Racist journalism literally cost lives in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina 15 years ago. Racist journalism has allowed police to get away with lying and wrongfully arresting and imprisoning innocent people. Racist journalism has built narrative cover for government and corporate policies that deny wealth, opportunity, physical and mental well-being to non-white people.
News organizations have been forced to confront their (not-new) lack of diversity this year, following the nationwide uprising for racial justice after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Some newsrooms are having earnest, public conversations about how to do better, including an uncomfortable look at how the few people of color that are on staff have been sidelined and mistreated. Some have even changed top leadership in response, or announced a slew of new hires focused on covering racial justice issues or improving diversity, equity and inclusion. The response from some publishers has no doubt been performative and temporary, while at least one major local newspaper is not even going through the motions and has shown open contempt. Looking at you, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
For news organizations that are sincere in seeking a reckoning on race, hiring more people of color won't be enough. Of course, there's the whole thing about then actually listening to them, giving them power within the organization and paying them equitably.
But that alone will not repair past damage and mistrust.
News organizations must confront not just the lack of diversity on their stalfs and in leadership, but also a legacy of journalism that has ranged from incomplete to bad to preposterously racist because of it.
In 2014, the New Republic hired journalist Jeet Heer to do a deep and fearless dive into the magazine's own history of giving voice to racist tropes, including the infamous "Bell Curve" issue that put an academic gloss on KKK talking points in suggesting genetic inferiority among Black people.
"The phrase 'legacy of racism' encapsulates in a few words a large reality: Bigotries can have complex, ongoing ramifications. Few, if any, longstanding institutions have been historically free of racism," he wrote in the introduction. "Given the pervasiveness of racism in the past, the struggle to understand this legacy and figure out how to overcome it remains a political and institutional imperative."
In 2018, the Montgomery Advertiser apologized to readers for the way it covered...