It’s been 50 years since the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, better known as the Kerner Commission, declared “our nation is moving towards two societies, one Black, one white – separate and unequal.” Named after Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner, Jr., the panel consisted of 11 elected officials, labor and civil rights leaders from across the country. Formed at the behest of President Lyndon B. Johnson, the group was charged with not only determining the origins of the race riots of 1967, but issuing recommendations on how to prevent such upheavals in the future.
Just seven months after they began their investigation, the commission detailed their findings. Chief among the findings, the commission determined that the media was partly culpable for the riots. They found that “The press has too long basked in a white world looking out of it, if at all, with white men’s eyes and white perspective.” They did this by maintaining predominantly white staffs, and greatly sensationalizing coverage of African Americans. To remedy the problem, the commission recommended racial diversity in the media.
Five decades since the explosive report, and newsrooms around the country have a long way to go to ensure racial diversity in hiring and promoting staff of color. In their 2017 annual survey of newsrooms, the American Society of Newsroom Editors “…found that 25.5 percent of the news organizations reported having at least one minority journalist among their top three editors, and 74.8 percent reported having at least one woman in a top-three position.” While this is progress, it is not the ideal.
It’s not that there hasn’t been improvement in the racial composition of media outlets. But journalists of color are too often locked out of high-profile political reporting assignments. Since the issuance of the Kerner report in 1968, reporters covering the White House as correspondents, are mostly white.
Even when the ranks of journalists of color swelled, the increase didn’t necessarily correspond to an increase in power or decision-making authority. This has disastrous consequences for people of color. Without racial diversity, media coverage of people of color sometimes lacks context and humanizing information. And sometimes the words and phrases used to describe African Americans are belittling or less-than-flattering. In an article describing American Urban Radio Network White House Correspondent April Ryan being omitted from the White House Holiday Party, Newsweek labeled her “combative.” Black women already contend with the “angry” label, and the media doesn’t need to pile on.
Separately, many media outlets and reporters tend to humanize white subjects, even when they are accused of heinous crimes. When Las Vegas shooter Stephen Paddock opened fire from his Mandalay Bay hotel room, killing 59 people and injuring at least 500 others, multiple media outlets, as Sarah Ruiz-Grossman pointed out, charitably labeled him a “lone wolf” and a “country music fan.” I can’t imagine an African American, Latino, or Native American man inflicting as much harm as Paddock without media outlets reporting on a pathology of crime and criminal mischief.
In articles highlighting police brutality, some reporters and media outlets highlight the victims’ mistakes as if to suggest they are undeserving of sympathy or to blame for their poor treatment. After McKinney, TX police officer Eric Casebolt aggressively manhandled 15-year-old Dejerria Becton — grabbing her by her braids, shoving her face-first into the ground, and then straddling her vulnerable body – several media hosts suggested she provoked the attack. NBC’s Megyn Kelley, who at the time worked for Fox News, quipped that the 15-year-old child “looked like a woman, not a 15-year-old girl” and that she “wasn’t a saint either.”
When Brock Turner stood trial for sexually assaulting a female student, some media outlets referred to him as the former “Stanford Swimmer,” rather than a sexual abuser. I’m not suggesting that people who make mistakes shouldn’t be afforded grace, but too often the grace is given based on race. I believe greater diversity in media newsrooms would correct for this, but everyone loses when media corporations hire one profile of people.
If we want to build bridges that allow people from all races and walks of life to “see” and sympathize with one another, racial diversity in the media must be a higher priority.
Roughly 50 years after the Kerner report, a lot has changed and much remains the same.
Jennifer R. Farmer is a strategic communicator and author of “Extraordinary PR, Ordinary Budget: A Strategy Guide.” Follow her on Twitter @Farmer8J.