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The importance, and dearth, of black journalists is amplified right now

protests, black lives matter, police, police force, police training
Jodi Westrick
Michigan Radio
As the world turns to the news to make sense of police brutality protests, newsrooms are turning to black journalists.

The protests against the death of Minneapolis resident George Floyd at the hands of police continue across the country. Meanwhile, COVID-19 is having a hugely disparate impact on black communities, including in Detroit. For black journalists, the demands of covering these stories are both professional and personal. Stateside spoke with Kat Stafford, national race & ethnicity writer for the Associated Press, and Ken Coleman, reporter for the Michigan Advance about what it's like to be a black journalist at this moment in American history. 

A reckoning in journalism

A recent survey from the Pew Research Centers found that 77% of newsroom employees are white. Stafford said many predominantly white newsrooms have not taken the time to familiarize themselves with the black communities they cover, which has led to mistrust between journalists and the people who live in those communities. That makes it harder for newsrooms to respond in moments of breaking news like the protests over the death of George Floyd. 

“When you don’t have that representation [in newsrooms], you are going to see stories that do not accurately represent what’s happening in the moment,” Stafford said. “When we look at this police brutality issue, it’s not surprising to see that there’s so much anger directed at the media because we have just not been in these communities the way that we should have been.”

What is being asked of black journalists.

Some black journalists are being asked to be arbiters of how newsrooms cover the protests. One black journalist in Philadelphia was taken off the protest beat for objectivity concerns after she posted this tweet. 

Stafford said she thinks that other newsroom staffers need to also shoulder some of the responsibility of making sure that black communities are covered in the way they should be. That task should not fall solely on black journalists.

“I feel that the onus should not solely be on the black reporters, the black staff, and newsrooms to provide this perspective,” Stafford said. “At some point, at some level, our allies in the newsroom and other people in the newsroom are going to have to do the work and try to really immerse themselves in these communities to understand these communities."

How they’re coping.

Black journalists have a unique set of stressors as they are asked to cover events that center around violence toward people who look like themselves and their families. Coleman says that he has been destressing by running and reading up on the Civil Rights Movement to help contextualize what’s happening today.

Stafford says she has been talking with a tight circle of mentors and fellow black journalists. She noted that covering this big moment in history feels important and validating to her.

“I have also found strength in this moment because I feel as if there is not a single topic that I would rather be covering in this  moment right now than race in America.”

The role of journalism after the protests.

Coleman says it’s important for journalists to not lose sight of the issues impacting the black communities after these very visible protests end. It can't only be during Black History Month or "in times of crisis.”

“We have to be consistent. Journalism is like a lot of industry in America: it’s copy cat, it’s what hot now, it’s what’s trending,” Coleman said. “I think we have to cover people of color, blacks, browns, and others, every day moving forward the way that we’re coming them now.”

This article was written by Stateside production assistant Olive Scott.

Stateside is produced daily by a dedicated group of producers and production assistants. Listen daily, on-air, at 3 and 8 p.m., or subscribe to the daily podcast wherever you like to listen.
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