Tips to improve news coverage of Black communities

Apr 6, 2023 in Diversity and Inclusion
People in neighborhood

Historical representations of Black people in the media are entrenched in years of colonial violence. The resulting misrepresentation in news coverage, which for centuries has relied on racist stereotypes and archetypes, has had a ripple effect, impacting audience perception by encouraging racial biases in the present day. 

Contemporary media platforms can knowingly or unknowingly reiterate these tropes. Journalists should educate themselves on historical media biases and learn to frame their stories in ways that humanize – rather than tokenize – their sources. 

Improving the representation of Black people can be difficult for journalists, however. Challenging the institutional imbalance requires a commitment to research and understanding the numbers around representation. 

In the U.S. for example, Black families represent 59% of poor people portrayed in the media despite accounting for only 27% of Americans living in poverty, according to a report by the racial justice organization, Color of Change. Black people are nearly three times more likely than white people to be portrayed as dependent on welfare, too. 

The study also found that the media showed Black fathers spending time with their kids almost half as often as white fathers. In addition, although Black people represent 37% of criminals depicted in the news, in reality they constitute 26% of those arrested on criminal charges.

Meanwhile, Black people remain underrepresented in newsrooms: a 2019 Pew Research Center study found that while 11% of the overall U.S. workforce is Black, seven percent of newsroom employees are Black. There is slightly more proportional representation in local TV newsrooms, where only 12% of those workers are African American. Meanwhile, only six percent of news directors – who constitute the leadership of such newsrooms – are Black, up from two percent in 1995, according to the report.

Freelancers and staff writers alike have the power to improve positive representation of diversity, one story at a time. Here are three tips for journalists to report ethically on Black people and communities.

Offer a platform to Black journalists

Awareness of one’s own positionality is a key aspect of successful intersectional representation. Perspectives held by people in positions of privilege may fail to fully take into account the experiences of people who have not had the same historical advantages. 

As a result, journalists from within Black and other marginalized communities may be best able to highlight underrepresented issues and narratives that might not otherwise be addressed in coverage of their communities. 

Journalists can share writing opportunities with Black writers via word of mouth, social media and by offering to be a reference. While redistributing resources might seem like a long-term task, better representation can change one story and writer at a time. 

Non-Black journalists who are unable to share their platform with Black writers should be honest about the biases and positionality they hold. This can help audiences identify the lens through which they are reporting. 

Along the way, too, writers should recognize their own ability to falter. Even a journalist aiming to give a platform to a Black trans person, for instance, may inadvertently tokenize them by making their racial and gendered identity their story’s focus, instead of giving a platform to their human experience as a whole. 

Be aware of savior complexes

It’s important for writers to be aware of potential savior complexes that can develop from generational white guilt and other forms of historical privilege. Sometimes, perspectives of non-Black allies can tokenize and subjugate Black people in their representation.

A writer, for instance, may inadvertently skew a narrative to one that assigns value in accordance with notions of success or capitalist ideals, such as hyperproductivity. “Within the ‘White Saviour complex,’” reads a 2020 study by E-International Relations, “the centre of Self-Other relations depends on the subjugation of the Black man in order to reproduce the relations of production within the capitalist system.” 

Another way these stereotypes can show up is when a writer shapes a narrative around a single successful individual – such as a businessman in a Black lower-income area – instead of representing the dynamic issues in the community. This undermines the complexity of the sociopolitical dynamics at play. 

Transparently engaging with sources, and asking questions about how they would like to be represented can help counteract a writer’s bias. When reporting on sensitive issues in particular, writers may consider offering  their sources a general overview of their article’s framing. This might entail a summary of how your sources are represented, so that they can have an understanding of their portrayal and prepare themselves for the story’s public reception.

It may be helpful, too, to ask another person from, or an expert on, the community you’re writing about, for feedback so long as they are equitably compensated for their labor and have the capacity to do so.

Diversify your sources and narratives year-round

Journalists should find ways to include more Black people in everyday stories – outside of the “newsworthy” ones about incarceration or Black celebrity news – by diversifying their sources. To do so, journalists can consult a greater variety of references on academic and scientific topics. The Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL), for one, shares comprehensive databases and resources to enhance the quality of research on Black people. 

Improvements in representation require a long-term concerted effort from journalists and media workers across the industry. In contrast with savior complex narratives that frame Black people as hyperproductive, successful business people, there are opportunities to center stories about ordinary Black people, such as school teachers, single fathers and college graduates. 

Ethically representing Black people in your reporting can come in the form of a commitment to allyship in innumerable forms. With this year’s Black History Month month now in the past, and pitch calls for stories about Black people likely decreased, continue to check your privilege and help redistribute access to resources.

Photo via Pexels by Ahshea1 Media.