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By: Nyasia Almestica & Collette Watson
According to a recent Pew Research Center study, there is a significant lack of Black journalists covering key news topics.
These discrepancies result in a lack of inclusive media coverage on major trends and social issues that often impact Black communities the most. This reality exists across several beats but is particularly harmful to the lived experiences and even life expectancies of Black people when it comes to reporting on health, the economy, and criminal justice.
The need for more Black journalists in health reporting and Equity advocacy
According to the study, just 5 percent of Black journalists cover health beats, a disturbing revelation given that in 2020, 97.9 out of every 100,000 African Americans had died from COVID-19, a rate higher than that of Latinos and more than double that of white and Asian people.
Media outlets expect people of color to trust the news and become frustrated when we express our skepticism and anger over biased perceptions of the experiences of marginalized people. The glaring absence of Black journalists in health reporting disregards diverse perspectives on the catastrophic impact of diseases like COVID-19 on disenfranchised communities.
In 2021, The Washington Post published an evocative article by Black journalist Akilah Johnson exploring widespread vaccine hesitancy within the Black community. The piece examined how this reluctance stemmed from socioeconomic inequities and limited access to healthcare, not just distrust in the healthcare system.
Compare this to an article written by Houston Public Media reporter Matt Harab, who provides insight into how researchers aimed to address this vaccine hesitancy but failed to address the underlying causes. Black journalists play a pivotal role in debunking myths and misinformation about vaccinations by delivering evidence-based information and collaborating with community leaders to build trust among Black communities.
And this includes mental health and its contributing factors, which people of color are more likely to struggle with, according to a study by the American Psychiatric Association. They are also less likely to receive vital services.
A holistic approach to journalism is needed
As of 2021, Black (39%), Hispanic (36%), and Asian (25%) people were less likely to receive mental health services than white people (52%). These statistics represent the number of people whose mental well-being is neglected, resulting in painful outcomes. The pandemic only worsened people’s mental health as we were forced to stay indoors, unable to spend quality time with friends and family.
It was even more challenging for people living alone and with limited technology access. Marginalized communities don’t just have inadequate access to mental health resources, but the media ignores these communities with limited news coverage that includes their perspectives.
To effectively address the health disparities that plague Black Americans, such as the alarming 14% of Black Americans over 65 have Alzheimer’s, compared to 10% of white people and 75% of Black Americans are at risk of developing high blood pressure by 55, health reporting must go beyond statistics and embrace a holistic approach.
This entails examining how institutions and policies contribute to these disparities, as demonstrated by Kat Stafford’s recent reporting series for the Associated Press titled “From Birth to Death: Black Americans and a Lifetime of Disparities.” Having more Black journalists at the forefront of medical reporting gives them a platform for critical and candid conversations we’re neglecting, challenging the medical community’s failure to listen to Black people.
Solutions journalism and investigative reporting are needed to redress health inequities, opening doors to transformative narratives that explore the profound impact of policies and ignite real change. Black journalists offer perspectives grounded in lived experience and can work to ensure more comprehensive and accurate reporting on health inequities and also object to detrimental biases that dehumanize Black communities rather than empower them.
The Lack of Diversity in Economic Reporting Leads to Missed Opportunities
The American economy can be incredibly complex, and without trustworthy journalists who can explore its intricacies through a race-class lens, many viewers and readers are entirely left out. The exclusion of Black journalists not only perpetuates systemic inequities but also makes the responsibility of reporting on the economic landscape even more challenging.
Now, combine this with the fact that only 5% of Black journalists, 7% of Hispanic journalists, and 4% of Asian journalists cover the economic beat. Black people are less likely to invest, and why? Because many don’t know how. According to the 2019 Federal Reserve Board survey, only 34% of Black American households owned equity investments, compared with 61% of white families. Far too many Black Americans have limited investment knowledge, so they are left behind in the financial system, furthering the generational wealth gap.
Khristopher J. Brooks, a reporter for CBS MoneyWatch in New York, shared his thoughts about why there is a shortage of Black finance, business, and economic reporters in the journalism industry, “First, financial news is a highly specialized arm of journalism that some aspiring Black journalists find either intimidating or boring. There’s only a handful of business/financial news reporting jobs in the market, so it’s a really rare instance when a Black journalist goes after and lands a job covering money issues,” said Brooks. “One of the ways we could start to fix this problem is by pushing more journalism schools to offer/require graduates to take one class in business reporting to demonstrate to Black journalism students that covering these issues is not as complex as they appear.”
