Traditional Media, Digital Media, and the Whiteness Problem That Won't Go Away

It should go without saying that traditional news organizations are still dominated by white people, and written for white people. This is no more evident than when we consider that major media organizations during the Trump administration have often caved to the myth of the white working class Trump voter. NBC ousted popular Black journalist and host, Tamron Hall, to hire white Fox News veteran, Megyn Kelly, who went on to interview white supremacist hero, Alex Jones (the entire endeavor has been a bust, but NBC persists, showing overwrought sympathy by white media for white viewers). The New York Times publishes sympathetic op-eds and even devoted a column to “positive” news about Trump despite that Trump is supported by white supremacists and is openly hostile to people of color. All this despite that analysis continues to show that Trump didn’t win the white working class, and they are not his most secure following--media want to play to white audiences and white supremacy, even when the evidence runs to the contrary.

It could also be a factor as to why many media outlets lack a diverse staff willing to challenge white fragility: this would violate their desire to pretend that the most important market is that of white voters hostile to diversity. While diversifying the newsroom has been a goal for quite some time, they still have yet to reach the levels of diversity that would make it seem as though they’re interested in the pursuit. According to a survey done in September of last year by the American Society of News Editors, diversity sits at 17 percent of the workforce, with only a 5.6 percent year-over-year increase. Like many fields across the board throughout the US, diversity in journalism is growing at a glacial pace.

With the slow growth of diversity in journalism, marginalized people are prone to look for news from sources that actually focus on issues and events within their respective communities. You won’t find news about domestic LGBT+ hate crimes in your daily paper--unless it happened in the Middle East, which fits the narrative of Muslim and SWANA violence. News about Asian American issues or Black-owned businesses are saved for the Sunday paper to make sure news organizations can still claim to be inclusive. Nevermind that these articles can easily be skimmed over, if read at all, by white folks looking for something more relevant to white sympathies, rather than being forced to face that racism, homophobia, and religious discrimination are alive and well in this country.

To understand this white bias in journalism, we need to understand the complacency evident in modern forms of white supremacy.

For all the diversity hiring that’s being done, it’s only being done for the sake of appearing inclusive. That isn’t to take away from highly skilled journalists, but rather to call out the way news is made. Editors and publishers still decide headlines, which stories to report on and which stories to ignore. Diversity alone doesn’t do the work of covering the issues of the marginalized, nor does it ensure the marginalized being hired are comfortable to write and voice their concerns openly. Even when the push for diversity is concerned, these journalists are often seen as op/ed writers who “don’t reflect the values and opinions of” the outlets who “take a risk” in publishing these articles. Alternatively, a wide range of op/eds come from a mix of conservative and liberal-leaning readers for the sake of valuing “both sides”, where “both sides” only includes white perspectives.

Instead of diversity of opinion, coverage, and topics, news organizations will will wear a mantle of objectivity, even if there is an implicit bias towards the topic, whether it be the murder of a Black man at the hands of police or the criminalization of Latinx people who want to build a better life for their family in a country lauded as “the land of opportunity.”

To claim a lack of bias while remaining so obviously biased is to be able to write the sorts of headlines that paint white people in the positive and all others in the negative. News outlets will create the sort of narrative that’ll strike the attention of the reader or viewer to imply an eventual headliner that’ll capture and entice, seeming neutral but lean towards one clear direction through their word choice. And just as with the white working class obsession, news media will continue to depend on false narratives and problematic conventional wisdom that plays to white sympathies and leaves people of color wanting for consideration.

This is no more clear than during times of crisis and tragedy.

When news involves people of color, journalists will immediately find out names, display their pictures, discuss their background, and paint people of color as the root of all evil, or at least “no angel”. Each time a person of color is shot by police, the cop is given the benefit of doubt, while the person of color is assumed to be in the wrong and deserving of capital punishment despite not having committed (much less tried for) a capital crime. “They had to have done something to be shot by police officers. They had no other option but to shoot” goes the sympathizing narrative.

In time of natural disasters, such as the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Black people are written as “looting” grocery stores of their food versus white people “finding” food as means of survival. It perpetuates the eternal stereotype of Black people as thieves, taking from others for the sake of unnecessary luxury while white people are the saviors and good Samaritans looking to put the needs of themselves and others first.

