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Who tells your story: Journalists must confront racism in the media industry

<h6>Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian

“Perhaps the most insidious and least understood form of segregation is that of the word. And by this I mean the word in all its complex formulations, ... the word with all its subtle power to suggest and foreshadow overt action while magically disguising the moral consequences of that action and providing it with symbolic and psychological justification. For if the word has the potency to revive and make us free, it has also the power to blind, imprison and destroy.” 

Ralph Ellison wrote these words in 1953, as he reflected on how portrayals of Black people in fiction warped the way white Americans perceived them. The language that people in power use to describe marginalized peoples — what they choose to highlight and to ignore — shapes how society views them. 

When used conscientiously, words have the power to “free.” But, crucially, when wielded disingenuously or maliciously, they compound injustice and “destroy.” That is why language is so powerful. That is why what we say matters. 

The same idea applies to journalism. This summer, The Daily Princetonian’s Opinion section has explored the impact of racist language. Columnists have discussed the bounds of reasonable debate in the wake of Professor Joshua Katz’s Quillette column and statements by the Princeton Open Campus Coalition. Professors and students have argued about the limits of acceptable academic inquiry. 

The reason I joined the ‘Prince’ as a columnist was to point out when institutions fail to confront racism. Many of my columns have taken on this topic in sports, politics, higher education, the Princeton community, and the media. 

So as this summer’s protests grew, I paid special attention to how the journalism industry confronted its role in this moment of reckoning over institutional racism, particularly in media portrayals of the protests that have erupted in response to police murders of Black people, most recently seen with Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. 

In the weeks and months since, millions of people have gathered in big cities and small towns across America — and around the world — to declare that Black lives matter and demand justice. We are seeing protests on a historic scale, but we are also seeing a media landscape ill-equipped to accurately portray this movement to the public.

Inevitably, these mass protests have commanded wall-to-wall coverage. But a long-standing lack of diversity in newsrooms, combined with a misguided fixation on the unattainable ideal of “objectivity,” has prevented many media outlets from effectively capturing this moment. 

All protest movements are complex and nuanced. People fill the streets for different reasons, carry different attitudes towards events, and hold different motives. The job of the press is to sort through these complexities and present a story to the public about what is happening.

But all too often, biases within the media have warped coverage of these protests. In order to accurately explain what is happening, one must understand the context from which this moment arose. In this instance and many others, the media has failed to do so.

Among many examples from this summer, two clear instances, one at a local paper, the other at a national one, exemplify this issue. 

The first demonstrates the focus on the spectacle — police cars on fire, windows smashed, looting — at the expense of the broader, more accurate, picture. On June 2, the Philadelphia Inquirer published a story with the headline “Buildings Matter, Too.” 

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The headline represented a common theme in media coverage, especially in the early days of unrest. Such a statement co-opts the rallying cry of the movement, Black Lives Matter, to undermine it. It draws an offensive false equivalency between the lives taken by racist violence and the property damage during the response to that violence. To write and approve such a headline reveals a distance from the stakes of the issues that have driven people to the streets. The internal newsroom reaction reflects that. 

The following day, more than forty staffers of color at the Inquirer called in “sick and tired” and signed onto an open letter demanding change in the newsroom. By the end of that week, the top editor of the paper had resigned.

The staff’s letter shows that they were responding not only to this specific headline, but to what it represents: the weight of “shouldering the burden of dragging this 200-year-old institution kicking and screaming into a more equitable age” and being told to “show both sides of issues there are no two sides of.” 

As those staffers explain, running a story like that dismisses the very real injustices that sparked the protests. By trying to satisfy an ill-defined idea of objectivity by presenting “both sides” of the protests, the paper in fact did choose a side. And in doing so, it not only offended its staff, but it also alienated the community it is responsible for covering. The staffers highlighted the importance of building trust with their communities, a difficult task that is “eroded in an instant by careless, unempathetic decisions.” 

Those two words, “careless” and “unempathetic,” tell the whole story. The people who wrote and approved that headline clearly did not consider the effect such language has. But it is incumbent upon journalists to understand the impact of their words — that’s the whole game. If a paper does not value its community, it cannot provide truthful coverage; it can only do harm. 

A better use of time and resources would be to investigate why the property damage occurred — why was frustration so high? Both James Baldwin and Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of the context that gives rise to riots and looting. King called riots “the language of the unheard.” It is a journalist’s job to translate that language to the broader public. 

Baldwin told Esquire in 1968: “The mass media — television and all the major news agencies — endlessly use that word ‘looter.’ On television you always see black hands reaching in, you know. And so the American public concludes that these savages are trying to steal everything from us, and no one has seriously tried to get where the trouble is. After all, you’re accusing a captive population who has been robbed of everything of looting. I think it’s obscene.”

A journalist decrying looting without calling attention to the conditions that precipitated it and the perspectives of the people participating in it has failed their responsibility to tell the truth to the public. This is how the media misunderstands objectivity.

In an op-ed in The New York Times, journalist Wesley Lowery suggests that the media adopt a “fairness-and-truth focus,” rather than a fixation on “neutral ‘objective journalism.’” Lowery explains that in trying to appear objective — when in fact no person actually is — journalists end up perpetuating a “public thoughtlessness.” 

This captures the issue with the Inquirer headline: No one in the process of writing and approving it thought about its impact. And that is a problem both because those in power are not equipped to cover this transformational moment and because those who would report thoughtfully are not empowered to do so. 

The same issues of journalistic responsibility came to light with an editorial decision by The New York Times. On June 3, the Times published a column by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) entitled “Send in the Troops,” which called for “an overwhelming show of force” to “restore order” to the nation’s cities. 