Brooks is grateful that an editor in upstate New York hired him to cover startups and venture capital. He loves learning more about the stock market, monetary policy, the economy, demographics, and corporate governance.
Black journalists are even more vital in addressing the large gap in homeownership between Black and white Americans. Last year, TaMaryn Waters, a Black business and economic reporter for USAToday, penned an insightful article about the class-action lawsuit against Wells Fargo over accusations of discriminatory residential mortgage policies. Her exceptional writing shines a light on the issue of discriminatory residential mortgage policies that often evade public scrutiny, a testament to the need for Black journalists to be trusted and heard within the economic beat.
Black Enterprise, a Black-owned multimedia company dedicated to empowering Black entrepreneurs and leaders, provides invaluable resources to the Black community to improve their finances. Jeffrey McKinney, a reporter for the publication, recently published an article advising Black college graduates on how to earn more instead of lowering their salary expectations as our white counterparts already make more than us.
Keeping Black journalists from economic reporting perpetuates that the media isn’t obligated to empower the Black community because White supremacy suggests that we’re all impoverished and will never amount to anything beyond a low tax bracket.
Black Journalists Play a Role in Upending the Harms of Crime Reporting
The Pew Research Center reports that only 6% of Black journalists cover the crime and law beat. Organizations like Poynter have various courses to improve journalism, including their latest version of Transforming Crime Reporting Into Public Safety Journalism.
While building ethical and diverse newsrooms is significant, this work can’t stop at simply hiring more Black journalists. Newsrooms must value those hired, appreciating what they offer and ensuring they receive adequate support, especially when reporting on police brutality and racially motivated crimes leading to increased exposure to graphic images of Black bodies.
We see it time and time again. The media’s deep-seated history of racism manifests in another grotesque headline about another Black person murdered in cold blood. Far too often, the media fails to acknowledge the perspectives of Black journalists in addressing systemic injustices that persist and contribute to Black people’s distrust of the news media, including its misrepresentation and vilification of Black families as poor and fatherless.
Too many newsrooms defer to the police for an accounting of what’s happening inside Black communities. From going on ride-alongs with police officers to using police press releases as the lone source for their reports, many common practices among reporters result in crime coverage perpetuating a worldview in which Black people are a threat to society.
Our Media 2070 co-creator, Tauhid Chappell, wrote in 2021 that the “crime beat” is inherently “racist, classist, fear-based clickbait masking as journalism” that “creates lasting harm for the communities that newsrooms are supposed to serve.” He said, “The whole process of how the criminal–legal system is covered needs to be reexamined — from who sets the news agenda, to who determines what’s newsworthy, to whose voices are centered in coverage and which relationships are prioritized.”
Relegating Black journalists to general assignment where they frequently report on harmful news like racial killings with no power in the criminal justice beat to cover bigger policies is effectively a silencing of Black voices in shaping the safety of our own communities. Public perception is often shaped by reporters lacking lived experiences that can connect with marginalized groups, proving the media’s obsession with sensationalizing Black stories rather than supporting Black journalists to tell them accurately.
Here’s How To Change the Media Landscape to Include and Empower Black People
Our advocacy project, Media 2070, is fiercely committed to media reparations and cultivating a more just future narrative landscape. We are working to reimagine the media and technology ecosystem. Our 100-page essay delves into the media’s history of causing harm to Black people, and our award-winning 15-minute documentary Black in the Newsroom follows Elizabeth Montgomery, a former Arizona Republic reporter who discovers she was being paid less than her white counterparts, sparking a vital conversation about repair and accountability in the media.
To create meaningful change, we believe Black journalists must be supported and given the trust they need to tell community stories. We identified this urgency and created an 8-point Pledge to Care that more than 80 newsrooms have signed onto. We are taking our advocacy further with our collaboration with the Black Thought Project to unveil Black Future Newsstands. The initiative dares us to envision a future where Black people are loved, and we are in control of our narratives and granted the agency to cover major news topics that impact our communities.
It’s time for Black journalists to take their rightful seat at the table, wielding their power to amplify the voices of the voiceless, beginning with diverse stories that center and empower the Black community.