Journalism That Prevents Black Bodies from Falling

By Joseph Torres, Free Press and Brandi Collins Color Of Change

The National Association of Black Journalists and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists are gathering this week in Washington, D.C., to hold a joint convention at a moment in our nation’s history when the Movement for Black Lives is challenging structural and institutional racism in our society.

Just this week, the movement released a bold policy platform that calls for the “complete transformation of the current systems [that] place profit over people.” The platform includes a call for reparations due to the many harms that government, corporations and other institutions have inflicted on Black people.

While the platform addresses several critical tech and internet policies — such as the need to end mass surveillance and support Net Neutrality — one of the structures that needs to be transformed is our nation’s media system.

As a key Black Lives Matter activist told us last year, we need journalism that prevents Black bodies from falling.

At Color Of Change and Free Press, we’re fighting for a fair and humanizing media landscape that serves all people. In fact, Color Of Change is proud to be one of the many groups working as part of the Movement for Black Lives to articulate a common vision and agenda for our community and our nation.

But to accomplish this, our media system needs to change. Government policies have created a de facto segregated system: People of color own just 3 percent of our nation’s full-power TV stations, 7 percent of all full-power radio stations and just a few cable channels. Given this context it’s no surprise that there are so few Black and Brown journalists and executives working at news organizations.

Without diversity of ownership or perspective, we’re left with a media that participates in making our country unsafe for our people by pushing a hostile narrative that says that our country is not safe from us. This isn’t just theoretical — research shows that slanted, dehumanizing coverage plays a critical role in shaping the implicit or explicit biases of viewing audiences. These stereotypes contribute to discriminatory hiring practices, inadequate medical treatment and rampant police brutality that takes the lives of Black people — a disproportionate number of whom are unarmed — on a daily basis.

While there are a number of great journalists of color doing the best they can to make sure our stories are being told, their presence at mainstream media companies has declined significantly in recent years. The number of journalists of color working at daily newspapers, for instance, has dropped to its lowest level since 1989.

“If it bleeds, it leads” is a mantra in newsrooms across the country, and the pain of Black and Brown people has proven to be all too profitable for media conglomerates, even as we’re stripped of the opportunities to tell our own stories. Just consider the comments CBS Chairman and CEO Les Moonves made at the Morgan Stanley Technology, Media & Telecom Conference earlier this year about Donald Trump — a man whose presidential run has corresponded with a spike in hate crimes.

“It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS,” said Moonves. “Man, who would have expected the ride we’re all having right now? … The money’s rolling in and this is fun …[B]ring it on, Donald. Keep going.”

It’s a safe bet Moonves isn’t the only media executive who feels this way.

Meanwhile, networks like CNN continue to give paid pundits like ex-NYPD detective Harry Houck a national platform to spread racist rhetoric. Houck, who has a history of hateful comments, recently defended police violence on the air and claimed that Black people “are prone to criminality.”

This dominant narrative that portrays Black people and other people of color as threats to society has been present in our media since colonial times.

This is why communities of color often don’t view mainstream media outlets as reliable sources of news and information. And it’s why many of us have turned to the internet and social media platforms to learn about what’s going on in our communities.

The open internet has been essential to the efforts of people of color to interrupt a white racial narrative, bypass media gatekeepers and tell our own stories.

This is why more than 100 racial justice and civil rights groups played a central role in pressuring the Federal Communications Commission to pass strong Net Neutrality rules that require internet service providers like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon to treat web traffic equally.

And this is why the policy platform for the Movement for Black Lives calls for “full access to technology — including Net Neutrality and universal access to the internet without discrimination — and full representation for all.”

But our presence online doesn’t translate into power. Our community still relies on corporate platforms like Google and Facebook to get our message out. These companies profit off of our advocacy and suffering. And these new media gatekeepers exert tremendous power over the distribution of news and information. They have the ability to censor us or use racially biased algorithms that dehumanize our communities.

To make matters worse, these companies have a terrible record of hiring Black and Latino employees. In fact, a Mother Jones article published last summer noted that the “combined Black workforces of Google, Facebook and Twitter could fit on a single jumbo jet.”

Meanwhile, online news companies have hired few journalists of color despite the deep bench of talent that exists in our communities, including many who have been laid off in recent years. And only a tiny fraction of the billions that venture capitalists have invested in online startups has gone to Black- and Latino-owned startups.

As the Movement for Black Lives and other groups challenge systemic racism, organizations and activists that work on media issues need to do the same in the hopes of transforming the system.

Otherwise history will repeat itself. And journalism, regardless of the platform it’s practiced on, will continue to harm our communities by propping up a false racial narrative.

Brandi Collins is the media and economic justice director at Color Of Change. Brandi has appeared on C-SPAN and she has appeared in The Hill, The Daily Beast, Alternet and Politico.

Joseph Torres is the senior external affairs director for Free Press, a public interest group that advocates for media and telecom policies that serve a public good. He’s also the co-author of the New York Times bestseller News for All the People: The Epic Story of Race and the American Media.