By Maxwell Carter
For journalists in Boston writing about race, a single word can change an entire story. The Boston Globe beat the Associated Press by six months by deciding, in January, to capitalize the word “Black,” but not “white,” in reference to people.
The AP’s decision on June 15 to follow suit settled a long dispute and was heralded as a step towards more accurate and respectful reporting. But the journalism industry at large has been under fire for failing to accomplish just that in coverage of uprisings that have rocked cities throughout the nation since Memorial Day weekend.
“I like that it was an internal decision,” Boston Globe opinion columnist Renee Graham, a Black woman, said of the Globe’s style guide changes, “as opposed to this sort of feeling that’s been happening in the last few weeks that suddenly people are realizing that things that are wrong, are wrong. And they don’t want to be caught on the wrong side of history.”
It’s not often that Boston can claim being ahead on race, but it happens. For Graham, who has been at the Globe off and on for decades, there remains the question of whether this is the first step or the only step.
Media outlets across the country have been forced to contend recently with the fact their stylistic and editorial choices are, in fact, accountable to public opinion as much as responsible for forming it. Both the internal and public reactions to The Philadelphia Inquirer’s headline stating, “Buildings matter, too,” and to Tom Cotton’s piece, “Send in the troops,” solicited by The New York Times, amounted to a crash course in the basics of media criticism. Lesson number one: media framing matters.
Those two highly visible examples became emblematic of a history of institutional racism in reporting that has gotten renewed attention in the past few weeks. They revealed to readers that objectivity is an ideal far from being realized, if achievable at all.
“It’s not journalists just hating a protest nor is this explicit bias. Theoretically, this is how the institution of journalism was designed,” said Danielle Kilgo, professor of journalism, diversity, and equality at the University of Minnesota. “They work sort of in line with the status quo. They protect it in a way that is not beneficial to most protest movements.”
She has spent the last six years conducting massive comparative research projects examining coverage of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2014 all the way up to the uprisings of the last month. Kilgo, who is herself Black, shows that this is especially true in the case of anti-racism protest coverage. By cataloguing and analyzing thousands of articles she noticed that reporting on the protests following the killing of Michael Brown was far more negative than that of other contemporary protest movements.
In Ferguson, the news did little to question the police and government narrative that the protests were overrun with violence and looters. There was an overemphasis on property damage and arrests, but little scrutiny of police behavior or much attention paid to the tanks rolling through suburban streets. The emotions were there, but it was almost part of the scenery, as if a wildfire were ripping through the city rather than a civil rights movement. It was clear from the multitude of pictures of protestors yelling and standing on torched cars that they were angry, but media outlets failed to contextualize that anger and pain, according to Kilgo.
“There was mention that Michael Brown died, but they would not put that into a greater context. It takes more than one person to die and more than one injustice for people to get to the streets to riot, or to protest, or to do sit-ins and vigils,” she said.
More than five years later and what do media outlets have to show for it? Graham said she’s seeing more of the same.
“When protests began in late May after George Floyd’s death they were immediately framed as the George Floyd protests,” Graham said. “But a lot of a us knew this is far bigger than George Floyd. It wasn’t about one man killed by police on this one day in this particular place.”
Part of the problem at The New York Times and The Philadelphia Inquirer is the absolute dearth of people with decision-making power who would have known to say no, Graham said. No one was in the room to point out that Tom Cotton’s piece, which advocated bringing the military to crush anti-racism protests, was essentially calling for a race war, she said.
A 2018 Pulitzer Prize-winning series on race and racism in Boston by the Spotlight team recognized that The Boston Globe, too, had a pernicious lack of Black staffers and a complete absence of Black leadership. A quick look at the paper’s staff page makes it immediately clear that little has changed.
“The Globe has the problem of being in Boston, which is a city that, traditionally, has always been difficult to get Black people to come here and get them to stay,” Graham said. But she added, “the numbers are probably worse than they were then because they’ve lost some really good people. It’s just kind of nuts how many people you see writing for other papers who, a few years ago, were writing for the Globe.”
Although Boston certainly has unique struggles attracting and retaining Black journalists, a lack of diversity has plagued the entire industry since at least 1968, when a bipartisan panel commissioned by President Lyndon B. Johnson published its findings in what is popularly know as the Kerner Commission. Among its conclusions, which identify “white racism” as the driving force behind the “race riots” that were gripping the country at the time, it linked the skewed coverage of the protests with the abysmal lack of diversity in newsroom. Just over 50 years later, the same criticisms are being levied against the news media today.
Janine Jackson is the host of Counterspin, a weekly radio show produced for FAIR, the national media watchgroup. She said the conclusions of the Kerner Commission have been confused in the intervening years.
“Diversity to me seems like the sprinkles on the white supremacy sundae, you know? It’s meant to be something nice to spice up the sauce for white people’s consumption,” Jackson said “You include a Black person, you include an Asian person and now, look, now they’re able to say they’re diverse when they’ve changed nothing fundamentally about the way they present news or the news they decide is important.”
Jackson, who is Black, said the prescription isn’t actually for more diversity, but for less white supremacy. She pointed directly at the problem looming behind the lack of staff diversity at The Boston Globe: their readership.
“Do you see any news organizations in Boston spend as much time in Roxbury as they do in Newton or Wellesley or a rich, predominately white community?” Globe reporter Jeremy C. Fox, who is white, said. “I think in general news organizations spend more time and more energy on people who they see as reliable consumers of news and people they see as reliable purchasers of products advertised.”
For Graham, the lack of coverage on the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on Chelsea and Everett is one of the best examples of this. If they had been investing in those communities, where there is a long history of disproportionate health concerns resulting from chronic poverty and high-population density, they could have caught this story before the virus had devastated the whole community, she said. Even now, as The Boston Globe reports decreasing rates of new infections, Chelsea’s rates are rising, Graham pointed out, but no one is covering it.
“Is this a business decision or is there something more to it? I think that’s the question for everybody, you know, with capitalizing ‘Black,’ she said. “Is this just a style change or does this really change how you look at these communities?”