Racial Equity Sketches: #3, Media
Racial Equity Sketches
(Original Content by the Commission on Economic Inclusion)
#3: The Untold Story
When Mila Harris landed her dream job as a reporter for the popular local newspaper, she never expected that her first assignment would be writing about home.
“We want to start you off with a story you’ll be comfortable with,” her editor, Deb, told Mila on her first day. “It’s a case of domestic violence that has…you know…made its way onto the streets. It’s likely to turn into something big. We’ve got the leads for some neighbors that are willing to share their perspective. Should be pretty easy — and you can work with Janet if you need help, she’s covered many stories like this over in that part of town.”
Mila was struck by Deb’s curtness, but she responded with an obliging nod. Having spent the past five years as a reporter in her college town of Athens, she was familiar enough with the pace. In a universe of fact and evidence, there was no time for niceties. News needed to be disseminated in real-time — any delay, and it wasn’t news.
Still, something about the way Deb said that part of town bothered her.
True, Mila’s life growing up wasn’t all rosy. To many, her neighborhood was synonymous with danger. When outsiders thought of her neighborhood, they thought of gangs, blighted houses, and potholes. Mila knew her community had its fair share of challenges. But these issues weren’t the sole anchors of Mila’s childhood.
When Mila thought of home, she thought of the old man living in the top floor of the duplex next door who said “bless you, child” every morning on her way to the bus stop. She thought of the corner store where the owners lovingly called her “child” and rarely charged her for food. She thought of the local jazz joint that closed its doors several years ago, the site of her first kiss. She thought of the thick crumb layer on her mother’s peach pie.
Home might have been hard, but it wasn’t the sorry, helplessly bleak picture the rest of the world had in mind. There was beauty in home — a beauty that often went unrecognized by the outside.
Though she felt defensive, the truth was that Mila didn’t always like to tell people where she grew up. She didn’t want to be seen as the kid from the poor neighborhood who, by some random twist of fate, made it. She didn’t want to be lionized for reaching a level of success that would be considered normal for someone with a socioeconomic background or skin color different from her own. Mila had a long way to go. She knew that if she gave into the attention now—the trope of the lotus in the mud—she would limit herself.
Nevertheless, she prepared to walk into her inaugural assignment with pride. For the first time, the people she grew up with would be interviewed by one of their own. It undoubtedly was a win. She was determined to cover her first news story with empathy, understanding, and thoughtfulness. Though she had tremendous respect for her fellow reporters, she knew this would be different for the people being interviewed. There would be a certain intuitive sense of trust.
She knew. She had been on the other side.
Mila comforted herself with these thoughts as she walked up the steps to a modest, pale blue house and rang the bell for the bottom unit. This was it—the first real interview of her professional career in Cleveland. To distract herself from the jitters, she fixed her attention on the massive sycamore tree which had grown so large that it covered half of the home’s exterior, some of its branches embedded into the siding. She wondered if the foundation of the house was secured by its roots.
Just then, she noticed a pair of eyes peeking through the curtains of the front window. A few moments later, the door opened.
“Can I help you?” asked a woman who couldn’t have been much older than Mila.
“Hi there! I’m Mila Harris, here to speak with Miss Denise Coleman about a story for…” Mila pointed at the logo on her baseball cap, one of the many branded items she received in her welcome goodie bag.
“Oh yes, I got a call two days ago that y’all would be coming over. Do you want to come inside? It’s hot out. I’ve got some lemonade.”
Mila smiled, nodded, and followed Denise inside. Immediately, she was hit with an array of sharp scents: almond, rose, honey, coconut, lilies. She looked around the room and noticed small white plastic jars strewn across the living room carpet. There were labels in one corner, brown paper bags in the other, and a young boy stirring something in a metal pot.
The woman noticed the look of curiosity on Mila’s face, and grinned.
“That’s Giles,” Denise explained. “He’s turning three in a few weeks. He helps me with everything.”
“What’s he mixing in there?” Mila asked.
Denise explained to Mila how she began making body lotions that wouldn’t irritate her son’s skin about a year ago. Mila listened with wonder as Denise shared how she had always been interested in health, and how she had gotten pregnant while in nursing school. She dropped out to take care of Giles because daycare was too expensive. After trying a few different jobs, the young mother discovered many of her friends and family were willing to pay for her homemade lotions.
“I never imagined I’d be a business owner, but here I am! And who knows where this is going to take us,” Denise beamed while looking at Giles. After a moment of proud reflection, she focused back on Mila.
“Anyway, what do you need for this interview?”
