There is interesting new research just published about journalists and racism in the production of news. The research is reported in an article, “Coming to Terms with Our Own Racism: Journalists Grapple with the Racialization of their News,” by Emily Drew, Assistant Professor at Willamette University, and appears in the October issue of Critical Studies in Media Communication (behind a paywall).
It came as something of a surprise to me to learn that from 1990 to 2005, 28 major metropolitan newspapers in the United States sought to grapple with race relations and racism by devoting significant time, staff, and financial resources to launching systematic examinations of the ‘‘state of race.’’ (p.2)
Drew’s research was well-designed. She interviewed 31 of the editors and writers who brought their newspaper’s race series into being. In this research, she argues that explicit and intentional ‘‘racial projects’’ can foster antiracist consciousness in their producers and promote changes in news production. (p.3)
Specifically, she examines how a journalistic project that was seemingly about ‘‘them’’ (society), ultimately became about ‘‘us’’ (news media). Drew found that as journalists sought to ‘‘discover the facts’’ about how racism manifested in their communities, they began recognizing its manifestations in their own profession. As one editor put it, her paper’s race series, ‘‘challenged us to go beyond the rhetoric and hold up a mirror, an honest mirror . . . one that was not tainted by our own thinking that we were too sophisticated to be part of that.’’ (pp.2-3). Here is one of her respondents, explaining the change:
“We thought we were reporting on ‘them’ . . . those people, and organizations, and institutions that were still disenfranchising racial minorities. As it turned out, racism was about ‘us’ in the media, our news production, our editorial decisions and our own lack of diversity. (Editor of a ‘‘Race Series’’ at a major U.S. newspaper)” (p.1)
Returning to Drew’s analysis of this process, she writes:
“In the process of investigating how ‘‘new racism’’ operated in their local communities, journalists began engaging in a reflexivity, one that illuminated the need to probe their own institution’s relationship to race and racism. Most interviewees indicated that analyzing the media — let alone their own newspaper — was not a part of their agenda or design when they first began. But once the series began publication, community responses and discussions in the newsroom meant they could not avoid examining the racialization of their newsroom. As one interviewee noted, newspapers across the country, for 20 years, had been ‘‘guilty of their own sort of ‘benign neglect’ towards race as a newsworthy issue’ ” (p.8).
She concludes by talking about the dismay that some of the white participants in her research expressed about the lack of opportunity to address race:
Having undergone significant learning through the race series, one white journalist expressed tremendous frustration at the lack of opportunity wite people have to learn and grow. ‘‘There is not a forum in which we can discuss race, genuinely, with people listening. How can we have such a risky and honest [conversation] without a reason?’’ he asked. When white people have reason, and people of color have safe opportunities to address race and racism with openness and intentionality, they interrupt the mechanisms of racism that socialize people into blindness and silence about the structures of privilege and oppression” (p.16).
There are a number of things to note about this study, perhaps foremost is the focus on the process of news production which is often lamented for its role in the production of racist images, but too little studied. I also appreciate the nuance here in examining people who are “well-meaning” and filled with “good intentions” not to replicate racism, yet find themselves in an occupation and industry which does this in many unexamined ways.
If you’d like to read more about racism in the production of news, I recommend Pamela Newkirk’s Within the veil: Black journalists, white media. (New York, NY: NYU Press, 2000) and Darnell M. Hunt’s Channeling Blackness: Studies on Television and Race in America (NY: Oxford UP, 2004).(H/T to @dr_grzanka for that second ref.)