Martinez: This election season, don’t ignore black journalists — again

Marissa Martinez, Opinion Editor

As potential candidates are slowly announcing their 2020 presidential campaigns, newsrooms across the country are gearing up to cover local and national reactions, assembling teams of their best political reporters and correspondents to tackle this large project.

CBS recently announced its 2020 election team in a graphic on Twitter Saturday. The problem? There were no recognizable black reporters out of 12 members.

Based on last names and pictures alone, reporters and producers on the team seem to hold different racial identities, but none are African-American. The Internet erupted on Saturday, calling out CBS for being so proud of a team that almost willfully ignored black journalists. To me, it felt frustrating that after two years of public discourse on the issue of representation in newsroom, a major outlet did not take heed when making up its reporting team.

To make matters worse, writer and radio show host Jesse Kelly asked if “anyone considered the obvious explanation that many black people have no interest in journalism? Cultures are different and value different things. Doesn’t make CBS the KKK.” He later clarified his comments, saying he meant that this “lack of interest” wasn’t an insult, but a “feature,” claiming that “it is not the color of your skin but the culture that surrounds you that is THE likely determining factor in how you turn out.”

This infuriated me more than CBS’s original tweet. While there is an overall lack of black journalists in comparison to white ones, there are more than 4,000 members in the National Association of Black Journalists, and many others who don’t belong to an official organization. It’s not that hard to find black reporters. However, the wide gap still exists not because of a “lack of interest,” but a system full of barriers to newsroom access, from education to hiring to promotion. Black people are not inherently worse at or uninterested in journalism — in fact, African-American reporters have been instrumental to the history of reporting in this country.

The history of African-American journalism

Black-led newspapers popped up in major cities throughout the 1800s, filling a crucial gap in news coverage. Not only did they document important moments in black history, but they also served as a counter-narrative against the all-white newspapers of the time. Tense moments like lynchings or other injustices were often covered poorly by “yellow” publications that focused on the sensational nature or the white perspective.

Famous journalists like Ida B. Wells and Frederick Douglass, publisher of the North Star publication, were instrumental during the late 1800s and early 1900s in transforming how the country viewed events like lynching, even convincing large portions of the population to participate in the Great Migration to the North.

In particular, The Chicago Defender, founded by Robert S. Abbott in 1905 served as a nexus for black writers and entrepreneurs, offering perspectives about the Great Migration, the scourge of white supremacy and more — arguably, it also helped Chicago residents elect Chicago’s first black alderman. The paper, which is still in circulation today, survived periods of racism and discrimination to provide much of the Midwest and the rest of the country with biting commentary on the state of black citizens.

The reason The Defender — a paper widely circulated across the nation, providing the framework for many new black newspapers — did so well was because it offered another perspective, one that was consistently shut down post-slavery through the civil rights movement.

However, having a separate publication system prevented the rest of the country from hearing these perspectives, especially when it came to covering major social movements during the 1960s and 1970s, decades defined by civil unrest. President Lyndon Johnson created the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders in July 1967 in order to explain the riots and recommend further action, ideally in a way that absolved him or the government of responsibility.

The 1968 Kerner report claimed the nation was “moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.” In particular, the report stated one major problem was the lack of diversity in newsrooms — because the news media “failed to portray accurately” the violence and “failed to report adequately” the problems of race relations, they spread a false image of the ghetto to their mainly white audience.

Among the recommendations by the Commission to integrate more black issues into mainstream coverage, the committee specifically suggested recruiting more blacks for reporting and editorial positions. Many newsrooms did try to add journalists of different races to their staffs to correct this gap, and several news organizations dedicated to black, Hispanic, Asian and Native journalists were founded after the report was published to help support their entry into the overwhelmingly white profession.

The American Society of News Editors, or ASNE, began tracking diversity in newsrooms in 1978 to push for offices that proportionally represented the number of racial minorities in the country by 2000. The goal has been amended to 2025. According to its 2018 report, which consolidated data from 293 news organizations, people of color comprised 22.6 percent of newsrooms. Black staffers, however, made up 4.74 percent of newsrooms in 2015 (the most recent year available).

Black journalists add a perspective needed in newsrooms

Herein lies the problem. African-American journalists, just like any other race, hold particular sets of knowledge about their place in the country. The context they bring to newsrooms is crucial — whether it’s in pitching, writing or editing stories, black journalists use their knowledge set to inform all aspects of reporting, as they should. It is ignorant to claim all journalists are the same regardless of skin color, just as it’s ignorant to claim all people are the same. Every human is the sum of their experiences, so the willful ignorance of newsroom leaders in hiring diverse staff members makes having a homogeneous reporting team that much worse.

When it comes to the 2016 election, supposedly liberal newsrooms famously did not listen to journalists of color. I experienced this in my own circles; when I predicted Trump’s victory on Election Day, nervous about the results, all of my white journalist friends scoffed or wrote me off. My black friends agreed with my guess, but we were far outnumbered in our collective social circles.

This is why we need more black reporters on the 2020 team. The photo of CBS’s team is the most circulated on the Internet by far, but I’d be willing to bet many large publications had similar people in mind, at least before the picture went viral. I — and many others — applaud the diversity we do see, but people of color are not a monolith. An Asian reporter’s perspective will be different than a Native editor’s, which will be different than a black journalist’s. We all bring unique experiences to the table and deserve equal representation in the newsroom.

We need journalists to bring all the context they can to newsrooms — their experiences in small towns and big cities, their exposure to all types of races, backgrounds and political ideologies. As publications attempt to capture the spirit of the country during presidential elections, they cannot erase black voices in favor of other narratives, like they did in 2016.

Confronting our nation’s relationship with race is essential to understanding the 2020 presidential election — even though the divide existed long before, the most recent election showcased a lack of depth when it comes to reporting on race relations. A lot of that blame comes down to homogeneous newsrooms, particularly in regards to the political beat.

Having black reporters will not fix all gaps in reporting, nor should it — publications will always make mistakes. But to not have any, 50 years after the Kerner Commission released its report calling for a drastic change, is shameful. Black journalists deserve better. America deserves better.

Marissa Martinez is a Medill sophomore. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.