Mila had prepared a list of questions earlier that day. Even so, what Mila truly wanted was to learn more about Denise’s life as a mother and business owner. As a professional, though, she knew that would be an irresponsible usage of time, and she still had four more interviews for the afternoon. The determined young reporter reached for the recorder in her back pocket.
“Right, so, I’m here to ask you about the family that lives down the street in the dark green home, we’ve gotten word that…” Mila’s voice trailed off as she noticed the disappointment on Denise’s face.
“Of course,” Denise said with a sigh.
“Um…are you willing to…” Mila hesitantly continued.
“Yes, love. Just ask your questions.”
Mila conducted the rest of the interview with all the proper techniques she learned in school. Denise gave some valuable insights into the situation, but spoke concisely with an air of detachment. The warmth with which she had told Mila about her personal journey was gone. It was a different Denise.
On her way out, Mila thanked Denise for her time and gave her the usual spiel: “We will keep you updated.”
“Thank you, Miss Mila Harris,” Denise replied before closing the door.
As Mila walked back to her car, she was overwhelmed with questions.
How often was her community asked to share its joys? Its hopes? Its ideas for solutions, its version of progress? How did it matter that she was the one with the pen, if the story was the same?
As she drove home that evening, Mila was flooded with the realization of all the questions that went unasked.
She knew what she had to do. She had to talk to Deb.
The next morning, Mila arrived at work early. She believed if this publication was deserving of all its accolades, it would take her concerns seriously. Mila was nervous yet determined. She had faith that if she followed what she believed, everything would work out. With this conviction, she made her way toward Deb’s office.
“So, how was day one? What are your findings?” Deb enthusiastically exclaimed.
“I’ve learned a lot –mainly that it isn’t so much about how we tell the story. It’s about the kinds of stories we tell.”
Deb raised an eyebrow and leaned closer.
“Mila…tell me more.”
In this story, Mila Harris begins her first job as a reporter covering a story about domestic violence in a distressed neighborhood. Unbeknownst to her editor Deb, Mila grew up in the neighborhood, and feels unsettled by how 1) Deb assumes this is a story she would be comfortable covering, and 2) the organization seems to espouse the dominant perception by outsiders that the neighborhood is dangerous.
Nevertheless, Mila convinces herself that as a former resident of the neighborhood, she would be able to report on the situation with empathy and awareness. Her experience during her first interview, however, uncovers a different reason for uneasiness.
Denise, the woman that Mila interviews for the story, shares with Mila her personal story as a mother and entrepreneur. Mila is captivated. Her natural curiosity as a journalist leads her to asking more questions that were never on her original list for the interview. When the conversation eventually turns to the original intent, Mila notices a shift in Denise’s demeanor. Later, Mila reflects on how disappointing it was to ignore a potential story about resilience and ambition, reporting instead on violence and crime. She decides to raise the issue with Deb, hoping that the organization can have a serious self-reflection about what kinds of stories it chooses to tell.
Media is often seen as the fourth estate. Its commitment to public awareness of the truth, and its interrogation of society’s institutions–political, economic, cultural, and otherwise–is essential to a functioning democracy. Nevertheless, it is important to recognize that media is itself an institution. When it comes to developing an understanding of institutional and structural racism, media should not be pardoned from a critical eye.
In this story, we glimpse the media’s power in agenda-setting and determining what kinds of stories merit investigation. This agenda-setting consequently impacts public opinion and has the potential to enforce negative stereotypes. Thus, how the media covers race directly influences how we as a nation understand race.
Several instances of racial bias in reporting, especially crime reporting, have recently been brought to the limelight. In 2014, the nonprofit Media Matters revealed that news outlets in New York City named African Americans as crime suspects at a rate 14 times higher than the corresponding NYPD crime statistics. The study sparked further insight into the danger of overrepresenting blacks and Latinos as criminals. Furthermore, differences between the images used to depict black criminals and white criminals is a common phenomenon–with forgiving images such as yearbook photos or family portraits more frequently used for white offenders. A widespread Twitter campaign, #IfTheyGunnedMeDown, emerged in 2014 to protest the way Michael Brown, an 18-year-old black teen shot by a police officer, was depicted by the media. The hashtag was an effort to call out the racial bias perpetuated by news organizations.
Fifty years ago, the Kerner Commission, a committee appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson to research American race relations, emphasized the importance of changing the media’s approaches to reporting on African American communities. One urgent necessity they advocated for was the diversifying of newsrooms.
