Anti-Black racism and the press

Early this year, Alexandria Neason wrote for CJR about the past and present of white supremacy in journalism. “Americans have short memories,” she observed. “We don’t like to be reminded of our many sins, so instead we prop up lofty narratives of progress and unity that obscure the violence enacted along the way.” The press, she wrote, has played a key part in that. In 1898, newspapers in North Carolina were weaponized by white vigilantes as part of a coup that killed hundreds of Black people. These days, Neason continued, journalism has a different relationship with racism, but the modern manifestations—“of language, of omission, of framing”—follow centuries-old tactics, only papered over, smoothed out, and couched in industry norms.

In recent years, news organizations have put out apologies for past offenses: in 2004 the Jackson Sun, in Tennessee, acknowledged that it had ignored or downplayed local civil rights efforts in its pages; in 2011, the Waco Tribune-Herald, in Texas, apologized for its coverage of the 1916 lynching of a seventeen-year-old named Jesse Washington; in 2018, National Geographic audited its archives, and told readers that the magazine had depicted people of color in exoticized ways, often nude and as “happy hunters, noble savages—every type of cliché.” Lately, many more outlets have released public statements of regret. But as Neason wrote, that should only be the start: “Regret without restitution is maintaining the status quo.” Or, as the Reverend William J. Barber II told her, “I don’t know if the language of ‘media apology’ is even sufficient.” For guidance, Neason turned to a project called Media 2070, which has invited people to imagine what reparations might look like for the news industry. “Reparations are both a destination and a pathway,” Alicia Bell, one of the organizers, said—a means of realizing “the reconciliation, the restoration, the repair that needs to happen within the media.”

Neason noted, too, that journalism’s attempts to redress structural inequities can feel “maddeningly cyclical.” Often, “conversations aiming to assess a newsroom’s performance come with an urge to self-congratulate, so as to soften the embarrassment of too-slow progress,” she wrote. “After decades of attempting reform, we need to wonder how sincere we’ve been, if we have been truly reckoning with anything at all.”

Below, more from CJR on racism and the press:

  • In an issue of the magazine focused on disinformation, Neason asked: “A police department exists to protect the public and to protect itself, but can it ever really do both?” In speaking with the press about a crime in which an officer may have been at fault, police tend to prioritize brand management, she wrote. “Victims—who more often than not are Black—have long listened to police with skepticism, expecting misinformation about themselves and their communities. Journalists have struggled to tell the whole story.”
  • Errin Haines published an essay in CJR about her life on the race beat. “It has been crucial for me to seek out stories that help bear witness to and for my community—and then, in the newsroom, push past the comfort of some white gatekeepers,” she wrote. “So much of journalism is about the choices we make about who will be seen and heard; the race beat is recognition of the fact that images and voices have seldom told the stories of my community.”
  • In the same issue, Jelani Cobb wrote about how, for the most part, American journalists “look nothing like the demographics of the communities they cover.” Fifty years after the Kerner Commission declared that a predominantly white press had failed to cover the story of racism in the United States, “we still see chronic underrepresentation of racial and ethnic minorities in print and broadcast media.”
  • For the recent Existential issue, Nehal El-Hadi interviewed Chris Gilliard and Marcus Gilroy-Ware about power structures embedded in digital journalism that perpetuate racial injustice and social inequality. “If you look at Black Lives Matter in the summer, the technical possibilities for how that could have been dealt with journalistically were all there,” Gilroy-Ware said. “But editorially, time and time and time again, the stories that were written, the headlines that were written—the ways that the destruction of Black lives at the hands of police and the outpouring of anger in relation to that was handled in newsrooms—was extremely problematic.”

Other notable stories: 

  • On Wednesday, Congress voted to make Juneteenth a federal holiday. On Thursday, President Biden signed the bill into law, creating the United States’ eleventh federal holiday, and first since 1983. Meanwhile, Republican state legislatures across the country are banning “critical race theory” from being taught in schools. Reporters have pointed out the contradiction.
  • The New York Times reports on a poll finding that most Americans know little or nothing about Juneteenth; the story links to a guide for readers explaining the holiday’s significance.
  • Annette Gordon-Reed, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and Harvard professor with a new book, On Juneteenth, recently went on Fresh Air to speak with Terry Gross about her scholarship, the holiday, and growing up Black in Texas. Last year, Gordon-Reed wrote about these subjects in an essay for The New Yorker.
  • Black Voters Matter, a voting rights and community empowerment organization, starts a new mobilization campaign, the Freedom Ride for Voting Rights, on Juneteenth. Vann R. Newkirk II, who wrote for The Atlantic a few years ago that “Juneteenth has always been touched with irony,” recently published an essay on the precarious state of voting rights for Black Americans: “States so inclined can experiment with the most extreme antidemocratic measures, knowing that court decisions will eventually lead them to find out exactly how much tyranny is permissible.” (In 2018, Newkirk contributed a column to CJR about Black journalists performing their “second job”—a collection of uncredited duties involving diversity, inclusion, and development—“while also working as reporters and editors to fearlessly peel back layers of racism and rot at America’s core.”)
  • And the Washington Post published a beautiful interactive on Juneteenth. Last month, the Post announced a policy outlining the “festivals and parades” that staff may and may not participate in; Juneteenth celebrations were fine, according to management, but protests in support of the Black Lives Matter movement were not. “I ask this with all sincerity: can someone explain to me the difference between a ‘celebration’ at Black Lives Matter Plaza and a ‘protest’ there? How does an attendee ensure one does not become the other? Is the location itself not, definitionally, ‘political’?” Wesley Lowery, a journalist who previously worked at the Post, tweeted. He added: “Citing a ‘Pride’ parade as an example of a non-political event seems an ahistorical stance for a newspaper to take.”

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The Editors are the staffers of the Columbia Journalism Review.