The racial divide on news coverage, and why representation matters

Journalism / Article

Update: We have  learned of a methodological error in “American Views 2020: Trust, Media and Democracy” that does not alter the underlying integrity of the data nor the conclusions. It does alter the specific numbers for a range of results. Gallup is making corrections, which will be posted by Nov. 9. Until then, if you’d like to cite a particular piece of data, please email [email protected] and you will receive a response within one business day.

A spate of police and vigilante slayings of unarmed African Americans has renewed handwringing over the nation’s comparative lack of Black journalists, the headlines they cover and workplace bias they still sometimes face. How the industry confronts that decades-old conundrum, this time around, remains to be seen.

“The thing that frustrates me more than anything is that many of these [news] managers come out with these statements that say ‘We support black lives’ … that they support diversity, they support inclusion. Yet, when we ask them to publicize their numbers on diversity, they’re silent,” National Association of Black Journalists President Dorothy Tucker said, during a recent episode of Knight’s Informed & Engaged series.

An investigative reporter for Chicago’s CBS affiliate, she was one of four Black journalists assembled for that online discussion, also exploring recent Gallup/Knight and Pew research showing Black and white news consumers’ often divergent views of the news media and the kind of workforce diversity that the industry should pursue.

In the aftermath of George Floyd’s death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, Tucker added, there’s been a merited “uprising” of sorts among Black journalists who’ve long fought, in many cases, for equitable pay and for a chance at the industry’s more coveted, high-profile assignments.

Referring to the news media’s latest internal reckoning over race, speaker Jawan Strader, an anchor-reporter at Miami’s NBC affiliate, said, “We have their ear, more so, than we had before, since George Floyd. We should have had their ears years ago … ” 

A racial divide over news coverage

The episode of Informed and Engaged kicked off with a rundown of several key findings of landmark research by both the Pew Research Center and the Gallup/Knight series on Trust, Media and Democracy. Among the highlights: 

  • Americans agree that newsrooms need to be diverse, but Blacks would like to see more racial diversity, while whites prefer more political diversity (Gallup/Knight)
  • Blacks are underrepresented as newsroom employees in the U.S. (Pew
  • Most Americans say news organizations don’t understand them, but Black adults more often say it’s because of their social or economic class, or personal characteristics, while whites says it’s because of their political views. (Pew)

Who’s in the newsroom matters

Black journalists with decision-making power or their boss’s confidence can make a big difference in news coverage. For example, New York-based ProPublica investigative reporter Topher Sanders, another speaker, said the ProPublica/Florida Times-Union Walking While Black series, a seven-month reporting project, began as a smaller endeavour. The series found that Blacks made up 29 percent Jacksonville, Florida’s population but received 55 percent of its pedestrian citations.

“When I brought the concept to the editor, the editor said, ‘Hey, take a few weeks on this, let’s turn in something quick. There’s this other big thing I want you to do,” said Sanders, co-founder of the Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting, who worked on the series with reporter Ben Conarck. “To that editor’s credit, as we presented more and more material, the editor began to see the vision me and Ben saw in the very beginning, ” 

Diversifying investigative teams is important, the speakers said.

“When those are your gold-standard reporting teams within an organization and they lack diversity, what types of projects will be pursued?” added Sanders, whose nonprofit society is building what now is a comparatively small supply of investigative journalists of color. “It’s a no-brainer that, when you have diverse thoughts and perspectives, it shows up in the work. And it starts to show up in the community. Lots of times, the work generated from investigative reporting has real impact.”

Black journalists’ objectivity continues to be questioned

“Are Black journalists biased? Because there’s that assumption,” said moderator Karen Rundlet, a Knight Foundation journalism program director and former journalist.

“No,” answered an emphatic Tucker. “It really upsets me when anybody even raises that question — because you don’t ask white journalists are they biased … We’re professional, we do our jobs, we can cover any story, we can look at every angle …

“But we have to bring our experiences to the story. And that’s what makes us have the advantage in a newsroom. Because we are Black, because we understand what that person in the neighborhood may be going through, because we speak the language, because we share a culture, then, we can bring all of that to the story that, perhaps, someone who is not Black cannot bring.” 

Challenging newsroom culture is key

News coverage and who shapes it is only one aspect of the present challenges to diversity, said Karen Hawkins, The Chicago Reader’s co-editor in chief. 

“The other part of that equation is newsroom culture,” she said. “ … and the culture of newsrooms that supports this status quo idea that you have to be straight and white and middle class in order to be objective, that that is the default position for viewing the world. And if you’re not those things, then you are biased.”

Sanders interjected. “The positioning of bias versus objectivity is false in and of itself, the two are not polar opposites… I have a view point, I have a perspective. It doesn’t make its way into my news coverage, but it does guide my interest.”

“Walking While Black,” he said, resulted from seeing the story through his particular lens, he said. He’d watched the viral video of Jacksonville police officers illegally stop a young Black man, ask for his I.D and try to ticket him for not having it. 

“I was offended that the officer tried  to, basically, say, ‘Hey, can I see you’re walking papers’ … That’s where I start to put on my skills hat. I know how to obtain the data to show that they’ve done that before … As a journalist I can ask educated questions that can lead to a story that has profound impact on that issue.”

“It’s ok to add perspective as a journalist,” Strader said. “Yes, I’m a journalist. At the same time, I’m a black man.”

Incomplete data on newsrooms’ racial make-up continues

In 2018, just 17% of the nation’s then 1,700 members of the American Society of News Editors answered its annual diversity survey. It was a historic low for that survey, launched in 1998. In 2019, 22% of newsrooms responded to the survey, now conducted by the News Leaders Association, the umbrella organization for ASNE and Associated Press Media Editors. The association hasn’t released its 2020 report.

But the latest Radio Television News Directors Association diversity survey, released in September 2020, received what researchers said were valid responses from 1,313, or 77%, of 1,702 non-satellite TV stations and from a random sample of more than 3,400 radio stations.

That there is no full accounting of news media diversity being done by industry leaders is problematic, Tucker said.

 Even so, amid current protests over police brutality and a range of race-driven social inequities, including in journalism, she has been fielding several calls a week with news executives asking her organization’s advice. 

“But it’s very difficult for us to measure success when we don’t have the data,” Tucker said. “The concern is maybe they don’t look that good.”