The thread connecting outlets with massive growth from audiences of color

News outlets with positive engagement from communities of color built relationships before COVID-19

By Jean Marie Brown

It’s been more than 50 years since the Kerner Report, a government-sponsored assessment of institutional American racism, all but indicted

journalists for failing to produce a multi-dimensional report on black America. Since then, the journalists and media companies have vowed to do better at everything from coverage to hiring.

Inroads of course have been made, but COVID-19 serves as a stark reminder that the efforts of mainstream media remain at odds with the report’s admonition that black people should be recognized as part of society at-large, rather than marginalized as other.

Much of the coverage continues to be one-dimensional, noting that black people and now Latinos are being affected disproportionately, but without examining systemic reasons. Coverage about the vulnerability of one generation is emphasized, only to be usurped when mortality rates and symptoms manifest in another. The implications of race and class — such as availability of care and mistrust of authority, are often overlooked in news media.

“We’re all experiencing a global pandemic right now. But in the U.S. we’re also undergoing an Infodemic of misinformation and disinformation,” said Tracie Powell, who leads the Racial Equity in Journalism (REJ) Fund at Borealis Philanthropy. The REJ Fund made contributions to the three of the outlets in this report — Triibe.com, New York Amsterdam News and MLK 50.

Powell said the role these organizations play in their respective communities has been underscored by COVID-19.

“There’s a tremendous lack of trust in news in general, but even more so when it comes to communities of color, which have long been ignored or painted inaccurately and negatively by corporate media,” said Powell. “Unfortunately, this lack of trust is at the root of an infodemic that is fueling widespread infections and deaths from COVID-19 in the U.S. That’s why it is so important for journalism funders and others to invest in news organizations that are already trusted by, and in relationship with, communities of color.”

At the Multicultural Media Correspondents Association annual ceremony this month, Rep. Val Demings (D-Florida) who is part of a bi-partisan effort to recognize the importance of a diversity in media and coverage, spoke about developing a panel that would examine best practices within the industry. In which case, the work of nonprofits and ethnic media would likely claim some of the spotlight.

Their coverage before and during COVID-19 makes it clear that there’s a rich tapestry of stories in historically underrepresented communities, but outlets have to make inroads in these communities before “the big story” occurs.

Disconnect and coverage that disparages

Thanks to a Facebook video, a party attended by young black people on Chicago’s west side quickly gained national notoriety and prompted hand wringing about the foolishness of some black folks in the face of a pandemic. The initial coverage often began with reports on the number of COVID deaths or the disproportionate effect on black people. There were scoldings from CBSN Chicago, Fox News and TMZ, which suggested a correlation between the party and the number of COVID deaths. In other words, these people are dying because they are foolish.

The Triibe.com, which is supported by the REJ Fund, took a more nuanced and meaningful approach that revealed how disengaged some young black people are with society-at-large, but also how removed society-at-large is from the lives of some young black people. While the other report mentions the name of the young woman who posted the Facebook video, Triibe reporter Vee L. Harrison did what journalists should do, she interviewed the young woman.

Harrison’s report debunked the erroneous report that 1,000 people had packed into the home and explained the disconnect between young, black Chicagoans, city officials and the media.

The disconnect between officialdom, the media and communities of colors isn’t limited to Chicago’s west side. Nayaba Arinde, editor of the venerable New York Amsterdam News (also supported by REJ), said she’s always mindful that part of her publication’s role is making sure that information is relevant to black people.

She said “the whiteness” of mainstream media can lead some black people to think things don’t apply to them. In the case of COVID-19, she noted that initial reporting was focused on ethnicity — Chinese and later Europe. An oversight that in the early days led some black people to think COVID wouldn’t infect them.

Arinde noted that until actor Idris Elba, and later several NBA players, announced they had contracted COVID-19 there was talk that melanin helped people resist the virus.

She said her staff has developed coverage that emphasized the effect of COVID-19 on the black community, without scaring people. She said it’s been important to include black people in the coverage so that the larger community can see itself.

“We find the black doctors, neurologists, psychiatrists,” she said. “People understand, if it’s someone who looks like me, they are more likely to listen.”

Community presence

Knowing their community has also helped the staff at MLK50 in Memphis, Tennessee. A nonprofit that covers one of the nation’s poorest metropolitan regions, MLK50 is also supported by REJ.

By the time COVID came to Memphis, MLK50 had established itself as a voice for the community. “If you speak to what people care about, they will care about you,” said Deborah Douglas, the site’s managing editor.

MLK50 teamed with staff from the Memphis Commercial Appeal for a look at the role of poverty and underlying health conditions in the spread of COVID in Memphis.

Douglas said such collaborations are the future of journalism. “We want to serve the community, but we also want to model what it looks like for other media outlets.”

The San Antonio-based Rivard Report was examining poverty in that community before COVID-19 began ravishing the nation. The non-profit launched its “Disconnected” series, examining economic segregation, in February. The staff has pivoted and is now focused on detailing how people are coping.

Robert Rivard, the site’s founder, said audience growth through the pandemic has been great. Rivard said the willingness to write about the city’s poor helped in it’s COVID coverage.

The common thread between these publication’s positive coverage reception was an existing relationship with communities of color before the crisis struck. They had credibility and sourcing.

Jean Marie Brown is an assistant professor of professional practice at TCU and a senior Maynard Institute Fault Lines trainer.

Fighting for newsrooms that represent America since 1977.