“…we tend to turn to the publications we trust more when news become more difficult to trust. And if those are the publications that we trust, it should look like the people whose trust we are asking for.” -Tressie McMillan Cottom on the Daily Show
The history of Black media has been rooted in the need for trust between the communicator and the reader. The Freedom’s Journal was a newspaper produced by free Black men, becoming a declaration against slavery. During this period, Black people were not only facing slavery but were also in search of a path forward after freedom. Distrust in the coverage of Black people by white-owned media during this period pushed two free Black men to create their own form of communication. Now, Black people are facing familiar and unique challenges via population shifts, climate change and workforce automation. Simultaneously, Black-owned and operated news platforms are becoming scarce. Where do our stories fit into these changing narratives? And who should we trust to tell these stories?
Pew Research recently released a report that 58% of the American population does not believe the media understands people like them. Numbers by race were not reported, but I would assume this number would be high with Black folk too. The lack of understanding or trust between Black people and the media pushes many to find new platforms to engage with like Twitter. Black Twitter may not be representative of Black people as a whole, but you can see the recent backlashes against media highlights Black peoples’ distrust in media. CBS was dragged for not having one Black journalist covering the 2020 race. A white journalist was torched for calling the AKA’s skee-wee a screech. Plus, every other day, a non-Black political analyst misinterprets the impact race has on our politics. Even with all of this, the arguments around diversity in media are less about empowering trusted Black journalism and more about exposing/exploiting the mistrust we have with mainstream media for a few additional clicks and retweets. This isn’t a characteristic unique to Black media. As Peter Hamby wrote, the media is more interested in “elevating frivolity over the need-to-know stuff and the hard work of reporting and writing”—a side-effect of tightening revenue streams that put Black media at a disadvantage in the race for clicks and views.
Mainstream media wins the race for clicks and views by facilitating the noise of racial presidential tweets, temper tantrums and sketchy foreign dealings. In this environment, it’s hard for issues directly impacting Black people to break through. Even with the adoption of new platforms on the Internet, those platforms are still vulnerable to manufactured outrage that particularly exploits Black people’s mistrust of the media. So, imagine being a Black candidate with significant policy chops trying to break through the noise while your opponent is trapping the media into talking about nooses, monkeys and rounding up illegals in a pickup truck. It’s even harder to breakthrough.
In Georgia, I witnessed the failure of the media’s coverage of Stacey Abrams’ campaign first hand. Georgia is painted as a utopia of Black excellence and success. The Hollywood of the South, the city and state too busy to hate, the Black Mecca—all monikers given to Atlanta, the capital of Georgia. However, a peeling back of these marketable mantras, you would see something else. Atlanta is consistently ranked number one for having the highest income inequality, a high mortality rate, and a high number of food deserts. This is reflective of the challenges Black people are facing in the entire state of Georgia. Rural areas are facing the closure of hospitals, environmental injustices and a lack of broadband and public transit access on top of ballot access. All of these issues are disproportionately affecting Black people. Yet, the coverage of these issues is sparse in not only main stream media but also Black media. In fact, one could argue that even though the mainstream coverage is sparse, the coverage is still more comprehensive compared to the nearly non-existent coverage on Black-owned, operated or tailored platforms.
The only time our issues are comprehensively covered in Black media is during election season. And often this coverage is framed from a villainous perspective evoking ills of the past instead of from the perspective of a visionarie with solutions to address ills of the past and current. Stacey Abrams’ had bold, forward-thinking plans like Cradle to Career Savings Program and Affordable Housing Trust Fund. I would bet through analysis that there was more coverage about her opponent pointing a gun at a child (or about another very low-polling candidate starting some type of illegal immigrant bus tour) rather than actual policy stances. This creates another mountain for candidates (especially candidates of color) to climb and encourage people to vote (particularly when those voters don’t believe a Black woman can win in the South). Still, this type of coverage will probably continue well into 2020.
There are already claims of a lack of a “Black agenda” in the Twitterverse. Are these claims valid? Well, it depends on what you consider the “Black agenda.” Is this noise representative of the Black population as a whole? Probably not. Social media’s algorithm tends to amplify the voices of contrarians. Yet, this doesn’t excuse the lack of coverage that dispels the notion of such. In mainstream media, there has been coverage about candidates aggressively pursuing Black voters. Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker and Kamala Harris have all released policy-focused issues that directly impact Black people—the racial wealth gap, housing, maternal mortality, criminal justice and environmental injustices. Now, it is up to the candidates to sell their policy platforms. Nonetheless, you would think that there would be robust coverage on these policies on media platforms tailored for Black people. Not so. There’s either no coverage or bad coverage. We’re forced to suffer through headlines like “Kamala Harris Is Willing to Work With Trump; if Not, He Can Catch Those Hands”, “Cory Booker Goes Full ‘Rick James’ on Senate, Releases Brett Kavanaugh’s Confidential Emails” and of course there’s always “Elizabeth Warren Gets Dragged For Trying To Claim Native American Ancestry.” There is room for snarky, satirical coverage. (I mean…have you read my blogs?) At the same time, The Root has never covered Harris’ plan to address the Black mortality rate nor Booker’s “baby bonds” plan to address the racial wealth gap, and NewsOne has never even mentioned Warren’s housing plan. Why?
It could be that the way we consume media is rapidly changing. Roland Martin’s morning news show on TVOne was cancelled. He’s now making digital attempts by streaming his broadcasts on Facebook. (And of course, he’s still getting into an occasional Twitter spat.) Soledad O’Brien is doing her own TV programming, putting clips up on YouTube while also releasing snarky tweets by the hour. Then there are satellite radio shows that are uploaded into podcast formats. Though these programs are digital, they’re still formatted for traditional media consumption while people are getting their news in snackable doses via NowThis and The Daily Show. Those that have worked in traditional media still center their content around entertainment ratings. Roland is still clapping back at or “debating” irrelevant people like Diamond & Silk. And Soledad is still interviewing folks via a primed TV set versus a set with an impromptu, personal feel like Vice News. BET made its attempt into modern news consumption with Robin Thede’s The Rundown. It talked about everything from climate change gentrification to racial biases in artificial intelligence. All things traditional media hasn’t covered. But that was short-run—trust betrayed again.
This lack of trust in having our stories told accurately causes a vacuum that elevates sketchy “journalism,”hotep-ery and aging (tongue-tied) activism. Mistrust can become dangerous as the media landscape quickly changes, causing people to clang on to the old or to follow something that betrays their trust through misinformation. This is why we not only need Black journalism, but also Black owned and Black operated news coverage—restoring trust in our own voices.