Over the past few days, there has been significant dialogue around newsroom cuts. Journalists are right to be concerned. But the Black community and lovers of democracy must too be alarmed. Then, we must act.
For over a decade, the American public and civil society have watched the media contract. A 2021 survey conducted by Pew Research found that between 2008 and 2020, newsroom employment fell by 57%. What’s more, it happened at a time when newsrooms made aspirational commitments to race equity at all levels of operation. Occurring when the global economy is contracting, which puts more even pressure on media to provide more profit to their investors, the commitment to diversity was largely maintained by activism within Black communities and their push for inclusion.
But now it appears we’ve reached a new juncture in media realignment. One in which the long hard work of ensuring media represents America’s pluralist perspectives is itself facing a backlash and it’s likely that budget cuts are being used to justify this rollback on civil rights.
While we may debate the intent, there is one clear outcome, and it can’t be ignored. A stepping back or process of reversal to the gains of race equity over the last three decades should be seen as a threat to the advancement of America’s multiracial democracy. To be clear, the media has always been biased in terms of centering its investors’ profit over the interest of the American public but in the current environment, centering investors over a racially segregated public with limited access to an informed diversity of journalism could serve to undermine the ability to defend an American democracy increasingly under attack. We as African Americans, and those of us concerned about democracy, should be paying attention.
At a time when democracy is under attack, access to credible information grounded within informed journalistic practices is critical. Today, however, we are in an era where new technology creates workarounds to qualified journalism and standard newsroom reporting practices. Traditionally, 10 years ago, most Americans were likely to get their news from mainstream media sources such as CNN, PBS or ABC. And marginalized communities were provided additional perspectives from ethnic, minority and local LGBTQIA monthly newspapers. Those supported by the Black Press or the Black News Network are examples.
America’s news institutions made commitments to diversity. This meant drawing from a pool of Black journalists who may have been working at these Black publications. Unsurprisingly this resulted in a brain drain of Black reporters from Black-centered newsrooms. The brain drain significantly weakened what infrastructure the Black media struggled to maintain under the neglect of support from America’s civil society. This drain only accelerated in the midst of the George Floyd murder by law enforcement officers. After less than four years, these Black reporters are now being thrown out of the mainstream news media market.
This not only impacts their individual lives but is incredibly disruptive to what little trust that remains in the Black community. The highly influential African American audience is increasingly being cut out of access to news, and many Black newspapers and news radio outlets have disappeared with no efforts by larger civil society to sustain them.
Black America is not only receiving less access to journalism, but the news we do have access to is less likely to represent us or the concerns of our communities. That lack of representation further erodes trust. As the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin reminds us, “What really influenced whether Black Americans trust the news media was how well they felt the media covered their communities, and, to a lesser extent, how diverse they felt newsrooms were. Representation matters.”
With the further contraction of new media outlets and the rise of new technology, social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or TikTok, have increasingly become the place where people get their news. People find out what’s happening no longer from the work of trained journalists – who understand the ethics and principles of news reporting – but rather from their neighbor, friend, colleague or cousin.
This leaves Black communities even more susceptible to the disinformation and misinformation that is coursing through the internet. This crisis has grown to such a level that the digital civil rights coalition made up of over 230 organizations, the Disinfo Defense League has called on the U.S. Congress and the United Nations to investigate what it called intentionally misleading racially based propaganda costumed as journalism.
And there is another danger. Without an informed news source, misinformation and disinformation increase tensions within Black communities. When you no longer have access to representative media, Twitter, YouTube and TikTok become your gateway to the pseudo-journalism of the dark web. This is how you get a Kyrie Irving or Kanye West. This is how we get the expressions of antisemitism and anti-immigrant sentiments so damaging to our Black coalition building. The growth of bigoted conspiracies is a misdirection of where power actually lies and that’s with the biased and discriminatory policies and practices of American institutions and government.
There are Jews who are Black in our community. There are immigrants who are Black in our community. And are LGBTQIA+ individuals who are Black in our community. The idea that there is no room for our diversity discredits and divides the Black community, reducing Black political and social decision-making and advocacy in a moment when it is needed most.
Still. The fueling of xenophobic, transphobic and antisemitic beliefs within the Black community doesn’t appear in a vacuum. It is the direct result of the increasing lack of representational access to journalism. In this moment, newsrooms and investors must ask themselves ‘what can be done?’ And we as Black civil society must not wait for an answer. We must be prepared to step up to ensure Black America – the group most committed to a pluralistic democracy – has access to real information in real-time that tells us about the world but reflects our concerns.
Eric Ward is an executive vice president of Race Forward. Ward is a nationally recognized expert on the relationship between authoritarian movements, hate violence and democracy and a Senior Advisor of the Western States Center.
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