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Opinion: Racism within CBS should empower the public to demand change in media

February 5, 2021 Category: FeaturedMediumPurpose


This guest column was written by Tauhid Chappell, the News Voices: Philadelphia project manager at Free Press.
The Los Angeles Times’ stunning investigation into alleged racism and discrimination within CBS  — which included heavy scrutiny of its Philadelphia station, KYW-TV — is a reminder that media corporations have a long way to go in eradicating behavior that demoralizes Black journalists and drives them out of the media industry.

And CBS is hardly alone: Ongoing racism and discrimination fueled the 2020 newsroom uprisings at prominent outlets like The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Washington Post and, yes, The Los Angeles Times.

The piece about CBS is also a reminder that we, as news consumers, must rally to support the Black journalists who are fighting for equity — and organize and mobilize to demand that media outlets embrace the overdue shift into becoming anti-racist institutions. Such a shift is necessary if newsrooms hope to stamp out internal racism, which impacts outlets’ credibility and their ability to meet the needs of their communities.

With several former Black employees speaking out about the hostile workplace environment they faced at KYW-TV, local and national CBS executives are meeting with media-advocacy groups like the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists and the National Association of Black Journalists to address these issues. And already we’re seeing the public rallying around KYW’s beloved anchor Ukee Washington.

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But there’s more the public can do to support internal efforts to make transformative change. Both community organizations and residents who care about the way local media cover their issues can demand that newsroom leaders create and enforce antiracist policies.

Free Press’ News Voices project has mobilized local community organizers and convened meetings in Charlotte, Colorado, New Jersey and Philadelphia to transform how media companies address internal and external issues that impact Black communities. We’ve also worked with these outlets to engage with communities and address critical information needs.

Communities in Philly — particularly Black communities — stand to lose opportunities for coverage and collaboration with journalists if the internal issues at KYW-TV and other local outlets are not promptly addressed. Newsrooms already lack diversity, and that lack of representation contributes to the decline in critical coverage that can keep Black communities informed, safe and civically engaged.

This is important, because if internal racism, sexism and other types of discrimination are allowed to fester within a company’s culture, these problems often show themselves in the end product.

Last year, the University of Nevada, Las Vegas held a seven-part conversation series about racism. One episode spoke about the negative impact that racism within newsrooms has on the public: how it influences whose stories get told, whose voices are elevated, the language and labels that are used, and whose issues are addressed by journalists who have access to leaders in positions of power.

The influence and impact of media coverage all too often puts Black lives at risk — especially when coverage distorts or even erases Black communities. This is most apparent in reporting around crime and the criminal-legal system. The Sentencing Project’s Race and Punishment: Racial Perceptions of Crime and Support for Punitive Policy details how biased coverage prompts the public to associate Black communities with crime. And this report indicates that ongoing negative coverage directly leads to punitive policies that disproportionately and negatively impact Black communities.

Unless the public demands tangible solutions that address newsroom racism, Black communities will continue to suffer as Black journalists leave local outlets and community representation erodes. When Black reporters leave these organizations, this diminishes the amount of critical representation that can bring a level of context and nuance to a story. When there aren’t safe and supportive workplace channels for Black employees to raise flags in, workers labor in a cone of silence, fearing there could be career retribution if they speak up.

If newsrooms commit to becoming antiracist institutions, they can then begin to support, protect and enrich the work of Black journalists. And when that happens, outlets like KYW-TV can move to create a process that meets the information needs of Black communities.

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