Benavides: Recent coverage shows the media has failed to fix the same problems of its past

Austin Benavides, Columnist

It started with a violent arrest. White police officers brutally beat a black man nearly to death, and what followed were protests that erupted across the city and soon, across the nation.

The victim was a black cab driver named John William Smith. He had a broken jaw, broken ribs and was beaten until he was unable to walk.

Fueled by protests over police brutality the years before, demonstrations popped up across the country, including in Newark where Smith was assaulted, in what became known as the “Long, Hot Summer of 1967.”

Media outlets characterized protesters as “outsiders” and “communist agitators.” It wasn’t uncommon for major outlets to refer to demonstrators as thugs and criminals. Often, these outlets would only focus on the looting and property damage of the protests, while ignoring the very reason why people were protesting in the first place.

But why did this happen, and what were its consequences?

It happened because the newsrooms that produced these stories were predominately white. With hardly any black reporters at mainstream outlets, that meant that issues impacting the black community were told through white voices. Messages calling for police defunding and abolition became filtered by the white palette to call for “police reform” and better police training.

The sanitization of these issues by the white mainstream media helped put into the minds of the American public that the bare minimum of change would be enough. Focusing on property damage and looting presented a narrative of “disorder” in black and brown communities that warranted state-sponsored force as necessary to instill “order” back into these communities.

A year later, President Nixon would campaign on being the “Law and Order” president and would use the rhetoric of these mainstream outlets to sell to the public on his policies for the expansion of the police and carceral state.

More than fifty years later, the problems still persist.

In the wake of the protests after the killing of George Floyd, major outlets across the country began focusing only on the violent protests. Specifically, they focused on the violence itself rather than the reasons behind it or why it was justified.

Just like in the “Long, Hot Summer,” outlets said many of the looters and criminals participating in these protests were outside agitators and not a part of the communities they were protesting in.

Many protesters at the heart of these demonstrations called for complete police abolition, yet the media often focused on small reforms like “8 Can’t Wait,” a set of policies that were said if adopted could reduce police violence by up to 72 percent.

Yet, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said the department had adopted policies similar to those, despite the fact that the Chicago Police Department still kills black people at over 27 times the rate of their white counterparts.

Part of why mainstream outlets are still making the same mistakes is because they never learned from them to start with. Diversity initiatives spurred after the 1967 uprisings, had some success in the industry. But looking at the field today, the progress is minimal.

A 2018 Pew Research study found that newsroom diversity is worse than the national average of U.S. occupations and industries. The Los Angeles Times, a national paper that covers a metro area that contains over 70 percent people of color, has a newsroom that is only 38 percent non-white. Of the last 168 hires at the L.A. Times, over 90 of them were white.

The lack of representation in the newsroom has had stark consequences for its coverage. Reporters at the L.A. Times recently criticized their publication because of a hyper-focus on looting during the current protests, which some said only was focused on to appeal to their white audience. One major source of criticism leveled against the L.A. Times was that there was only one black reporter out of 90 assigned to the metro desk, the paper’s largest desk.

Without proper diversity in the newsroom, the stories being told will remain white stories. Whether it’s through white reporters writing about communities they’ve never lived in, or white editors who shut down and underpay their black reporters.

A few weeks ago, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette caught backlash for telling two black reporters to not cover the George Floyd protests because of the possible bias they may have of being black.

The Post-Gazette is not an isolated incident. For decades, journalism institutions have criticized non-white reporters for being “too close” to a story and therefore biased. But often these very institutions do not critically engage with the idea that it is just as, and if not more, harmful for these white reporters to cover communities from which they are too detached.

Newsrooms that do not reflect the cities they serve will fail to give the residents the coverage they deserve. The solution is simple: Hire more non-white reporters and editors. Any excuse given by an outlet as to why they can’t do that should be criticized and called out.

Until then, the media will continue to pass on harmful rhetoric about communities they do not understand, that will be fuel for the next administration’s efforts to continue the carceral state.

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Twitter: @awstinbenavides