Fewer Black Journalists Seem to Want to Cover Their Own

  • Fear of Being ‘Pigeonholed,’ Psychic Toll at Issue
A March 5 panel sponsored by the Ford Foundation in Detroit discussed “Why Kerner still matters: Community coverage, from disorder to daily life.” From left: Bill Plante, Jelani Cobb, Marie Nelson, Richard Prince.
Photo: Credit: John Yearwood

Fear of Being ‘Pigeonholed,’ Psychic Toll at Issue

In 1984, Jesse Jackson won applause when he told the National Association of Black Journalists, then approaching its ninth year, “You must become the authorities on African American and African experience.


“Before you be a little of everything to everybody, be something special to where you live.”


A March 5 panel sponsored by the Ford Foundation in Detroit discussed “Why Kerner still matters: Community coverage, from disorder to daily life.” From left: Bill Plante, Jelani Cobb, Marie Nelson, Richard Prince. (video)

The idea that black journalists and black communities are linked was one of the conclusions of the landmark Kerner Commission report, from the presidential panel officially named the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders. The report’s 50th anniversary is being commemorated this year.


After decrying the news media’s “shockingly backward” hiring practices toward African Americans, and the white view of the world the media were presenting, the report said, “[I]f the media are to comprehend and then to project the Negro community, then they must have the help of Negroes.


“If the media are to report with understanding, wisdom and sympathy on the problems of the cities and the problems of the black man — for the two are increasingly intertwined — they must employ, promote and listen to Negro journalists.”

It is anecdotal evidence for sure, but after discussing the Kerner Commission in seven settings in the last two months, it seems to this writer that black journalists are less likely today to subscribe to the notion that they have a responsibility to report on black communities.


On a panel Thursday at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs on “Race and the Newsroom,” for example, the panel’s moderator, Alison Bethel McKenzie, the newly named executive director of the Society of Professional Journalists, said she was once “sent to cover a crime story in the projects. It took me a while to relate to them and to even make them comfortable enough to really talk to me.” Blacks are not a monolith, she said, though ultimately she got the story.

The same difference of opinion can be seen among other underserved communities. At a Journalism Job Fair in Washington Saturday sponsored collectively by journalism associations, Brandon Benavides, president of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, told Journal-isms flatly, “Every journalist should cover all communities, and the newsroom should reflect the communities they cover.”

Ivette Davila-Richards

However, Ivette Davila-Richards, a New York-based freelance multimedia journalist and former NAHJ board member, reflected Jackson’s point of view. “No one knows your own community like you do,” she told Journal-isms.


Davila-Richards, who is Puerto Rican, pointed to the stereotypes of Hispanics as gardeners and service workers that she said pervade the news media. Latino journalists were more likely to “highlight our community in a positive way,” in contrast to the “unfair” coverage she sees elsewhere, she said.

There is no denying that covering one’s own community can take a psychic toll, as it sometimes involves conflicts with editors over what should be covered and how. The Kerner Commission said, “We urge the news media to do everything possible to train and promote their Negro reporters to positions where those who are qualified can contribute to and have an effect on policy decisions.”


However, the number of editors of color remains low enough for the American Society of News Editors to undertake a special initiative to train journalists of color for newsroom leadership positions.

One irony is that white editors once did not trust black reporters to cover their communities. “Are you black first or a journalist first?” they asked. Some had to find ingenious ways to get coverage of African Americans into the news report.


Now, some of those journalists’ successors say they find covering communities of color a sure way to limit their careers.

Lester Holt

In February, in a story about the 70th anniversary of the “NBC Nightly News” program and its predecessors, anchor Lester Holt was quoted as saying, “There were periods of my career where there was just pressure to define myself as a black journalist, and I pushed back at that because I knew I wanted to succeed and not be defined by my color. I think if any of us are going to succeed, it’s going to be on a broad scale.”

Asked in a telephone interview last month to elaborate, Holt seemed to equate being a “black journalist” with covering only black issues, although he defined the term as simply being a journalist who is black.


