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Just how broken is our political information ecosystem, anyway?
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Nov. 19, 2020, 12:59 p.m.
Audience & Social
LINK: mediaengagement.org  ➚   |   Posted by: Hanaa' Tameez   |   November 19, 2020

In 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson tasked the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, known as the Kerner Commission, with investigating the cause of “racial strife” in the United States following the Detroit riot in 1967.

Putting aside the fact that Johnson rejected the report and cancelled the meeting in which the commission would present it to him (this really shouldn’t be put aside but I digress), the Kerner Commission Report found that the news media plays a huge role in sowing and perpetuating division between Americans.

From chapter 15 of the report:

The absence of Negro faces and activities from the media has an effect on white audiences as well as black. If what the white American reads in the newspapers or sees on television conditions his expectation of what is ordinary and normal in the larger society, he will neither understand nor accept the black American.

By failing to portray the Negro as a matter of routine and in the context of the total society, the news media have, we believe, contributed to the black-white schism in this country. When the white press does refer to Negroes and Negro problems it frequently does so as if Negroes were not a part of the audience. This is perhaps understandable in a system where whites edit and, to a large extent, write news. But such attitudes, in an area as sensitive and inflammatory as this, feed Negro alienation and intensify white prejudices.

In the 52 years since the report was published, the news media has largely failed to adopt its recommendations. That becomes even more evident today, as the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas, Austin published a study titled “News distrust among Black Americans is a fixable problem.”

The Center surveyed 1,052 Black Americans and interviewed 27 about their perceptions of the news media’s coverage of Black communities. The survey was conducted between August 1 and August 31, 2020.

It found:

  • Journalists aren’t trusted to cover Black communities: On average, respondents rated their trust in the media at a 3.2 on a scale of 1 (low trust) to 7 (high trust). In their answers, the concept of media bias came up 467 times. Black Americans trust journalists overall, but less so when they are covering Black communities. “For the local news, I kind of trust them. … [But] they’re so quick to post negative stories about minorities,” survey respondent Sarah from Louisiana said.
  • Coverage is stilted: Survey respondents thought that coverage of Black communities was often one-sided and devoid of context. Coverage of the Black Lives Matters protests over the summer often made them out to be violent, when they were actually largely peaceful. “They have been showing protestors as overly violent, when in actuality, it’s the police that’s actually starting to [aggravate] issues between them,” Kole from Georgia said.
  • Expectations don’t match reality: Survey respondents want the media to help the public understand racial injustice, but they don’t see the news media doing that well.

The root of the solution, the report’s authors say, is fixing issues in news coverage. “The more people perceived that the media did a good job of covering Black communities and the more they perceived that newsrooms are diverse, the more likely they were to trust the media,” the report says. “Coverage perceptions mattered more than perceptions that newsrooms are diverse.”

The Center suggests the following approaches:

  1. Find Black Joy: Intentionally cover positive stories about Black people and communities, rather than focusing coverage on police brutality or protests.
  2. Provide a more complete story: Develop more sources in Black communities and tell stories that include their points
    of view, rather than overly rely on official government sources.
  3. Diversify Blackness: Don’t treat one neighborhood or community as “Black people.” Instead, realize that Black people live throughout your coverage area and that their needs and beliefs are not all the same.
  4. Explore your own unconscious biases: Think about the decisions you make about what stories to cover and how you cover those stories, even if it makes you uncomfortable.
  5. Hire Black journalists: Make a real commitment to hiring diverse staff at all levels.
  6. Connect with Black communities: Build trust by finding ways to make connections in Black communities before big news happens. Consider getting involved in local causes or community events.

Those ideas aren’t all that different from what the Kerner Commission Report suggested in 1968. These recommendations are from an abridged version of the report by the Othering & Belonging Institute at the University of California, Berkeley:

  • Expand coverage of the Negro community and of race problems through permanent assignment of reporters familiar with urban and racial affairs, and through establishment of more and better links with the Negro community.
  • 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.
  • Recruit more Negroes into journalism and broadcasting and promote those who are qualified to positions of significant re­sponsibility. Recruitment should begin in high schools and con­tinue through college; where necessary, aid for training should be provided.
  • Improve coordination with police in reporting riot news through advance planning, and cooperate with the police in the designa­tion of police information officers, establishment of information centers, and development of mutually acceptable guidelines for riot reporting and the conduct of media personnel.
  • Accelerate efforts to ensure accurate and responsible reporting of spot and racial news, through adoption by all news gathering organizations of stringent internal staff guidelines.
  • Cooperate in the establishment of a privately organized and funded Institute of Urban Communications to train and educate journalists in urban affairs, recruit and train more Negro jour­nalists, develop methods for improving police-press relations, re­view coverage of riots and racial issues, and support continuing research in the urban field.

While the news media has made some strides, the problems that Black Americans faced in the 1960s now also plague other communities of color and immigrant communities to varying extents, as Jon Funabiki noted for Renaissance Journalism. In the age of the internet, the news industry has the resources it needs to fix itself based on the recommendations from both reports. It just has to sustain the will.

Read the full report by the Center for Media Engagement here.

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