Missing the Story

Illustration: Nicolas Ortega.

Five years ago, I came across an article in The New York Times about a spate of robberies in the Bronx. It was the kind of story that has been a staple in the metro sections of newspapers since there have been metro sections in newspapers, focusing on the reaction of people living in the neighborhood where robberies took place. But there was a notable wrinkle: Confronted by armed antagonists, the article sighed, many people refused to surrender their belongings, even when they had only a few dollars on them. The article tsk-tsked at community members for tempting fate. A criminologist offered a suggestion that it was “nuts for the victim to refuse.” A few dollars, readers were told, are not worth one’s life. 

The article stuck with me in part because I’d once lived nearby that area and understood the realities of crime there. But I also was struck by the ways in which the efforts of a journalist, an editor, an expert, and even neighborhood residents seemed only to further a narrative of liberal condescension, missing crucial facts about life in this place. 

Here’s what I knew: People who live in a rough neighborhood and are confronted with a demand for money are forced to make calculations that people in safer, more affluent areas rarely think about. The few dollars in their pockets may represent their only way to get to work; surrendering cash is not only an immediate loss but also one that jeopardizes a future paycheck. More crucially, people who are known to be easily victimized likely will become frequent targets, a reality that may make their neighborhood virtually unlivable. What to the journalist seemed inscrutable was, to many residents, reasonable. 

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It was not lost on me that the journalist who wrote the story was white and that the neighborhood was largely black and Latinx. The article represented not simply a case of a journalist missing a story. The story, to me, spoke to the problem of what happens when the demographics of the Times—and American newspapers in general—look nothing like the demographics of the communities they cover. The people who are most likely to appear in these kinds of stories are the least likely to have a say in how those stories are told. 

Conversations around diversity in media have tended to focus on cozy niceties. “Diversity” is often partnered with the word “inclusion” in our racial vocabulary. Since the conflicts of the 1960s, it has been increasingly apparent that our political, educational, and media institutions should not appear to be monochromatically white. But appearance is not the real problem. A democratic media is.

A half-century ago, members of the Kerner Commission—an advisory board formed by President Lyndon B. Johnson in response to a series of race riots—spelled out the role of a mostly white media in failing to cover the cause of unrest. It called on news outlets across the country to diversify. In the decades since, including “diverse” perspectives in media and elsewhere has become broadly acceptable—eight out of 10 Americans view ethnic diversity as “at least somewhat important” in the workplace.

Yet 50 years after Kerner, we still see chronic underrepresentation of racial and ethnic minorities in print and broadcast media. In 2017, only 16.6 percent of journalists at daily newspapers were people of color; in the US population, more than 37 percent of people are nonwhite. According to a 2015 poll, more than three-quarters of the guests on Sunday morning shows were white. There is currently only one person of color, CNN’s Don Lemon, hosting a weeknight primetime show on the three biggest cable news networks. This underrepresentation of minorities is a more polite way of saying that there is an overrepresentation of white people in media—79 percent of people working in the publishing industry are white. Two years ago, the dearth of people of color at the Oscars generated the satirical #OscarsSoWhite hashtag. A #NewsroomSoWhite hashtag would now be equally fitting. 

There is something awkward about this kind of racial census taking—journalism is difficult and our media outlets, we like to think, are staffed by people who have the skills to get the job done. This is often the case. But it leaves a question unasked: How many people who have the skills to do this work never even get the opportunity to try? 

I came to journalism through alternative newspapers in the Washington, DC, area. I contributed to The Hilltop, Howard University’s student paper, and wrote for a small black-owned weekly, where I learned the fundamentals of writing on deadline. My first job at a majority-white publication was at the Washington City Paper, in 1996. David Carr, who would go on to become a crucial voice in media criticism at the Times before his death, in 2015, arrived at the City Paper from its sister publication, The Twin Cities Reader. The City Paper traditionally had chilly relations with much of the city’s majority black population. In addition to the lack of minority representation on staff, the paper’s critical coverage of the mayoralty of Marion Barry was often read as thinly veiled racial condescension. 

Carr, with characteristic insouciance, set out to diversify the staff. He started a paid internship program and put out feelers for writers who might be interested in working at the paper. His first class of interns included me; Holly Bass, now a writer and playwright; Neil Drumming, currently a producer with This American Life; and Ta-Nehisi Coates, who would go on to win a National Book Award. Carr did not pat himself on the back for his recruitment style. (To my knowledge, he never even spoke of it outside of an article he wrote explaining the importance of newspaper and magazine internship programs at a point when many outlets were eliminating them.) But equally important was the fact that he did not hire any of us in pursuit of a vague, frankly condescending ideal of “inclusion.” He explained in straightforward terms that he worried that there were specific stories missing from his newspaper. He wanted a better publication and believed our work would help him build one. And we did.

What happens when the demographics of the Times—and American newspapers in general—look nothing like the demographics of the communities they serve?

Years later, in 2013, I attended the annual conference of the City and Regional Magazine Association and participated in a panel on media diversity. My session was scheduled to immediately follow a panel, always well-attended, on best-selling magazine issues. The theory was that the huge lead-in would generate a spillover crowd for the diversity panel. Instead, people streamed out of the room, leaving just a handful of outlets left  to  discuss  the  disappointing  number of  people  of  color  in  the  industry. Afterward, I talked to people from magazines in Detroit, Birmingham, Philadelphia, Washington, and Los Angeles—places with large black populations—and learned that none of them had any black writers on staff; the only black journalist at Atlanta’s regional magazine had left a year or so earlier. Not only were outlets overwhelmingly white, it seemed, based on the lousy showing at the conference, that few people were concerned about inequality.

The implications of the media’s representation problem could not be more clear. As race emerged as a central theme of the 2016 elections, crucial decisions about coverage were being made in institutions employing few of the people Donald Trump maligned. Euphemisms appeared when unblinking assessments of racism and religious bigotry were warranted. A persistent theme of “economic anxiety” was cited to explain away an animosity that was clearly connected to much darker objections. As a corollary to this, the work of journalists like Adam Serwer, Nikole Hannah-Jones, and Jamelle Bouie—which pointed to the centrality of racism as a motivating factor for Trump voters—came under attack. (Subsequent studies have validated their contentions.) Debates over the role of race in political coverage remain deeply predictable and dispiriting—as in the story of crime in the Bronx, where white journalists dominate, the most familiar and comfortable narratives hold sway. 

There’s another reason why diversity matters. The media exists in a climate of unprecedented hostility. The relationship between the White House and the press, frequently rocky, has devolved into a circumstance in which the president of the United States has referred to us as the “enemy of the people.” Trump’s attacks are facilitated by the fact that, in the past two decades, trust in the media has plummeted. This is a crisis of democracy, since the press’s role as a guardian of democracy is founded upon the trust of the public. But at least some portion of that distrust is a product of people who rarely see themselves or their stories depicted in the media they consume. A great deal must be done to rebuild public trust. But it can begin by including the voices of all Americans. The press, tasked with protecting American democracy, is best secured by reflecting the American people.

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Jelani Cobb is the director of Columbia University’s Ira A. Lipman Center for Journalism and Civil and Human Rights and a staff writer at The New Yorker.