I’m a good journalist. I can cover any story,” Holt said. “That’s the level” on which he wants to succeed.

Few would suggest that black journalists be limited to covering only “black” stories. Or that being black automatically confers journalistic excellence in reporting them. That requires a degree of background knowledge; some would say “cultural competence.” It is also true that nearly all subject areas can benefit by being told from diverse perspectives. Perhaps in discussing the need for journalists to cover communities of color, one should instead specify journalists with “cultural competence.”

At DePauw University March 6: Moderator Miranda Spivak, left, Paul Delaney, Richard Prince and Ava Thompson Greenwell on the Kerner report.
Photo: Cailey Griffin/DePauw University

Using 1984 reference points, Jackson said in his speech, “There should be nobody in your shop who knows more about our options in Southern Africa than you. Nobody that knows more about the denial of trade to African governments than you. Nobody should know more about how willing our government is to allow military coups to overthrow civilian rule in Africa, because they would rather deal with a general than a black democracy, than you. You must be the authorities on African life. You must be the authorities on Afro-American life. . . .”


It remains a fact that black journalists owe their jobs to those who rioted in the 1960s — and/or later picketed media outlets — and the Kerner Commission’s resulting acknowledgement that the news media were not telling the stories of those who resorted to the streets.

At the Columbia session, a black woman in the audience rose to accuse the middle-class black journalists of being sellouts because they were not reporting on the effects of gentrification and other issues affecting lower-class blacks. Panelists countered that those stories were in fact being told, but a recent study showed that the woman was not alone in her views.


Reporting in February on a Knight Foundation study on Twitter usage, Cliff Kuang wrote in the Toronto Star, “Not only is hate-tweeting articles a real thing, it may be the dominant mode for how minorities talk about media coverage about their communities.”

At the Newseum on March 1: From left, Gene Policinski, Francisco Vara-Orta, Tracy Jan, Thomas Hrach, Lynne Adrine, Richard Prince.
Photo: Colleen Fitzpatrick

In 2011, Pamela Newkirk wrote for Columbia Journalism Review about black journalists who felt frustrated by the mainstream media’s response to their efforts to cover black communities and left for the black press. She quoted Milton Coleman, then senior editor at the Washington Post and a past president of the American Society of News Editors.

Coleman said many African Americans come into journalism driven by a passion to illuminate issues in their communities,” Newkirk wrote. “And that, he said, explains some of the movement to the black press. ‘People of a like mind saw they could take the skills that they had picked up in mainstream media and go back to ethnically oriented media and make them better.’ For example, he named a half-dozen journalists — including Sylvester Monroe and Newsday’s Mira Lowe; Eric Easter of Washington Post.Newsweek Interactive; Dudley Brooks, of The Baltimore Sun; and Bryan Monroe, an assistant vice president for news at Knight Ridder, who had all been lured to Johnson Publishing Company. ‘Ebony and Jet improved just like that,’ Coleman said. . . .”


All but Easter, who is CEO of BlackBox Digital Studios, are now back at white-owned institutions, however.

Count Nikole Hannah-Jones of the New York Times Magazine, winner of a MacArthur Grant (often called the “genius grant”), among those who were frustrated in trying to tell the stories of people of color.


In 2015, when Hannah-Jones received the Journalist of the Year award from NABJ, she told the crowd, “Four years ago, I was told I was writing about black people too much. I was punished for it.” She said she did not believe the narratives that were being published about why black people migrated northward, working menial jobs. “I knew the narratives were not true. We came up here for a better life.”

Hannah-Jones also said she thought about leaving the profession.

Fortunately, Stephen Engelberg, ProPublica editor-in-chief, “saved me” with a job offer and “allowed me to do what I wanted to do. So many assignment editors do not allow us to tell the stories we have. Let us tell our stories.”


