. Bunting is one of 16 signers of an October open letter titled “Equity First: A Call to Action for Journalism and Journalism Funders.” Other program officers from foundations across the country signed the letter.

The letter was published on the Democracy Fund’s Engaged Journalism Lab, which has over the past year shifted its focus to showcasing the urgency of equity in journalism, and the creative ways in which the field is stepping up to the plate. Lea Trusty of Democracy Fund, who has helped to lead this effort, spoke about the frustrations of seeing diversity, equity and inclusion issues brought up again and again without meaningful resolution. It has been more than 50 years since the Kerner Commission called out the lack of inclusion in American’s newsrooms, she said, but communities of color are still being ignored and stereotyped, and many reporters still cling to the myth of objectivity, as if “whiteness is neutral.”

The Democracy Fund is not alone in re-examining its commitments. Michelle Morales of Woods Fund Chicago described the fund’s shift to only support grantees who have a leadership staff and board made up of 51% people of color or more. Too often, she said, grantees serve communities of color but don’t apply those same standards internally. The fund lays out its philosophy in its grantmaking guidelines, which also requires grantee organizations to have a person of color as their executive director or board chair in order to be considered for multi-year funding. 

Meanwhile the Media 2070 project, a project of Free Press, seeks to account for past inequities in journalism, and secure reparations for “weaponized narratives that promote Black inferiority and portray Black people as threats to society.” Alicia Bell, Media 2070’s director, spoke about the enthusiastic responses to the long-form essay that launched the project, and the collective visioning process it entails. 

Media 2070 calls for news organizations, and the philanthropic and government sectors, to acknowledge, reckon with, take accountability for and redress these harms. “We need a comprehensive plan for racial justice and equity,” she said, for “futures that are full and abundant with Black liberation and Indigenous sovereignty.” 

While many she’s spoken to within news organizations are ready for change right now, building a coalition to collectively make reparations real and sustainable is a long-term project, Bell said. “The thing that has been the most difficult is that people have been saying ‘give us our marching orders,’  and we’ve been like: ‘Hang on, we need some more people,’ ” she said. Gaining wider support is crucial, says Bell, otherwise “there is no future of journalism, because we have termites in the wood.” 

For disabled reporters and communities, the challenge is even breaking through into the conversation to gain notice and coverage, said Cara Reedy of the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund. Disability crosses race, gender, and class. 

“Hopefully you’ll live long enough to be disabled,” she said. But “no one wants to talk about it,” even though social issues largely discussed in the context of race such as the school-to-prison pipeline might have significant factors related, for example, to ADHD or other learning disabilities. Because reporters are not on the beat, and statistics are not gathered systematically, it is difficult to spot patterns. 

“Our main goal right now is to get journalism to admit that disability is its own section that crosses all the others,” she said. 

Work to proactively address inequities has already begun at some large media organizations. In a keynote conversation Knight Foundation President Alberto Ibargüen spoke with Cesar Conde, Chairman of the NBCUniversal News Group, about their goal to achieve 50% in diversity of both staff and gender

“We want to be as diverse as the communities we serve,” he said. It’s not just “the right thing to do, but the right thing to do for business.” He noted that the U.S. reached a milestone in 2020: more than 50% of the under-18 population are people of color, and by 2030 this will be true for the entire nation. In order to help achieve their goal of keeping pace with the country’s demographics, they have launched NBC Academy, designed to provide scholarships and training to students from underrepresented backgrounds. Conde explained that the networks will also add diversity, equity and inclusion as a metric for accountability for their leadership teams.

Ethnic and community media: Myths, challenges and navigating partnerships

On the other end of the spectrum from this global news conglomerate, small ethnic media outlets largely staffed by people of color are working hard with limited resources to serve their audiences in the midst of both a pandemic and a tsunami of misinformation. In a breakout session titled “Community Media,” moderator Tracie Powell of Borealis Philanthropy spoke with Graciela Mochkofsky of CUNY’s Newmark School of Journalism, Hilda Gurdian of Charlotte’s La Noticia and Sonny Messiah-Jiles of the Houston Defender Network.

Powell kicked off the session by dispelling some common myths. Community media and ethnnic media are not the same, she said, with the Black press often focusing on helping its readers navigate American culture, and ethnic media more focused on helping audience members to assimilate. Either way, such outlets are not just “advocacy.” She cited both MLK50 and the Sahan Journal for their hard-hitting reporting. 

Powell also dismissed the idea that mainstream media is a credible channel for reaching people of color, since such audiences have long since lost trust in these outlets. This means that what she terms “BIPOC media” (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) are actually the “mainstream media” for such groups, rather than an “alternative.” Finally, she dismissed the idea that BIPOC media is dying—outlets such as PushBlack reach millions of readers a year, and many others are experimenting vigorously with newer tech platforms such as WhatsApp, Clubhouse and Instagram.

