Black Americans will demand more from journalism

“Accountability is right around the corner for news organizations that are out of touch. They’re out of time.”

Despite recent political headwinds, the Black Lives Matter movement and the demands of millions of Americans for racial equality will not go away. Systemic racism is resilient, but the voices of those who demonstrated for racial justice in the streets of at least 140 U.S. cities earlier this year are clear: The old ways of doing things are ending and accountability is coming for institutions that continue to insist otherwise.

The journalism industry won’t escape this scrutiny. Black Americans deserve journalism that informs us about our rights and interests and empowers us to be effective participants in democratic self-governance. We also need journalism that tells the truth about our experiences to the country as a whole, to educate people who may be unaware and to pressure policymakers to work diligently to resolve these issues — especially as Black communities absorb compounding inequities in health and economic outcomes in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

But for this to happen, we need newsrooms to include and empower us at all levels of news production. But to appropriate Stephen Skowronek’s concept of political time to describe the state of American journalism, the industry is still stuck in Kerner Commission Time.

As we know from that panel’s 1968 report — and the history of the press and its interaction with Black communities — the hiring, retention, and promotion of Black journalists is necessary to tell the stories about our communities that often are ignored or misrepresented. But news outlets still offer a predictable litany of reasons as to why that hasn’t happened, including the so-called pipeline problem. (You can’t flow something through a tube that’s blocked at the end.) There’s also the larger, structural conversation as to whether commercial journalism is even up for this job.

But it still has to try. And to their credit, some news organizations are sobering up. In 2020, more than 90 Gannett newspapers, from the Columbia Daily Tribune to USA Today, published newsroom and leadership demographics in a spirit of transparency — revealing the homogeneity within their walls and committing to disrupt it. The New York Times also issued a diversity and inclusion report for the third straight year, while the Los Angeles Times acknowledged its history of racial exclusion and bias. Rashida Jones was also named president of MSNBC, making her the first Black woman to lead a cable news channel.

But more is required. We need commitments across the industry to do better with some urgency, with metrics for accountability and successes we can point to, in order to build trust with Black communities. (Maybe even consider calling racist things “racist,” as Errin Haines suggests.) Because judging by the reaction here in Philadelphia after the Inquirer ran a headline that was disrespectful of the Black Lives Matter movement, accountability is right around the corner for news organizations that are out of touch. They’re out of time.

Christoph Mergerson is a Ph.D. candidate at the School of Communication and Information at Rutgers University.

Despite recent political headwinds, the Black Lives Matter movement and the demands of millions of Americans for racial equality will not go away. Systemic racism is resilient, but the voices of those who demonstrated for racial justice in the streets of at least 140 U.S. cities earlier this year are clear: The old ways of doing things are ending and accountability is coming for institutions that continue to insist otherwise.

The journalism industry won’t escape this scrutiny. Black Americans deserve journalism that informs us about our rights and interests and empowers us to be effective participants in democratic self-governance. We also need journalism that tells the truth about our experiences to the country as a whole, to educate people who may be unaware and to pressure policymakers to work diligently to resolve these issues — especially as Black communities absorb compounding inequities in health and economic outcomes in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

But for this to happen, we need newsrooms to include and empower us at all levels of news production. But to appropriate Stephen Skowronek’s concept of political time to describe the state of American journalism, the industry is still stuck in Kerner Commission Time.

As we know from that panel’s 1968 report — and the history of the press and its interaction with Black communities — the hiring, retention, and promotion of Black journalists is necessary to tell the stories about our communities that often are ignored or misrepresented. But news outlets still offer a predictable litany of reasons as to why that hasn’t happened, including the so-called pipeline problem. (You can’t flow something through a tube that’s blocked at the end.) There’s also the larger, structural conversation as to whether commercial journalism is even up for this job.

But it still has to try. And to their credit, some news organizations are sobering up. In 2020, more than 90 Gannett newspapers, from the Columbia Daily Tribune to USA Today, published newsroom and leadership demographics in a spirit of transparency — revealing the homogeneity within their walls and committing to disrupt it. The New York Times also issued a diversity and inclusion report for the third straight year, while the Los Angeles Times acknowledged its history of racial exclusion and bias. Rashida Jones was also named president of MSNBC, making her the first Black woman to lead a cable news channel.

But more is required. We need commitments across the industry to do better with some urgency, with metrics for accountability and successes we can point to, in order to build trust with Black communities. (Maybe even consider calling racist things “racist,” as Errin Haines suggests.) Because judging by the reaction here in Philadelphia after the Inquirer ran a headline that was disrespectful of the Black Lives Matter movement, accountability is right around the corner for news organizations that are out of touch. They’re out of time.

Christoph Mergerson is a Ph.D. candidate at the School of Communication and Information at Rutgers University.

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