Like Hannah-Jones, the late Les Payne, columnist and assistant managing editor for Newsday, championed reporting on black and brown people and was praised, not marginalized, for it.

As the Pulitzer Prize-winning Payne told Bill Rhoden in a 2016 podcast, African Americans in the workplace have a responsibility to organize and try to change the culture toward fairness (audio).


Perhaps ironically, a journalism awards ceremony last year that featured awards from Associated Press Managing Editors and ASNE indicated that the news industry has increased its coverage of black communities.

Several winning investigations reported on African Americans, such as “Beyond the Bullet,” by a team from the Associated Press, which followed a boy’s adjustment to a new life in the aftermath of being shot on the streets of Chicago.


However, judging from those winners, the news business has not put many African Americans in a position to report those stories, particularly if they are of the prize-winning investigative sort.

The Kerner Commission report was issued March 1, 1968.

Stephen Henderson, then editorial page editor and columnist for the Detroit Free Press, was the only African American to accept an award, and his was for commentary/column writing.

For that reason, in 2016 Hannah-Jones and others helped launch the Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting, “a training and mentorship organization that aims to increase the numbers and retention rate of reporters and editors of color in newsrooms,” as Ricardo Bilton wrote in February 2017 for Nieman Lab. “. . . . The group is based on the idea that while investigative reporting is some of the most critical work journalists do, few of the people doing that work are non-white — a failure that Hannah-Jones says leaves a lot of stories uncovered or under-covered.”


There is as well that nagging “attitude” issue, often detected by word choices and emphasis. “Along with the country as a whole, the press has too long basked in a white world, looking out of it, if at all, with white men’s eyes and a white perspective,” the Kerner Report said 50 years ago. “That is no longer good enough. . . .

“They must insist on the highest standards of accuracy — not only reporting single events with care and skepticism, but placing each event into meaningful perspective. . . .”


Fifty years later, the question remains: Who will decide what is the correct perspective?

Jesse Jackson: ‘You Work in Pain’


Newseum: Fifty Years Later: The Kerner Report, March 1

Lynne Adrine, director of the Washington Program for Broadcast and Digital Journalism for the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University. Adrine was a senior producer at ABC News in Washington for 16 years and has worked at CNN, The MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour, NBC News and CBS News.


Thomas J. Hrach, associate professor in the Department of Journalism and Strategic Media at the University of Memphis and author of “The Riot Report and the News: How the Kerner Commission Changed Media Coverage of Black America.” Hrach has previously taught at Ohio University, where he received his doctorate degree. Prior to his academic career, he was a reporter and editor at The Marietta Times in Marietta, Ohio.

Francisco Vara-Orta, writer for Education Week, a vice president of the Education Writers Association and former president of the San Antonio Association of Hispanic Journalists. He also is a graduate of the Newseum Institute’s Chips Quinn Scholars program, aimed at improving diversity and inclusiveness in the nation’s newsrooms.Moderators


Richard Prince, journalist and author of “Journal-isms,” “the nation’s premier online journal about media and diversity”

Gene Policinski, president of the Newseum Institute and co-author of the nationally published column “Inside the First Amendment”


Ford Foundation panel: Why Kerner still matters: Community coverage, from disorder to daily life, Detroit, March 5.Richard Prince (moderator), Bill Plante, Marie Nelson, Jelani Cobb (panelists). Introductory remarks by Darren Walker, Ford Foundation president. C-SPAN version

Kerner Commission Panel — DePauw University, Greencastle, Ind., March 6Established journalists Paul Delaney, Richard Prince and Ava Greenwell, with moderator Miranda Spivack, discuss the progress our society has made in the diversification of Journalism since the release of the Kerner Commission Report 50 years ago.


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Richard Prince’s Journal-isms originates from Washington. It began in print before most of us knew what the internet was, and it would like to be referred to as a “column.” Any views expressed in the column are those of the person or organization quoted and not those of any other entity.


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Journal-isms is originally published on journal-isms.com. Reprinted on The Root by permission.

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