Making Black Lives Matter: Can a Black Beat Help Change the Portrayal of African-Americans?

By Richardson, Susan Smith | Nieman Reports, Spring 2015 | Go to article overview

Making Black Lives Matter: Can a Black Beat Help Change the Portrayal of African-Americans?


Richardson, Susan Smith, Nieman Reports


AFTER UNARMED BLACK TEENAGER MICHAEL BROWN WAS SHOT and killed by a white police officer last summer in Ferguson, Missouri, a photo of Brown appearing to throw gang signs began circulating online. In response, hundreds of black people began tweeting using the hashtag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown--some posting dual images of themselves, one playing on stereotypes, the other capturing more positive depictions--underscoring the message: Which photo would the media use if I were gunned down? The social media campaign turned a critique of the mainstream media's portrayal of African-Americans into a viral lesson about racial stereotypes. As the editor and publisher of a news organization that focuses on race, I'm painfully aware that black life is too often cast in one dimension, as the photos tweeted under the #IfTheyGunnedMeDown hashtag illustrated. Black people are soldiers and fathers, doctors and lawyers, police officers and teachers, and even a president and first lady. I'm stating the obvious, but the truth isn't obvious in the news. Whether by omission or commission, news coverage frequently reinforces stereotypes. A beat that covers African-Americans could help capture the breadth of black life while also shining a steady light on the persistent challenges facing black people at a time when race in America is more complex than ever before.

In Pittsburgh between March 1 and April 30, 2011, 73 percent of broadcast stories featuring black men were about sports or crime, according to the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism, which reviewed nearly 5,000 print and broadcast stories. Other studies about news coverage of black men echo the findings. Research shows that stories in which African-Americans are consistently associated with poverty and crime increase racial animosity toward them, reinforcing the color lines in our society.

Every journalist should share responsibility for coverage of race. That's part of journalistic excellence, the goal of all news outlets. But we also need reporters focused exclusively on the issue. If we are honest with ourselves, we know that race won't get covered regularly if newsroom leaders don't demand it, don't support it, and don't reward it. And truth is, most of them don't.

Changing the portrayal of African-Americans in the media can't be accomplished through occasional big projects about race; it requires a sophisticated and sustained effort over time. That's what a beat can do.

More than 50 years after some mainstream news organizations began hiring black reporters, a beat that focuses on black people may appear to be the equivalent of a "Colored Only" sign. It's a return to the "Negro pages," the section set aside in newspapers for coverage of black people into the 20th century, says Leon Dash, a founding member of the National Association of Black Journalists who is now a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "We should fight to be included in the news pages and on the websites of any credible journalism enterprise," he argues.

Charles Whitaker, a professor at Northwestern University's journalism school and a generation younger than Dash, is more ambivalent. A beat "could be an antidote" to the limited coverage of race, he says. "What it does is pour time, resources, energy, and voices into the reporting. If somebody is really dedicating resources, we can change the conversation. Now, we get the pathology stories, and we don't get as many success stories and research stories."

But, Whitaker, who worked for major metropolitan dailies and Ebony magazine before joining academia, cautions, it could also become an excuse for news organizations to "ghettoize" coverage.

A beat seems like a "great idea in theory," says Shani O. Hilton, executive editor for news at BuzzFeed. Race isn't making its way into mainstream coverage and into wider stories about issues such as poverty, she argues, but the solution is many beats, not one. …

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