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The complex history of African Americans and the news

Fewer than half of Black Americans say the news covers the things they want to see, according to the Pew Research Center.
The complex history of African Americans and the news
Posted at 8:34 PM, Feb 02, 2024

The news is in when it comes to Black Americans' view of the media, and it isn't good. Just 14% say they are highly confident that Black people will be covered fairly in their lifetimes. 

After the death of George Floyd, U.S. institutions made a lot of promises to change, from the way Black people were treated by police to the way they were portrayed in the news.

But four years later, Black news consumers say the images they see aren't delivering on the promises.

Fewer than half of Black Americans say the news covers the things they want to see, like economic stories about the gap between the rich and the poor, and issues related to crime like police brutality and missing women of color, according to Pew Research.

Of the 5000 Black adults surveyed, "two-thirds say news about Black people is often more negative than news about other racial and ethnic groups."

Joseph Torres, author of the New York Times Best-Selling book "News for All the People," says that's because the structure was skewed from the start, from colonial newspapers that described African slaves as "addicted to stealing."

"The Oregonian said part of its mission when it was founded was to ensure that Oregon remain a White state," said Torres.

Early pioneers like Samuel E. Cornish,  Frederick Douglass and Ida B. Wells would lead a world of Black newspapers working to correct the narratives.

Many mainstream publications have apologized in recent years.

"The Baltimore Sun talked about how it reinforced, especially through its editorials, Jim Crow racism, and particularly when it comes to housing," said Torres.

In 1967 President Lyndon B. Johnson authorized The Kerner Commission to see what was causing civil unrest among Black people.

The report found, in part, that certain media failed to "report adequately on the causes and consequences of civil disorders and on the underlying problems of race relations."

Its recommendation: "Expand coverage of the Negro community ... through the permanent assignment of reporters familiar with urban and racial affairs. "

SEE MORE: Artists work to preserve, enrich a historic Black district in Houston

"After examining the situation after the riots, they said there are two Americas, one Black one White. How do we blend this together?" said Dwight Ellis, communications lecturer with Bowie State University.

Ellis, the former National Association of Broadcasters vice-president, says he was tasked with solving that problem, as part of a national concerted effort to put more Black people in newsrooms starting in the late 1970s.

"I placed about 600 to 700 people that I can think of in the jobs, anywhere from from entry level all the way to general manager," Ellis reflected.

Today, several major news networks are headed up by African-Americans, and while entities like the Black News Channel folded, other projects like BET and CBS News' "America in Black" have been renewed for a second season.

Ellis says it's not that Black people aren't on air or that their stories aren't being covered — what's missing is the substance.

"There are so many platforms now available for airing our concerns. I mean not only broadcast cable, free over the air broadcasting, you have documentaries," he said. "Maybe as we look at this together, maybe we're entering a phase of rising expectations."

The numbers seem to back that up, with respondents echoing many of the same suggestions of the Kerner Commission.

Seventy-three percent of those surveyed say it's important for journalists to understand the history of the issues in the story.

A majority, 59%, say journalists need to personally engage with the people they cover.

"When George Floyd happens or Freddie Gray happens, then you see sometimes articles that explain like what is happening in Baltimore that led to this, like the historical context to explain why we're here … But that is not common," said Torres.

Torres believes having representation in leadership is a wonderful start, but warns it doesn't always equal change, especially in cases when ratings and advertising dollars dictate coverage.

"We need a different type of media system and a different type of media coverage. Because for these for-profit, bottom-line-driven companies, it's not compatible to serving the health or well-being of communities," said Torres.

Torres blames a lack of financial backing for Black-owned media. 

It's something media mogul Byron Allen has also lamented, recalling a recent conversation with advertisers during an interview with NPR: "I said, we represent approximately 14% of the population. We should be 15% of your ad budget. The extra one or two points is for the 150 years you did not do business with us." 

Torres' Media 2070 project is looking into what that would look like, supporting efforts to fund Black-owned media.

"There's an effort right now with foundations to put more money into local journalism. There's an effort by local states to try to create laws to help provide funding for local journalists," he said.

"You can't tell the history of the Civil Rights struggle and the victories of the Civil Rights movement without the Black press, right? But the Black press has been decimated over the past 50-60 years — because they're not as financially well off, they couldn't support keeping their journalists," he said.

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