Unfortunately, that vision is still far from being realized. In 2017, a survey by the American Society of News Editors revealed that only 16.6% of media employees are people of color. This is far from being representative, given that more than double that percent of the U.S. population– 39.6% –are non-white. According to the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard, “a press that does not reflect the needs and concerns of all Americans falls short in its service to democracy.”
Diversifying newsrooms is of critical importance. That said, hiring more people of color at news organizations will not be the cure-all to the challenge. As seen in Mila’s example, the fact that Mila is black does not address her underlying discomfort with the story being told about her neighborhood. What are the stories assigned? Who assigns them, who edits them, who sponsors them? Will Mila be pigeon-holed into reporting on certain stories, or will she be able to effectively advocate for a change in framework and narrative? These kinds of questions require deeper reflection, bolder action, and more transformational change within our institutions and structures. Further, the responsibility for this change lies not just on journalists of color, but on everyone within the industry.
Moving in a promising direction, the Associated Press updated their Stylebook—a reference guide on journalistic language—to recommend that the word “racism” and “racist” be used when the incident can be factually described as such. This shift challenges trends of using euphemisms such as “racially motivated” to explain racist behavior.
In the words of Errin Haines Whack, a National Writer on Race & Ethnicity with AP:
“…toothless phrases like ‘racial rhetoric,’ ‘racially charged’ or ‘racially tinged’ mean little, and do even less to convey what it is that we’re actually trying to report.
But more than that: Such phrases have risen to terms of art for our profession that often feel like a wink and a nod to viewers, readers and listeners that assumes a shared set of values, putting the onus on them to figure out what we mean instead of being explicit. It’s a ‘both sides’ approach that leaves room for doubt and dismissal.
Our avoidance of this issue — and the historical harm done as a result — has already come under scrutiny on social media and in essays. It also leaves many journalists of color, who are often less hesitant to make it plain when racism makes news, alone in the fight and pleading their case to squeamish gatekeepers.
By not confronting racism or reducing it to matter of opinion on an individual or systemic level in our journalism — the first draft of history — we leave a less accurate record for those who come behind us. We are not in the hint business; we are here to report facts, including the difficult facts of racism.”
AP’s recommendation to call out racist behavior is laudable, but leading race scholar Khalil Gibran Mohammed notes that it is just the first step toward a new direction of covering race relations. Besides acknowledging when individual or interpersonal behaviors are racist, Muhammed envisions a world where media also investigates the historical and systemic dimensions of racism.
“Racist ideas are much more ubiquitous in our society than avowed, self-identified racists,” he says, “and if we can be more honest and transparent and more courageous about identifying racist ideas that circulate in our classrooms, in our homes, in our schools [and] in our neighborhoods, then journalists will be more effective at identifying major problems in our society rather than being complicit in them.”
In a comprehensive 2014 report, Race Forward analyzed nearly 1,200 articles and transcripts across 14 news outlets (3 national newspapers, 3 cable TV networks, and 8 local newspapers including the Cleveland Plain Dealer). They found that less than a third of the race-related stories were “systemically aware,” meaning that the vast majority of pieces lacked any insight on systemic-level racism. Furthermore, only 3.3% of the articles alluded to systemic solutions, such as proposed policy reforms. The report not only shares such findings, but also includes eight specific ways that media organizations can become better advocates for justice.
As always, greater awareness of these challenges is the first step toward enacting change. For Mila’s company, reflecting on the ways in which they may have been complicit in perpetuating bias is a critical next step. Instead of relying on Mila to speak on any race-related challenge that comes up, her company can institute organization-wide policies and plans that 1) encourage anti-racist reporting, 2) diversify the range of news coverage, 3) create an environment in which new ideas are heard and embraced…and so on. Perhaps, Mila’s moment is a learning opportunity for the company to become a leader in fair and just reporting.
Mila’s predicament may seem situational or unique, but various systemic forces are at play. What does it take for Mila’s story to be about Denise’s entrepreneurialism, instead of the domestic violence case down the street? The answer may not be straightforward, and the solution may not be easy—but it’s one worth striving toward.
 For another example, see: https://twitter.com/QasimRashid/status/1031279234013118465
 https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/US/PST045218 - White (Non-Hispanic or Latino).
About the Series: The Commission has launched a year-long storytelling project called Racial Equity Sketches, in which we demonstrate how racial equity is interconnected with issues affecting both the business community and our larger community. These fictional stories are meant to imagine what making “an equitable decision” could look like. Through them, we hope to reveal that equity is not always a major comprehensive strategy, but rather the compilation of many small, informed & thoughtful decisions. Each story is also followed by data and resources for further reading.