Mochkofsy, who heads up CUNY’s Center for Community Media, underscored Powell’s point that such outlets are often central news sources for those who rely on them. She noted that so-called “mainstream” outlets also tend to serve only a small slice of a community’s population: the white and wealthy. She cited the Los Angeles Times’ recent apology for the newspaper’s failures on race, which acknowledges, “Newspapers are described as a first rough draft of history. But in truth, the first rough draft written by this newspaper — and those across the country — has been woefully incomplete.” Also incomplete, Mochkovsky said, are the many accounts of “news deserts” that leave community media out of the picture. 

While such outlets are very different—large and small, for-profit and nonprofit—what they often share is high levels of trust from the communities they serve. Gurdian and Messiah-Jiles spoke about what this entails in the cities they cover: Charlotte and Houston. 

La Noticia “breathes and speaks the language of the Latino community” in North Carolina, said Gurdian. While the print publication has been around for 23 years, it has only been online for the last year, and in  recent months, it has focused on addressing misinformation. “Meanwhile, people trust the Black press because “they have been there with the community, telling their stories,” said Messiah-Jiles. But often it’s difficult for funders without Black staff members to build relationships with these communities. “We’re doing more with less, but we can turn quicker,” she said “that’s where the opportunities for funding are.”

Supporting Outlets and Communities During the Pandemic

Partnerships were also a focus in a session called “COVID-19 Funds: Informing Underserved Communities,” moderated by Nate Wallace, who directs the Knight Foundation’s Community and National Initiatives Program in Detroit. Panelists included David Rousseau of the Kaiser Family Foundation, Roxann Stafford of the Knight-Lenfest Local News Transformation Fund, and Courtney Stewart of the Missouri Foundation for Health.

Rousseau said that the pandemic has been a catalyst for forming new types of partnerships, especially those focused on the “disproportionate impact that it has had on the health and wellbeing of communities of color,” and the lack of a “robust federal response.” Misinformation has also been a key concern, “replicating almost as fast as the virus itself.” Kaiser formed partnerships with health foundations in California, Colorado and Montana; joined forces with PolitiFact to publish health-related fact-checks on a co-branded site with support from the Google News Initiative; and worked with ESPN’s The Undefeated to survey Black Americans on their views on healthcare, racial discrimination and the coronavirus. Most recently, the family foundation launched The Conversation: Between Us, About Us, in partnership with the Black Coalition Against COVID, which features videos from Black scientists, doctors and nurses that offer vetted information about virus transmission, vaccine safety, side effects, costs and more.

Rousseau said he was “blown away in 2020” by the experimentation and rapid responses from philanthropic organizations, “which aren’t really known for innovation.” He is on the board of Media Impact Funders, a network of foundations that support public interest media, and urged attendees to tune into its 2021 Media Impact Forum, which will address issues related to vaccine hesitancy and evidence-based communications in a series of conversations between February and June.

Stewart spoke about how the Missouri Foundation for Health shifted its focus in response to the pandemic to “eliminating inequities within all aspects of health and addressing the social and economic factors that shape health outcomes.” This sharpening of intention has prompted the foundation to rethink the ways in which it uses strategic communications as a “change tool” and to launch two very different efforts: Prepare STL, a community-led online platform that serves the hardest-hit ZIP codes in St. Louis; and One for All Missouri, which addresses rural communities and is more of a “grass-tops” effort. 

Cultivating abundance, harnessing joy, prioritizing rest

Stafford spoke about an unusual strategy for making sure that community members are informed: “Mis- and disinformation can be inoculated by Black joy.” She described an initiative called AI for the People, supported through the Philadelphia COVID-19 Community Information Fund. This online campaign was designed to counter misinformation aimed at Black Philadelphians, which harnessed local influencers to talk about their own pandemic experiences. Rather than simply providing facts, Stafford suggested it’s important to tell stories that center the lived experiences of community members, allow people to speak with their own voices, and offer “hope and upliftment.”

She stressed the importance of prioritizing restoration and healing burnout, a concept that Stewart heartily seconded. Stafford said that she’d been influenced by the Nap Ministry, which creates site-specific installations to allow communities to “rest together.” 

“We as funders have to give space for people to rest and dream,” Stafford said. 

In the session on dismantling systemic racism, Bell also discussed many of the same themes: the importance of joy, the crucial role of rest, and the hope that imagining a better future offers not just to people of color, but to all Americans. 

“That’s why it’s necessary to center Black and Indigenous dreams,” Bell said,  “because there’s so much creativity and infrastructure missing because these dreams have been missing from the space. It serves all of us to give power to these visions.” Think from a position of abundance rather than scarcity, share power, and build new models together, Bell urged.
Jessica Clark is the founder and executive director of Philadelphia-based media strategy and forecasting firm Dot Connector Studio, and the co-author of Making a New Reality: A Toolkit for Inclusive Media Futures.

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