The many misleading elements of Cotton’s essay, which the Times later acknowledged, demonstrate why the paper should not have published it on a technical level. But, like the Inquirer, the decision to do so also reflects a concerning philosophy about the role of journalism that reaches beyond this specific newsroom. 

It is this concern that caused many Black staffers, as well as non-Black allies, to publicly show their disagreement with their paper’s decision. They tweeted a screenshot of the headline with a variation of the statement “Publishing this puts Black NYT staff in danger.” More than 800 staffers signed a letter expressing their disagreement. After initially defending the column, editorial page editor James Bennet and A.G. Sulzberger, the paper’s editor, apologized, acknowledging that it should not have been published. Four days after the column ran, Bennet resigned

The crux of the argument from the column’s defenders, Bennet and Sulzberger included, was that the opinions page should be open to opposing viewpoints. But a fixation on a both-sides narrative without actually considering the context of the issue, and the consequences of a given argument, betrays the problem. 

Newspapers don’t just publish every argument they come across — they select which ideas to elevate and lend legitimacy to. This means that by inviting Cotton to write this article (the Times approached him, not the other way around), the Times chose to give greater voice to an idea that directly threatened protesters who already faced arbitrary violence from police in the form of tear gas, rubber bullets, and batons.

Cotton proposed using the U.S. military in an “overwhelming show of force” to suppress dissent. That is what the Times legitimized. It should also be noted that they published such an essay on the eve of the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre. 

Of course, like the Philadelphia Inquirer, the editors of Cotton’s op-ed appear not to have considered these implications — this is precisely the problem. For some, the argument about whether or not to send the military into protests is an intellectual hypothetical; for people of color, it is life and death. 

The fear of state violence is not some trivial or abstract thing — that’s the whole point of these protests, and the police response to them has only underscored that point. To play with that fundamental existential fear is despicable; to be unaware of it is the height of privilege. To neglect to communicate that reality to your readers is journalistic malpractice. 

When the op-ed was published, the nation had already witnessed the consequences of Cotton’s mindset. It was that same attitude that motivated the Trump administration to unleash tear gas, pepper balls, and police in riot gear upon a crowd of thousands to clear the way for the president to stage a photo op in front of a church. 

At the time, the concern was merely imagining that mindset applied on a national scale; in the months since, it has become a reality. Deployed to Portland, Ore., federal officers escalated tensions, rounding up protesters into vans without explanation and using force indiscriminately against crowds. Protesters were forced to protect themselves with helmets, masks, and shields. The very danger that readers warned the Times about in the moment has, unsurprisingly, materialized.

It is that very real threat that the Times elevated by publishing Cotton’s column. In its apology, the paper explained that a rushed editorial process led to the essay being regrettably published. This admission reveals a deeper problem with the media. The fact that this column didn’t raise alarm, that no one in the position to stop the piece spoke up, demonstrates the consequences of an industry that refuses to integrate Black voices into positions of power and influence.

This is the cost of failing to diversify. Journalists cannot do their job — to inform the public — if they do not understand the impact of their role. 

Journalism is often described as the first draft of history. At best, journalism informs and transforms people’s understanding of the world around them. But the events of this summer have shone a light on the many ways that journalism falls short, and it all comes back to a central question: Who is telling the story, and what do they care about?

This concern has brought the fight for equity playing out on the streets into newsrooms themselves, as Black journalists pressure their publications to hire, retain, and elevate a diverse staff. Soledad O’Brien called this a “MeToo moment for journalists of color.”

This moment draws on a long history. In 1968, the Kerner Commission (otherwise known as the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders) concluded, “the press has too long basked in a white world looking out of it, if at all, with white men’s eyes and white perspective. That is no longer good enough.” Fifty-two years later, the press is still not doing enough. 

The first concern is that newsrooms must reflect the communities they cover more accurately. For example, while Washington, D.C., is approximately 45 percent Black, only 19 percent of all the employees at the Washington Post are Black, and only 9 percent of news and editorial employees are Black. Only last month did the Post name its first Black woman, Krissah Thompson, to the position of managing editor. In New York City, where 24 percent of residents are Black, only 9 percent of The New York Times staff were Black in 2019, the same percentage as in 2015. 

But simply increasing the number of Black journalists and journalists of color will not solve the problem. As Karen Attiah, Global Opinions editor at the Washington Post, tweeted recently, “Diversity is a means, not an end. If your plans for a better work environment end at ‘diversity,’ it’s not enough. Diversity — without empowerment of Black people and other people of color — is tokenization. And tokenization reinforces white supremacy.”

Newsrooms need decision-makers who understand the gravity of this moment and the importance of accurate reporting. They need to create environments where journalists of color feel heard and included, not dismissed and overlooked.

White reporters and those not on the “race beat” must understand that race and racism affect every corner of American life. The events of this summer — the pandemic, the police brutality, the incoming election — prove this fact. Media coverage of issues from climate change to the economy and everything in between must take race into account. It should not fall to Black journalists to shoulder the labor of bringing their newsrooms to these standards, nor to deal with the fallout when these institutions fail to live up to their purpose.

As student journalists we must critique the media and strive to do better ourselves. As young readers, we must be critical consumers and demand better from the media. Now is the time when we must be clear-eyed and intentional about our language. As O’Brien has noted, decades of failing to call racism racism has created a society where people must see murder on camera to raise their voices against century-old systems of oppression.

If we want people to understand the depth and persistence of oppressive structures, we have to report their causes and effects, not just their manifestations in the moment. We must empower journalists of color to tell their stories and implore white journalists to reckon with race and bias in their coverage. The time is now for a new era of journalism. 

Julia Chaffers is a junior from Wellesley, Mass. She can be reached at chaffers@princeton.edu.

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