It all starts in the newsroom. Who’s in the room will dictate how a story is being told.
In a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, 63% of adults say news about Black folks is more negative than news about other racial and ethnic groups. And 43% say news coverage typically stereotypes African Americans.
Jerry McCormick, adjunct professor of journalism at San Diego State University, says he’s not surprised. As a longtime journalist, he says poor pay and a lack of diversity are two main issues that plague American newsrooms today.
The unsustainability of this industry has pushed out many aspiring Black journalists. The average salary, depending on the state, ranges from $39,000 to $59,000.
Mainstream newsrooms have largely functioned as a white-centered structure, but the murder of George Floyd in 2020 spotlighted the need for more Black journalists. As the months and years pass after his murder, the spotlight has dimmed.
“White people have a built-in support system, their mom or dad can subsidize them as they learn this craft. We can’t afford to do that,” McCormick says. “As a result, there are more of them than there are of us. People tend to write what they know.”
While reflecting on his nearly 35-year career, he says it’s always been difficult to be one of the only Black journalists in a newsroom. One of the most toxic experiences he remembers was in Portland, Oregon, between 2014-2015, when he was promoted to a management position, but it quickly took its toll.
“I had employees call me the N-word to my face,” McCormick says. “I still have PTSD. Whenever I think about that time, I physically get ill because I was so poorly mistreated.”
Unethical treatment of Black reporters not only poisons the aspirations of journalists, it directly impacts the kind of coverage Black communities receive. In the 2023 report, Black folks say educating all journalists and hiring more Black reporters would help make news about Black people fairer.
Power of the News
Vickie Mays, professor in the Department of Psychology and in the Department of Health Services at the University of California, Los Angeles, says there’s a long history in the media of Black Americans being covered in a negative light. How the media talks about Black folks, stigmatizes and stereotypes them, and uses biased headlines, she says, contributes to the narrative as it exists today.
“When people don’t see themselves, they don’t pay attention,” Mays says.
Some media outlets are known to have an agenda, and some use “race-baiting tactics” to stir up tensions or increase ratings, she says.
In the Pew Research Center Report, 51% of the nearly 5,000 Black Americans surveyed cite news outlets pushing an agenda as to why news coverage of Black people is racist or racially insensitive.
Oftentimes, the danger that can result from this is shouldered by those in the Black community. For example, at the outset of the pandemic, reports circulated that Black folks were hesitant to get vaccinated. While there was concern, Mays says, there is a difference between categorizing an entire community as hesitant instead of concerned.
Implying hesitancy comes with the expectation that there is little someone can do to change a person’s mind. But acknowledging concerns allows folks to ask and answer questions.
“So, the journalists and researchers that are continuing to label and use the word hesitancy, they’re only continuing to stigmatize the Black and African American population as individuals who are not going to partake,” Mays says.
Two consequences resulted from the stigma. First, COVID-19 misinformation targeted the Black community. Second, a perception lingers that Black folks don’t get vaccinated and/or don’t care for their health.
“I happen to think that the media is very powerful,” Mays says. “I think that it could do more good than it’s doing.”
How the News Impacts Black Mental Health
When we think about how Black folks individually and geographically view the news, the mental health impact often gets left out.
Jonathan Gustave, a licensed marriage and family therapist, says we need some sort of positive representation of ourselves to feel a sense of high self-worth and value. But the psychological ramifications of constantly stereotyping our community can have lasting effects.
“When we don’t see that positive representation of ourselves in the news, it psychologically makes us feel less than, and it makes us feel as if we don’t have true worth,” he says.
Over the years, as social media has become increasingly popular, and access to information has grown, stereotypes of Black men and women have dominated certain conversations. For example, Black men are often vilified or labeled as dangerous even when they are the victim of a situation. And the angry Black woman trope is typically followed by a slew of microaggressions.
Additionally, systemic anti-Blackness has contributed to the disenfranchisement of the Black community. When you look at how food is distributed in communities, rates of substance abuse, and the education system, Gustave says, these factors play a role in why Black folks are constantly in survival mode.
“To say that Black people are the reason for their death and suffering is taking away the responsibility from the system that has been created around the Black person,” Gustave says. “The light should be shined upon the system that was created, literally, to put us in these positions.”
It’s unrealistic to think all news coverage can be positive. As the media landscape exists today, the lines of harm are constantly being crossed for the latest clickbait, and to increase viewership. Gustave says racially insensitive news coverage “creates a subconscious message that we are less than and that we don’t matter.”
Shifting the Tide
Journalists have a responsibility to inform the public while being mindful not to cause further harm. How can they shift the tide?
The media industry, whether in print, online, TV, or video, will continue to serve as the pipeline of information for the public. It’s not enough to know the agenda behind a news outlet or subscribe only to certain outlets. Nor is it enough to educate all journalists about the Black community. More is involved.
To fight stereotypes that have plagued the Black community, McCormick says, a few things need to happen in newsrooms.
“One of the reasons I have been a longtime member of the National Association of Black Journalists is because you need to be in the room to have those discussions,” he says. “Words are power.”
40% of Black Americans say it’s crucial that news about race and racial inequity comes from Black reporters.
Part of shifting the media tide involves increasing the public’s media literacy. McCormick says a lot of people don’t understand how media works. Reporters have a weighty responsibility, but they don’t completely shoulder the burden.
“I suffer from depression, in part because of the career I’ve chosen,” he says. “I’ve seen a lot of stuff that regular people can ignore, but I couldn’t because I needed to be there to tell these stories.”
It’s critical that consumers of news have the literacy to decipher misleading information from responsible journalism. And it’s important that journalists diversify their sources. Relying on a limited rolodex of sources can leave out Black voices.
McCormick became a professor to train the next generation of young Black and brown journalists, and he teaches his students to pay attention to the headlines of a story, analyze when Black folks are in the news, and empower them to produce impactful journalism.
“I need to know that when I retire that somebody is still here to continue the fight, because the media doesn’t give us anything,” he says. “There’s so much more to our experience than playing sports, or entertainment, or robbing stores, or having multiple babies — we’re just trying to exist like everybody else. This country was founded on our backs, and unfortunately, the boot is still on our necks.”