Let’s examine, own, and apologize for our racist coverage

A call to action for public radio

Photo by Leo Wieling on Unsplash

When National Geographic editors decided to publish “The Race Issue (April 2018), they knew they first had to acknowledge their racist history with the article “For Decades, Our Coverage Was Racist. To Rise Above Our Past, We Must Acknowledge It.” This prompted Deepa Fernandes (radio journalist and 2012 John S. Knight Journalism Fellow) to wonder in a tweet

… if our #publicradio leaders can initiate such a delve into past — (and present) — racist coverage, and own it, and plan to change things.

What would this look like in public radio? We could follow the model of National Geographic, inviting a historian to listen to our programs and give an assessment. There is the issue, however, that public radio is a much larger, decentralized institution than a single magazine. There are over 900 locally owned and operated National Public Radio (NPR) member stations in the U.S., each determining its own content. Who might spearhead such an assessment?

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting? This could make the most sense. It has a “responsibility to encourage the development of content that… addresses the needs of unserved and underserved audiences, especially children and minorities.” And although it does fund programming, it does not directly produce any programming.

Perhaps NPR or one of the other public radio program distributors? Or one of the trade organizations like the Public Radio Program Directors Association or the Public Radio Regional Organizations? Any of these could begin the conversation.

No matter who leads the effort, assessing public radio programming on a national level is critical, and as Fernandes points out, looking at both our past and present would serve us well.

Like the National Geographic coverage from decades ago, the radio programs from the 1940s and ’50s are easily critiqued. Among other racial stereotypes are the Lone Ranger’s Native American sidekick, Tonto (whose name means “fool” in Spanish). Tonto is played by a white man who speaks without using articles (“You risk life. Tonto risk life.”).

The difference is many stations still air radio dramas from the “golden age of radio.” The Lone Ranger originally appeared on commercial stations but it is rebroadcast on public radio stations today. This means new audiences are being introduced to racist tropes. I myself have broadcast replays of these shows while working in public radio. How can we justify perpetuating harmful stereotypes by continuing to broadcast them? There would be little support for republishing National Geographic’s racist articles for any purpose other than to point out, apologize, and try to rise above the racism.

As for new content being produced, my hope is we could approach a comprehensive racial inequity analysis in the spirit of learning and being better (pointing fingers and shaming will not be helpful). Some are doing this work already. See for example the “Code Switch” episode examining when NPR does and does not use the word “racist.” Another example is NPR ombudsman Elizabeth Jensen’s response to unnecessarily repeating a racial stereotype.

I challenge my public radio colleagues to conduct a comprehensive analysis of racial inequities in content — past and present. Although this is no small task, I believe if we put our minds to it, it can be started prior to the upcoming Public Radio Program Directors Association conference in August where many of the most powerful in our industry will gather. Given the state of race in our country, this should be a priority. At the conference, we could look at the issue together as a community, and use it as a starting point for greater racial equity in our coverage.

A concerted effort looking into our national coverage is equally as important as local stations assessing their regional content. Why not invite local community members to do some analysis as well? It’d be more complicated, but would yield a richer conversation.

I was recently introduced to the Reporting on Race Toolkit — created by a group of journalists, including several in public media — which includes the following:

Bringing people [from underrepresented] communities into the station environment and sharing information about newsgathering processes can help build mutual trust and improve coverage. Some of these individuals will become much-needed eyes and ears within their neighborhoods and they can provide valuable feedback on how the station is being perceived.”

Do public radio stations know how their coverage is being perceived by the many communities they are serving? Are we willing to find out?

Armed with knowledge from a racial inequity analysis, we can develop or share tools to add to our editorial process. For example, a simple racial equity tool (from Forward Community Investments’ Using Racial Equity Tools to Build Organizational Equity) poses these questions:

  • Who might benefit from our coverage on this topic?
  • Who might be burdened by our coverage on this topic?
  • What might the unintended consequences be?

In asking these questions, you get to a deeper level about the impact of your content on the community of listeners you are serving or hope to serve.

If you share my belief that improved coverage could come from an analysis of racial inequity in public radio content, please reach out to move the idea forward. Now is the time to take action, perform a racial inequity analysis, and commit to using the results to improve our coverage.