Media coverage

As the nation continues to struggle with inequality, justice and representation, it is clear the media plays a crucial role in shaping public perception and portraying critical issues.

The Black community has been both underrepresented and misrepresented in the media, specifically in the news, and such portrayals are often scrutinized for perpetuating stereotypes and lacking sufficient diversity.

Despite Black Americans making up nearly 14% of the population, the most recent News Leader Association Diversity Survey found that only 7.5% of journalists identified as African American or Black.

Some Black students at the UofA agreed that these low numbers often lead to the media failing to portray Black people as complex and accomplished individuals.

Aleesa Williams, a sophomore journalism major, said this racial bias could be decreased by encouraging diverse groups of people to get involved with this line of work. 

There is a drastic difference between the stories that white-owned and Black-owned newsrooms report, Williams said. As a broadcast major, it is one of her goals to be a part of the change.

Sophomore psychology major Ma’Kiyah Holmes added to this idea, critiquing the hypocrisy of those with power encouraging Black people to fight for their own needs, then belittling them when they try.

“We’re in a movement that encourages women and people of color to advocate for themselves, but yet we’re told that we’re too emotional, dramatic or take things too seriously,” Holmes said.

While criticism of the media is a relatively recent ideal, former UA journalism professor Gerald Jordan thinks this issue is deeply historical, he said.

Discrepancies between white and Black newspapers have been around since the founding of Freedom’s Journal — the first African-American-owned and operated newspaper in the U.S. — in March 1827, said Jordan, who taught a course called History of the Black Press.

Black Americans went from outright neglect and exclusion to the World War II era, when Black-owned newspapers were reporting great stories that the mainstream press ignored entirely. The drastic difference in stories remains prevalent today, Jordan said.

“You still see way too many stories about crime or looking for criminals, somebody who has gone astray from the law and that person being African American, as opposed to the festivals, the achievements,” he said. “You could open up the Chicago Defender, and you’d see things that make you celebrate. You saw Black people graduating from schools, you’d see them getting married, having children.”

Jordan cited the 1967 Kerner Commission as a stepping stone toward diversity and proper representation. The report, commissioned by President Lyndon Johnson in response to violent racial riots, found that the riots greatly stemmed from Black and Latino frustration at the lack of economic opportunity.

The report also concluded that as long as newsrooms were overwhelmingly white, journalists would miss stories that explained why people were upset to the point of civil disorder.

To address the lack of diversity in newsrooms, Jordan recommended focusing on where decisions are made. Though newsrooms might have many reporters or people doing entry-level tasks, it is less common to have diverse individuals calling the shots, he said.

He also suggested that journalists ensure they talk to people in the proper communities and get the facts, not just the police version of a story.

“Anytime you can get that amalgamation of ideas and discussion, you’re going to have a better story, period,” Jordan said.

Some other modern issues of racial bias within journalism include the depictions of crime and criminals, sexualization and hypocrisy regarding fame, Williams and Holmes said.

There is a difference in how a typical Black citizen is portrayed as opposed to athletes or celebrities, and that the latter is more accepted and normalized in the media, Williams said.

“Black athletes as a whole are treated with more respect than the average Black person,” Williams said.  “While it’s usually unintentional, it can come off as a non-Black person treating Black athletes better because they are seen as contributing more or even benefiting them.”

Holmes specifically cited how famous Black men and women are sexualized, while average Black citizens are mistreated within news headlines.

“We’re never characterized as people, but instead as our current or past situations,” Holmes said.  “You always see ‘single mother’ or ‘convicted felon’ instead of a normal, neutral description.”

Victim-blaming, police brutality and portraying minorities as aggressors are also prevalent issues, Holmes said.

The Black community has long been ignored and misused within newsrooms. With the current power and impact of media, students and professors across the UofA agree that outlets should take responsibility for encouraging representation and ensuring accurate coverage.

“I know that some areas are different, but what I see in Arkansas is that we have little to none or really none at all,” Holmes said. “If we hire someone from a minority population to be in a higher up position in the newsrooms, they will be able to advocate for themselves and their needs.”

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