Like so many families of my generation, I grew up in America in the 1970s watching nightly network news, reading the daily paper and magazines on Sunday. Even when our country was not on the same page politically, we often were staring at the same page, literally. Media was simpler and smaller then, but key communities were often missing from coverage.
Today’s information boom, amplified by the rise of social media and streaming channels, has made the media landscape more complex. In an ideal world, this transformation would allow us to better understand people who are different from us. Unfortunately, both legacy and new media companies still don’t accurately reflect the reality of this country amid our shifting demographics. We have more noise but far less substance, especially as it relates to the local lived experiences in individual communities.
As a Black, female reporter, I’ve experienced these issues firsthand. When I worked at Newsweek, I was chastised by white colleagues for suggesting the Central Park 5 could possibly be innocent, and should at least be given the barest presumption of innocence-before-proven guilty. At ABC, I struggled with how to pitch and execute stories where the black and of-color experience was not “othered,” while middle- and upper-middle-class white concerns were foregrounded. I believe these editorial decisions, and the lack of empowered non-white staff among those who make them, shape our ability to tell the real story of America and we are seeing the consequences and ramifications in today’s politics and civil society.
The reluctance to include both staff and perspectives of color in our media organizations proved problematic during the 2016 election, when we needed the experience of all communities to add to the collective intelligence. This is true not only for immigrants and people of color, but rural and working-income whites, and people with disabilities, who are also often marginalized in newsrooms.
In order to promote this collective intelligence, our newsrooms must prioritize hiring, promoting and empowering storytellers of diverse backgrounds. I’ve worked in newsrooms at Newsweek, CNN, ABC, NPR and FiveThirtyEight, and even in the best of situations there have been gaps in employing and covering people of color. As a result, our industry lacks important voices, which puts our very democracy in peril.
Take, for example, how pervasive predatory lending in communities of color was ignored in the early years of this century, only to be followed by the broader, destructive mortgage crisis in 2008. If the patterns of discrimination in sub-prime lending had been sufficiently covered, the media could have potentially helped prevent or diminish the impact of the Great Recession.
Three quarters of people of color-led newsrooms have less than five employees, but they make a significant impact. One small-but-mighty newsroom is MLK50, which, in its words, focuses “on poverty, power and public policy in Memphis, 50 years after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed.”
Newsrooms run by Latinx reporters and communities of color, like MLK50, are transforming our nation and the world. Another example is the Centro de Periodismo Investigativo, Puerto Rico’s key investigative reporting outlet, which sued to get records that showed an accurate count of the Puerto Ricans who died as a result of Hurricane Maria, and, more recently, covered politically incendiary communications from the island’s governor, which eventually led to protests that toppled him from power.
The challenge is, news organizations led by and serving people of color often lack the capital and streams of revenue to build infrastructure and resources. According to the Democracy Fund, between 2009 and 2015, only 6% of the $1.2 billion in grants invested in journalism, news, and information in the United States went towards efforts serving specific racial and ethnic groups. This lack of resourcing prevents people of color from gaining critical professional development that would open doors to higher-tier outlets and opportunities.
But now, there’s important work being done to change that.
The Ford Foundation and a coalition of partners launched the Racial Equity in Journalism Fund, which will invest in nonprofit and for-profit news organizations improving racial equity in news coverage and newsrooms, starting with upwards of $3.6 million to make grants in the first quarter of 2020. With the goal of rebuilding the news industry, promoting civic participation, and decreasing disinformation, the fund will support media organizations that have demonstrated the ability or commitment to providing timely and important news to the most underserved communities and developing creative and innovative ways to reach the communities they serve.
Fifty years on from the Kerner Commission Report, we are still reckoning with one of its main findings, “the news media have failed to analyze and report adequately on racial problems in the United States.”
Now is the time to usher in a new era of journalism that emboldens reflective voices and better safeguards our democracy. With both the Census and an election year around the corner, the time to create truly inclusive journalism is now.
Farai Chideya is a Program Officer in the Creativity and Expressions team at the Ford Foundation