The downplay of the Black Lives Matter Movement’s intent and goals as acts of terrorism and often paralleled with the Black Panther Party (also painted as domestic terrorists by media) often give way to parroting anti-Black conservative talking points.

It’s from these examples that we start to question the intent of the news organizations we have come to rely on. For them, especially those that have been around for decades, it is not as easy to want to put in the work as it is to act as though you’re putting in the work. Their end goal is to not scare off liberal white readers who have pledged loyalty to their publication as their sole source to what’s going on in the world, while still trying to win new readers from the conservative white base. People of color are seen as a bonus, but not a necessary demographic.

This is where the complacency toward white supremacy becomes a greater issue for many organizations. This is how woke white journalism is born.

It refers to an acknowledgement of the issues of marginalized people, still written by white people, and creating the dialogue around issues of race, gender identity, religious beliefs, etc. In this way, news organizations can continue to see marginalized people as revenue generators, without genuine concern for the marginalized, and with little regard for how they’re portrayed.

Take the case of Mic.

Mic was a prominent website for social justice writers and activists who felt not just comfortable in voicing concerns, but who also were allowed to provide coverage on all marginalized individuals. Mic built a significant following by focusing on the marginalized. However, the media outlet made news recently for laying off 25 writers (mostly people of color) as they pivot to video. The company’s white founders are more sympathetic to the idea of white dollars rather than dollars earned through being the leading example of journalism that gives voice and focus to people of color.

The Outline recently wrote a scathing piece about the layoffs. The company then leaned towards a very liberal/progressive stance when it proved more profitable as the Black Lives Matter movement began.  While BLM was consistently painted as a radical group by traditional outlets, especially among the conservative media, “woke” became a market to exploit. Even well-known Millennial mainstays such as BuzzFeed are no less guilty of exploiting diversity (ask prominent academics, freelancers, and other people of color on Twitter how much they’ve been paid for tweets that feed BuzzFeed’s “articles” and inform the site’s operations), all for the sake of profit.

Too often these white-dominated, and white-liberal media organizations are built on exploiting Black and Latinx pain, Asian and LGBTQ trauma, the enduring nature of misogyny, all for clicks and the bottom line. Forcing marginalized people to relive experiences so that white people can feel better about themselves when they share, express shock, and signal their "not racist" virtues is just another form of white supremacy. It requires nothing of white allies. It presents only random, extreme, and overt white supremacy as the only kind of white supremacy, allowing white people to distance themselves from white supremacy without having to perform any act of anti-racism. And people of color still have to experience triggering headlines and images on their social media timelines, all so white people can pretend that they are aware and that this shallow awareness actually matters.

So who can we trust to give us the kinds of perspective, news briefs, and unfiltered thought we can turn to? Will we ever get to a point where we can not only trust traditional news organizations but start to see less pandering towards marginalized people and letting marginalized people their stories themselves?

Unfortunately, as traditional journalism is said to be a dying field, favoring online clicks, pandering to the racial anxieties of the white working class, and placating the white-centered feelings of white liberals, all seem to be priorities for traditional and digital news organizations. It might not be possible to solve the problem by simply making a big push for diversity in well-established and world-renowned newsrooms. Hiring a diverse and experienced staff may seem like an easy fix, but it also comes down to editorial decisions, allowing these journalists to tell their stories, to stop pretending that white voices are the only opinions worth mentioning, and to stop imagining that white supremacy provides value to discourse at all.  

In the end, woke white journalism has the ability to give opportunities to marginalized people looking to be given the opportunity to show what they’re made of, but also tosses them aside when their usefulness has expired and the revenue drops--people of color are always the first to be cast aside. It then becomes up to us to build the foundation of our own credibility in these performative spaces in order to succeed and maybe even build our own genuine space.

While anyone these days can create a website dedicated to current news headlines, having a liberal-leaning voice, and a dedicated passion for quality journalism, the problem lies in whether the space will be taken seriously. Sadly, well-established news organizations are given credibility despite their ongoing problematic offenses.

And yet, here we are.


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