2020 shows the need for institutional news media to make racial justice a core value of journalism

“This is vindication for a lot of people who have really suffered…you know, the I can’t breathe? That wasn’t just George Floyd. That was a lot of people that felt that they couldn’t breathe…and you spent so much of your life energy trying to hold it together ” – Van Jones, CNN

After CNN called the election, commentator Van Jones, a Black man, choked up on screen, sharing his emotions and a narrative about how Black people in American felt more unsafe than ever before just going about their daily lives in Trump’s America – just going to Walmart, as he explained, might result in someone shouting a racist slur.

Trump was not a spigot who turned on racism in this country, but he was the faucet that let it flow at full blast. Many other Americans breathed a sigh of relief because that hate will not come from the highest office of the land, in fact, with Kamala Harris, there is a Black woman in that high office as second in command. The fight is only just beginning…again.

The most alarming point the U.S. needs to reckon with is that 71 million Americans voted for Trump, a man who went so far as to signal his support to white supremacists from the presidential debate stage. Institutional news media needs to lead the way: it is clear that the whiteness of the institutional news media, along with its heteronormativity, its fundamentally secular bent, and its belief in neutrality, leads to many blind spots. I argue this point in News for the Rich White and Blue, my forthcoming book, and suggest commercial pressures are unlikely to pave the way for much reform in terms of diversity, equity and inclusion.

Like many white Americans, I could not fathom how so many Trump voters could brush away his racism. Unfortunately, the Black voices (and BIPOC generally) who work at institutional news outlets are left explaining to white readers and viewers that racism doesn’t go away in a summer of national reckoning. These voices are still on the sidelines. Even though The New York Times is led by Dean Baquet, a Black man, voices that would argue that anti-racism is a core value of journalism are still not empowered to do so at The Times, unless it is a historical project, as with Nikole Hannah Jones’ 1619, or as opinion contributors.

This 71 million turnout of people endorsing racism is a reminder that the U.S. has not interrogated its past and the institutional news media has largely avoided doing so. One explanation is the lack of power accorded to minority voices in newsrooms, where newsrooms, including television, appear diverse but real power is still held by white decision-makers. Another explanation is the reluctance to see racial equity as a basic news value rather than as a political orientation. This is objectivity gone wrong.

Just this summer, the AP style guide suggested capitalizing Black, and in 2019, instructed news organizations to avoid using ambiguous language like “racially-charged” or “racially-motivated” – pushing news organizations to make a call that something or someone is racist. Still, for journalists working in institutional media, to endorse Black Lives Matter is to move from neutrality to political activity. This will be a lasting challenge for any effort for newsrooms that try to tackle systemic racism.

My colleague at Illinois, Pulitzer-winner Leon Dash, sued The Washington Post in 1972 with six other Black journalists while working there for workplace discrimination. He told me a story about how at the time, he watched a Black reporter wearing a Black Power necklace get fired for refusing to take it off. I wonder about this – what was the Post thinking? Would the necklace come off and suddenly, the journalist no longer find Black injustice as part of his professional worldview? The sad fact is that Black journalists are still taken off coverage of Black Lives Matter because of their “compromised” objectivity. This is a mistake and a failure to reckon with white privilege in newsrooms. As transgender journalist Lewis Raven Wallace writes, “Obviously, I can’t be neutral or centrist in a debate over my own humanity.”

The question that remains for me is this: how can U.S. newsrooms reckon with racism better and get to the not-so-deep underbelly of why 71 million Americans saw no problem voting for Trump? White newsrooms cannot keep having people of color doing it for them (and us). To do so requires interrogating core values and viewing racial justice not as politics but as a core value of journalism.

As Wendi Thomas, award-winning investigative journalist and editor of social justice news outlet MLK50 wrote to me after I asked for ways to make this very argument to my other colleagues, “Newsrooms have always operated under some foundational truths: It’s good for people to have enough food to eat. Shelter is important. Quality education matters…..That expanding those truths – in the face of undeniable and incontrovertible quantitative and qualitative evidence that Black life is devalued and endangered in every way that can be measured – strikes the old guard as a violation of objectivity shows that the facts don’t matter as much to your senior colleagues as much as they might argue.”