Why I’m no longer reading stories with ‘first black’ headlines
Race for clicks can lead to dubious claims with little news value
In my home state of Michigan last month, there was confusion over a historic milestone crossed by Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist.
Gilchrist is the first black person ever to be elected lieutenant governor in Michigan. No black person has held a higher statewide office. Beyond his historic election, it was more than likely Gilchrist’s name would eventually be tied to some other achievements.
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer was away on a trade mission in Israel at the time, leaving Gilchrist in command. And one thing on this week’s to-do list was signing a relatively wonkish bill into law. The office of the governor’s communications team, however, seized an opportunity to bring attention to an otherwise rudimentary bill-signing by announcing in a press release that he’d be “the first black elected official to sign a bill into law in Michigan.”
Here’s the problem: That was inaccurate.
Back in 1988, Michigan Secretary of State Richard Austin — the third-highest-ranking statewide office — signed a bill into law while the then-governor and lieutenant governor were also away on a trade mission. Until Gilchrist’s election last year, Austin’s tenure as secretary of state made him the highest-ranking black elected official in Michigan.
That critical detail wasn’t fact-checked by newsrooms and reporters who repeated the press release (and, incidentally, offered no context around the bill being signed into law). WLNS, a broadcast station in Lansing, Michigan’s capital, ran with the headline “First black official to sign a bill into law in Michigan.” After the error was noted, the headline was changed to the not-as-sexy “First black Lt. Governor to sign a bill into law in Michigan” and the story was updated.
A minor gaffe, sure. But all this is symptomatic of a larger issue in news consumerism: The cheaply won traffic we get from “first black” stories.
Most “first black” stories offer little value. They often make dubious claims and have minimal historical background or context. It’s one thing to mark significant accomplishments from African-Americans where there have been systematic denials or structural barriers to that goal, such as becoming the first black president or the first black person to reach the North Pole. It’s something completely different when arguably lesser achievements are ranked alongside those history-making events. Our role as journalists should reexamine how we distribute these kinds of stories and what it means for our audiences, particularly black news audiences whose needs are already underserved.
Here’s why “first black” stories can be a problem for media.
1. Running a story without verifying whether the person is actually the “first black” person to do something flies in the face of what journalists stand for. In any situation, journalists are required to verify their source’s claim. Why does this mandate not apply when someone claims to be the first black person to do something? Blacks have occupied the United States — involuntarily and voluntarily — for hundreds of years, and yes, there are many spaces we have yet to occupy. But think about other achievements marked as firsts that don’t come with such a high bar to clear. We should always double-check such claims and not take anyone at their word.
2. Black history isn’t cheap, and newsrooms shouldn’t treat it like it is. Simply rewriting a press release around a “first black” achievement without offering any context as to why that achievement is important, what obstacles that person had to cross to get there or if it has any historical significance does a disservice. And it’s lazy journalism that only serves one purpose, which is to draw more site traffic. (The same applies to slideshows and listicles of black-owned businesses in lieu of profiles or interviews with those business owners, something several publications in my hometown of Detroit are guilty of.)
3. Oddly specific “first black” claims are just filler. Here’s a headline that crossed my Facebook news feed on the same day as the aforementioned Gilchrist gaffe: “First Black Woman-Owned Non-Emergency Transportation Company in New York Gives Back.” Here are the questions I have after reading that item (and it turns out it was a press release): Was there a barrier to entry for black women to own a non-emergency transportation company? What would separate a non-emergency transportation company from an emergency one? Do fleet services, like taxicabs or airport shuttles, count as non-emergency transport, and if so, had at least one been owned by a black woman? What, exactly, is the significance of being the first black woman to own a non-emergency transportation company in (presumably, the state of) New York, as opposed to New York City, a borough of NYC, the United States, or the world? Could this press release be rewritten to highlight this woman’s accomplishment in a more meaningful way?
4. Reliance on “first black” headlines is not a good strategy for engagement. It will be a long time before the well of “first black” milestones runs dry; you could substitute any of the 49 states for “New York” and keep going for the headline about the woman with the transportation company. But even then, readers deserve better. If overused, “first black” coverage can inadvertently become a substitute for the kind of deeply sourced reporting on black communities that better serves readers. Black readers are already undervalued. Quick-and-easy “first black” takes only add to the problem.
Having said all of this, I want to be clear. I don’t want to take away from black success stories or encourage journalists to ignore black history makers. Black success stories should be acknowledged, celebrated and documented. My issue is with the framing, and I’m happy to talk more with anyone about their thoughts on whether “first black” stories are still valid. Please feel free to reach out at email@example.com or tweet me at @aaronkfoley.