50 years after the Kerner Commission, little progress for people of color in media
I didn’t know that my family was “broken” until I heard it on the news. Although my parents divorced when I was five years old, my father was still in my life. So, too, were my attentive stepfather, a doting grandfather, wonderful uncles, cousins and neighbors. My siblings and I grew up in an all-important “village” filled with caring people who still care about us as adults, now with our own children and grandchildren.
I’m also the first-born of an immigrant family from a “shithole” country, according to the president of the United States. In addition to what the president dreams up on his own, his views and other stereotypes held by too many people often stem from media portrayals that are distorted or nonexistent.
Fifty years ago, the Kerner Commission blamed such media portrayals, or lack thereof, for contributing to nationwide uprisings in the summer of 1967 by African Americans who were sick and tired of being sick and tired, to paraphrase Fannie Lou Hamer. The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, as it was officially called, appointed by President Lyndon Johnson to investigate the underlying causes of the unrest, made some sobering findings, concluding, “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.”
It also found that the media presented a fragmented picture to the public that failed to show the everyday lives of black and brown people and that underplayed disparities in areas such as education, housing, employment, income, health, and policing.
To mark the 50th anniversary of the report, commemorative conferences, studies, and other research have assessed progress, or lack thereof, in the last half-century. The picture is decidedly mixed, with African-American unemployment, for example, consistently remaining about double the rate for whites, the Economic Policy Institute found. More people of color work in some segments of media, but nothing near fair representation. Coverage is more diverse, but stereotypes and distortions persist.
Today, roughly half of Americans agree that “African Americans are more negatively portrayed in the media than in reality,” the Ford Foundation reported in a new demographically representative study. Sixty-two percent of African Americans agree with this statement.
Another study had similar findings, but with a focus on “broken families” and other stereotypes. “Black fathers (14 percent) were shown spending time with their kids in news images almost half as often as white fathers (26 percent),” according to the study, “A Dangerous Distortion of Our Families: Representations of Families, by Race, in News and Opinion Media.”
However, “there is no evidence to suggest that black fathers ‘abandon’ their children,” said researcher Travis L. Dixon, Ph.D., citing data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Black fathers are more likely to be involved in their children’s lives than white fathers, even when they live elsewhere, said Dixon, who conducted the study for the Family Story Project and Color of Change.
Why do such stereotypes persist? The Kerner Commission’s explanation may still be relevant today.
In its 1968 findings, the commission, named for its chair, Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner Jr., said that “the media report and write from the standpoint of a white man’s world.” It described “a press that repeatedly, if unconsciously, reflects the biases, the paternalism, the indifference of white America.
“This may be understandable, but it is not excusable in an institution that has the mission to inform and educate the whole of our society.”
How news organizations carry out this mission is critical, because they influence leaders who make decisions about all of us — from teachers, coaches, loan officers, and doctors to cops, judges, legislators, and presidents.
The commission found an “imbalance between reality and impression,” not only in how newspapers and broadcast companies reported on the riots, but also in how they covered African Americans “day by day and month by month, year in and year out.”
Part of the reason was the lack of diversity in their newsrooms. “They had no people of color,” said journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault. “If they had, they would have been able to talk about the simmering tension that led to the rage that spilled over throughout this county, but there was nobody there.
“So, when it did spill over, the people who were rioting were perceived as criminals — like so many people today who are totally innocent and being perceived as criminals.”
Hunter-Gault, who integrated the University of Georgia in 1961 to study journalism, has worked at the New Yorker, New York Times, and PBS NewsHour and in South Africa for NPR and CNN. She also shared her expertise with Columbia University’s Summer Program for Minority Journalists, the first training program that grew out of the Kerner recommendations, she told news executives during the “Kerner Commission, 50 Years Later” panel at the ASNE-APME-APPM News Leadership Conference in October.
Perceptions of criminality played out in the sixties, including around April 4, 1968, when the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. drove people into the streets. These perceptions also surfaced after Hurricane Katrina and more recently with Black Lives Matter protests.
Then as now, the Kerner findings explained some of these perceptions and the distortions in coverage that led to them. “We found that the disorders, as serious as they were, were less destructive, less widespread, and less of a black-white confrontation than most people believed,” the commission said.
One of the commission’s recommendations was to “integrate Negroes and Negro activities into all aspects of coverage and content, including newspaper articles and television programming. The news media must publish newspapers and produce programs that recognize the existence and activities of Negroes as a group within the community and as a part of the larger community.”
Some, but not all, of the journalists I’ve worked with at the Toledo Blade, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and the New York Times have recognized the importance of our existence and activities within the larger community.
Too many journalists cover people who mostly reflect what they see in the mirror. Whether they’re reporting on taxes or traffic, they overlook people from various racial and ethnic groups who experience the same facets of everyday life. As the late journalist Les Payne often said, it’s as if snow falls only on homes filled with white people.
