Accusing the mainstream media of over-reporting stories like the world’s ugliest dog and jumping at the chance to cover missing white women, many African-American viewers wonder why these stories take precedent over more substantive issues occurring in black communities.
A panel of five prominent black journalists took center stage last Monday Feb. 27 at Roosevelt University’s Gage Gallery downtown to answer such questions.
“Maybe if we demystify how things are covered we can rectify the problem,” said Johnathan Briggs, panelist and Chicago Tribune metro reporter.
Other panelists included Karen Jordan, news anchor at WLS-TV (ABC); Byron Harlan, weekend anchor at WFLD-TV (Fox News); Alden Loury, senior editor at the Chicago Reporter; and Pastor Walter Gillespie from Chosen Tabernacle Full Gospel Baptist Church.
About 50 people attended the discussion to ask questions such as, what constitutes news and why do negative events about the black community overshadow more positive ones. Other questions included, why is there constant coverage of missing white woman, why did Olympian Shani Davis receive “unfair” media attention – and more specifically, why was the Chicago Defender the only media outlet present at a recent voter registration drive at South Side Salem Baptist Church that drew more than 15,000 African-Americans?
The discussion wasn’t always friendly as audience members interrogated panelist.
“If I knew about it, you should have known about it,” said Cliff Kelley, radio personality for WVON-AM, about the registration drive. “If 15,000 people show up in the black community, is that not news?”
Throwing his hands up, Fox’s Harlan declared he had not heard about the event.
“We don’t have an all-seeing eye,” he said. “Call me, e-mail me, send me a fax,” he said, providing the phone number and an e-mail address.
Adamant that he cannot know what is going on in all 77 Chicago neighborhoods, Harlan pleaded with audience members to take an active role in reporting community events.
A member of Salem’s congregation, Teresa Wells, said at the discussion that her church had talked about the event for weeks.
“When something is bad, [the media] is swarming outside the door. But then when something positive is happening,” there’s no coverage, she said.
The Tribune’s Briggs said he had heard about the event, but was uncertain why the voter registration was not covered, admitting the story had fallen through the cracks.
“My editor is not going to care about the voter registration unless there is some news peg,” he said. “We have to try to find a compelling story inside the news.”
The fact that record numbers showed up is a factor that could be known only in hindsight, panelists argued.
The discussion teetered back and forth about what constitutes news. Panelists said the media must take several factors into account: the issues going on in the community that day, if reporters are available, what makes the event unique and whether or not they received information about it.
The panel was then asked what it would take for their community to become more newsworthy in the media’s eyes.
“If people are vocal, then that trickles down into the newsroom,” Jordan said. “Part of it falls on when the community is really vocal and holds the newsroom accountable.” But she added the community was not solely responsible ?” reporters need to be more active in these communities, and newsroom management needs to become more diverse, and step away from the mentality of “if it bleeds, it leads.”
Briggs also argued, “we obviously can’t cover every story because we don’t have the resources.”
Another issue preventing more coverage, according to panelists, is the demands of an editor.
“Sometimes a lot of our managers are not minorities,” Jordan said, which means having to work harder at pushing minority-based stories. “When you have more minorities behind the scenes you have less head butting,” she said.
“It’s not that we’re lazy,” Jordan said. “But the easier you make it for us, the more likely it is for you to get covered.”
This was not a valid excuse for Kelley and other audience members, who said it was not their job to do the reporter’s work and that it was the media’s responsibility to be more active in the black community.
In response, Briggs asked audience members to create a strong relationship with the media.
“Invite us to things, even if you have no real agenda,” he said. “I can’t tell you how many stories I’ve gotten that way.”