Racist journalism literally cost lives in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina 15 years ago. Racist journalism has allowed police to get away with lying and wrongfully arresting and imprisoning innocent people. Racist journalism has built narrative cover for government and corporate policies that deny wealth, opportunity, physical and mental well-being to non-white people.
News organizations have been forced to confront their (not-new) lack of diversity this year, following the nationwide uprising for racial justice after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Some newsrooms are having earnest, public conversations about how to do better, including an uncomfortable look at how the few people of color that are on staff have been sidelined and mistreated. Some have even changed top leadership in response, or announced a slew of new hires focused on covering racial justice issues or improving diversity, equity and inclusion. The response from some publishers has no doubt been performative and temporary, while at least one major local newspaper is not even going through the motions and has shown open contempt. Looking at you, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
For news organizations that are sincere in seeking a reckoning on race, hiring more people of color won’t be enough. Of course, there’s the whole thing about then actually listening to them, giving them power within the organization and paying them equitably.
But that alone will not repair past damage and mistrust.
News organizations must confront not just the lack of diversity on their staffs and in leadership, but also a legacy of journalism that has ranged from incomplete to bad to preposterously racist because of it.
In 2014, the New Republic hired journalist Jeet Heer to do a deep and fearless dive into the magazine’s own history of giving voice to racist tropes, including the infamous “Bell Curve” issue that put an academic gloss on KKK talking points in suggesting genetic inferiority among Black people.
“The phrase ‘legacy of racism’ encapsulates in a few words a large reality: Bigotries can have complex, ongoing ramifications. Few, if any, longstanding institutions have been historically free of racism,” he wrote in the introduction. “Given the pervasiveness of racism in the past, the struggle to understand this legacy and figure out how to overcome it remains a political and institutional imperative.”
In 2018, the Montgomery Advertiser apologized to readers for the way it covered lynchings of Black people in Alabama from the 1870s all the way through the 1950s.
“We propagated a world view rooted in racism and the sickening myth of racial superiority,” editors wrote.
This is an everywhere-in-the-country problem, not just in Alabama or the Deep South. And the rot is more extensive and more recent (ongoing, in fact) than publishers mouthing “Black Lives Matter” want to admit.
How local journalists shaped the narrative around race in subtle and not-so-subtle ways had something and maybe everything to do with why we got redlining in New York City, segregating zoning laws in Connecticut, over-policing of Black communities almost everywhere.
In fact, opportunities for great journalism abound in confronting the bad and racist journalism of the (even recent) past. We could start by revisiting some of the cases where we took the word of police and prosecutors without question, now that we’ve woken up to the idea that police lie to the faces of journalists, frequently and without consequence.
When I was editor of the New Haven Register, I found an old letter in a filing box from the early 1970s, in which the local chapter of the NAACP was threatening to sue the newspaper for conspiring with city officials and business leaders to manipulate perceptions about the Black community through warped coverage of crime and other matters. Apply a loose interpretation of “conspiring,” and that could have been most any city and any newspaper in America. And that case could still be made in many places.
Want a true reckoning on race in your newsroom? Hire the most relentless reporter you can find from outside your organization and give them free rein to confront your journalism and your treatment of staff, past and present. Publish the results. And then you can begin to do better.
If we don’t make the effort to understand how racism has shaped our coverage, and how that coverage has shaped our communities, how can we ever have a relationship of trust with the people in our communities who were harmed by it? We can’t avoid repeating the mistakes of the past without a fearless interrogation of them.
Matt DeRienzo is editor-in-chief of the Center for Public Integrity. He has worked in journalism as a reporter, editor, publisher, corporate director of news for 25 years, including as vice president of news and digital content at Hearst's Connecticut newspapers, and as the first full-time executive director of LION Publishers.