“I wanted to go into media mainly because I believed black people got a raw deal from the press, that we weren’t getting covered,” said Sonya Ross, race and ethnicity editor and a former White House correspondent at the Associated Press. “The things that I knew to be happening around us, I would open the newspaper and not see anything about it.”
As coverage evolved, “race took on this quality of ‘Gee, golly, look at this quirky thing I found,’ — almost like it was some sort of anthropological experiment,” Ross said. “Some of that was the result of reporters having to convince white editors and producers of the news value.”
“Covering President Clinton through the lens of race taught me that race was a subject that needed to be covered with more seriousness,” said Ross, who convinced AP to establish a race and ethnicity team. “This subject was worthy of its own standing, just like sports or business news or education or health.”
“I’ve seen it go from raw deal — virtually no coverage of us — to where we are today if you look at the media and how much effort is being put into covering race in real time. It’s a good feeling to know that I’ve had something to do with making that happen.”
Ross is proud of her team’s work, which has included stories on the 150th anniversary of the Ku Klux Klan, athletic activism, black perspectives on police shooting, and now the half-century since King’s death.
Black journalists’ expertise and sensibilities are essential to providing a fair and balanced view of the world, especially communities of color, from Harlem to Haiti, where my family is from. Whether local or international, too many of our communities are covered based on what I call the three Cs — coups, crisis, or crime.
After the Kerner Commission chastised the media for this kind of bias, news leaders set a goal to make newsrooms reflect the country’s demographics by the year 2000. The media missed the mark.
The American Society of News Editors and the Radio Television Digital News Association started tracking numbers in the 1970s. On the broadcast side, people of color currently make up 24 percent of the workforce in TV and 12 percent in radio, according to annual research conducted by RTDNA with Hofstra University. The U.S. Census puts the black, Hispanic, and Asian population at roughly 38 percent
RTDNA shows near parity for black journalists in television at 11 percent, compared to census figures of 13 percent. However, the radio workforce is only 2.8 percent black.
In ASNE’s most recent survey released in fall 2017, people of color accounted for 16.55 percent of journalists at newspapers and news websites, a slight drop from 16.94 percent in 2016 but less than half of their representation in the country’s population. ASNE’s findings for black journalists are just as far off from parity, but increased slightly from 5.33 percent to 5.64 percent
ASNE, along with Google News Lab, has developed an interactive graphic showing the percentage of women and people of color working in U.S. newsrooms.
Although the media still hasn’t achieved the goal, parity remains just as important, if not more so, for several reasons:
- Black journalists have been among the “last hired, first fired” at daily newspapers and broadcast outlets, which have experienced severe cutbacks in recent years during this rapidly changing media revolution.
- Digital media is expanding, but overall it’s less diverse than legacy media. However, online-only news sites do a little better than newspapers in hiring people of color, 24 percent versus 16 percent, respectively.
- Demographics are changing quickly with the so-called “browning of America.” The U.S. Census projects that the white population will drop 15.5 percent over the next four decades, from 77.5 percent in 2014 to 68.5 percent by 2060.
In terms of gender, women of color are underrepresented across the board in ASNE’s and RTNDA’s annual surveys. The Women’s Media Center expanded upon these findings in its new report, “The Status of Women of Color in the U.S. News Media 2018.”
Women of color account for 7.95 percent of journalists in print newsrooms, 12.6 percent for local TV news and 6.2 percent for local radio. In the media overall, black women make up 2.62 percent of journalists in newsrooms, and black men 3.02 percent, for a combined total of 5.64 percent.
“There have been ebbs and flows in diversity and commitment to diversity,” said Lynne Adrine, a former senior producer at ABC News who spoke recently at the Newseum for its commemoration of the Kerner Report’s 50th anniversary.
An African-American editor in New York used to joke that he was unaware of a media company that wasn’t “committed to diversity,” a common refrain spouted by recruiters and news executives since the Kerner report’s release.
Nikole Hannah-Jones, a reporter for the New York Times Magazine and winner of a MacArthur “genius grant,” shared her thoughts on this commitment in the “The Status of Women of Color.”
“My experience has been that people who hire in newsrooms talk about wanting diversity, but for some reason, when it comes down to hiring,” Hannah-Jones said, “candidates of color have some flaw and just couldn’t make the cut. It happens again and again to the point that it feels systemic.”
Talk of diversity is back in vogue again. This time around, media companies should just do it. No more handwringing. No more ebbs and flows.
This time around, they should go beyond internships and training programs with comprehensive strategies for retention and promotion.
They should strengthen coverage of race and ethnicity, especially as intolerance and xenophobia appear to be on the rise.
They should heed the Kerner Commission’s call to action and the prescience of its words on unity. “Prejudice has shaped our history decisively; it now threatens to affect our future,” the commission said. “There can be no higher priority for national action and no higher claim on the nation’s conscience.”
Otherwise, as the commission famously noted, the country could continue to move toward “two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.”
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