why is our political media so white?

January 16, 2019
53 Picks

When I got a job working for a large news network that you’ve definitely heard of, I was ecstatic. It was presidential primary season and it was an electric time to be part of political journalism.

My first few weeks on the job, I crafted a tweet about the University of Oklahoma frat caught on tape gleefully chanting, “There will never be a nigger in SAE.” In the tweet, I called the tweet “racist” without thinking much of it. My boss scolded me. ‘“It’s not up to us to say what’s racist,” she explained. Later, I’d see the story on social media with milder and milder headlines. “Racist” became “racially tinged,” and eventually “racially charged” and “controversial.”  

I was horrified. I got into journalism because I wanted to tell the truth about what was happening in our world. I didn’t get into it to dilute obvious racism and help others get comfortable with doing the same. I wondered, “what would this look like if I was a Black editor, working on a story written by a Black journalist, working under a Black boss?”

So when earlier this week CBS revealed their team of political embeds, scrappy journalists and field producers tapped to cover the 2020 Presidential campaigns to be all white, naturally Twitter was quick to ask “where are the Black people?”

At a time when race issues are at the forefront of our national dialogue, purporting to accurately tell the story of our political landscape without including Black voices is just irresponsible.

You probably already know  journalism is overwhelmingly white and it’s been bad for a long time.

In 1978 American Society of News Editors pledged to fill newsrooms with a percentage of journalists of color comparable to the general population by 2000. And guess what? They’ve failed miserably.

According to the ASNE, progress has been slow: “People of color made up 16.55 percent of those surveyed, down from 16.94 in 2016. In daily newspapers, 16.31 percent were minorities, compared with 16.65 last year. In digital-only newsrooms, 24.3 percent were minorities, compared with 23.3 last year.”  It’s worse for Black journalists. The National Association of Black Journalists found that “the results of ASNE’s annual diversity survey show journalists of color – and especially African American staffers — in newspaper and online newsrooms declined for the third year in a row, from 5,500 to 5,300, though overall, according to the survey of full-time journalists conducted since 1978.

And Black women are hit harder than other groups by layoffs. NPR found that  between 2009 and 2015, the number of Black women in newsrooms dropped from 1,181 to 730.

We often talk about “diversity” in media, but that platitude doesn’t even get at the heart of the matter. Newsrooms shouldn’t just be making meaningful and drastic interventions to include Black voices just because it’s the right thing to do. They should be doing so because our voices are integral to understanding our political landscape. If you don’t have Black writers on your masthead who can speak to race, you’re simply not serving your audiences properly.

In 2016, the news media missed the mark. Had they listened to Black women, Russian meddling in our social media might not have been treated like a revelation. Had they employed Black journalists who might have reported on on the rise of the new Nazi party in America without fawning over their style, we might have a better understanding of how they’re operating today instead of knowing what kind of haircuts they prefer.

In 2019, failing to employ Black journalists just shows the news media has learned nothing from their mistakes.