Journalists in Virginia, and across the country, need to get better at calling racist things racist. And newsrooms need to improve diversity and begin treating race-related stories in a more even-handed manner.
These were two overwhelming sentiments expressed earlier this week at the Virginia Commonwealth University panel discussion, “Blackface, the Scandal and the Media: A Discussion about Racism in Virginia” where four Richmond-area journalists discussed Virginia’s recent blackface scandals and how the scandals were covered by the media.
The panel, which was sponsored by the VCU Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture, was moderated by Clarence Thomas, an associate professor of journalism in the Robertson School.
Panelists included: Michael Paul Williams from the Richmond Times-Dispatch; Samantha Willis, a widely published freelance journalist in Virginia; Mechelle Henkerson, a reporter for the Virginia Mercury; and Jeff South, Robertson School journalism professor and director of VCU’s Capital News Service.
“I think some things go right past a lot of journalists and they don’t think twice.They’re like, ‘This isn’t racist, they didn’t use the n-word.’ There is no understanding of the nuance of racism in the vast majority of newsrooms,” Henkerson said. “And so our job of holding people accountable when they do something wrong, we’re just not performing that well when it comes to racism as the press.”
The panel agreed that the media have inherent biases that affect the way in which stories involving race are covered.
“We don’t call out bad behavior and bad policy when they clearly are bad,” South said.
For example, Thomas asked the panel why the primary focus was on the person in blackface in Gov. Northam’s yearbook photo and not the individual wearing a Ku Klux Klan robe. The panel said inherent biases and a general lack of historical understanding of race relations caused a lot of the media coverage to not give equal attention to the KKK in its coverage.
Henkerson, from the Virginia Mercury, said she believes that the focus just on blackface was caused in some part because of the lack of diversity among reporters. This point was echoed by the rest of the panel throughout the remainder of the discussion.
“All these issues reflect implicit bias,” Williams said. “You’ve got to have diversity in the room to combat that. Newsrooms poorly reflect the communities that they serve.”
Another point regarding newsrooms that was made by Willis was that news organizations need to quit relying on black journalists to cover all minority-related stories. This is a disservice to the newsroom, readers and the communities being covered, she said. The diversity beat should be given more serious consideration and treated equally with other long-established beats like education and government, she said.
Adding to that, Williams said it’s not just diversity among reporters that is an issue. It’s also about who is sending the reporters out to cover stories—the editors. Editors’ perspectives matter just as much as reporters’ perspectives in the reporting process, Williams said. If an editor does not see an issue where there potentially is one, they are unlikely to send a reporter out to report on it.
Panelists pointed out that racism is not just the media’s responsibility to handle. It’s also a responsibility of other societal institutions such as legal, education, government and others. With that said, the panel agreed that the media have to contribute to any type of substantial change.
“If we can solve it here (in Virginia), we can solve it in America,” Williams said, adding that Virginia’s role as a national metaphor regarding race should not be underestimated and that it has the potential to start a national healing.