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New report finds Black Americans remain deeply skeptical of news media

Nearly two-thirds say news about Black people is more negative than for other demographic groups

A new survey by the Pew Research Center found that Black Americans believe the news media has gone out of its way to portray their community in a negative and stereotypical light and most don’t believe that behavior will change in their lifetimes.

The report, Black Americans’ Experience With News, builds on decades of criticism of the mainstream American news media, from the time when newspapers and magazines were the dominant sources to today when most people get their news from digital outlets, cable television or social media. The distribution methods and the dominant media companies have changed but the attitudes and perceptions of the Black news-consuming public remain the same.

The Pew survey of more than 4,700 Black adults found that nearly two-thirds (63%) say news about Black people is usually more negative than it is for other racial and ethnic groups. More than half attributed this phenomenon to news outlets having an agenda to play up negative and/or sensationalistic news in the Black community.

“There’s not a lot of African American coverage unless it’s February or it’s criminal,” one 60-year-old woman says in the report, referring to Black History Month.

These highly critical views of the failings of the news media are widely held, regardless of age, gender, household income or political affiliation.

For instance, the study found that “among Black Democrats and those who lean Democratic, 59% say news about Black people covers only certain segments of Black communities, along with 55% of Black Republicans and Republican leaners. Much smaller shares in both groups say the news covers a wide variety of Black people (9% and 11%, respectively).”

Eight in 10 Black people say they see news reports that are outright racist or racially insensitive. Thirty-nine percent say it happens extremely or fairly often and 41% say it occurs sometimes.

One area where consensus broke up slightly was along the lines of education. Sixty-eight percent, or about two-thirds, of Black Americans with at least a bachelor’s degree say the news they see or hear about Black people covers only certain segments of Black communities. Black people with a high school diploma or less were less adamant on that point, with about half (49%) saying the news covers only certain segments of Black communities.

Major portions of the news media in America have long struggled to satisfy the desires of the Black community. In 1968, the Kerner Commission, a panel appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson in the wake of widespread rioting that had afflicted Black communities, castigated news media leaders for their often stereotypical and sensational coverage of Black people and a failure to diversify their newsrooms.

“The journalistic profession has been shockingly backward in seeking out, hiring, training, and promoting [Black people],” the commission reported back then. “Fewer than 5 percent of the people employed by the news business in editorial jobs in the United States today are [Black]. Fewer than 1 percent of editors and supervisors are [Black people], and most of them work for [Black]-owned organizations.”

The commission set a goal for newsroom leaders to become reflective of America’s diversity by 2000. Today, the number of Black working journalists is better than in the 1960s but still low. The U.S. Census Bureau says 14% of the people in the country are Black. In a Pew Research analysis earlier this year of 12,000 U.S.-based journalists, just 6% were Black.

Similarly, respondents to this latest Pew study said today’s news media executives can improve their coverage and better gain the trust of Black America by hiring, retaining and promoting more Black journalists. They said journalists of any ethnicity or racial group can report the news fairly and accurately, but that having more Black reporters, editors and producers working in newsrooms would go a long way toward improving those outlets’ institutional understanding of the Black community and help bring more credibility to the reports they publish and air, especially on stories involving race and racial issues.

It’s difficult to ascertain how many Black journalists currently work in the news media in America overall because most newsrooms stopped participating in a widely read survey around the time that America started going through a racial reckoning in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd, a Black man murdered by Minneapolis police officers in May 2020.

The News Leaders Association, which took over responsibility for gathering newsroom diversity statistics from the American Society of Newspaper Editors, was quoted in an Associated Press article in October 2021 as saying that more than 80% of newsrooms didn’t respond to an offer to voluntarily provide their diversity data.

According to the latest figures from the Radio Television Digital News Association, 13.2% of the workforce in the television industry in America was Black in 2022, compared to 6% of TV newsroom leadership.

Separately, some of American largest newspapers and wire services have decided to start publishing their own diversity numbers.

The New York Times reports that Black people were 10% of its news and editorial staff and 8% of leadership in 2022. The Washington Post’s newsroom staff is 9.7% Black and leadership 7.9%. In 2021, the AP said 7% of its staff was Black.

Black respondents cited a variety of reasons for what they see as negative coverage of their community. Fifty-one percent agreed with that it’s a result of news organizations pushing agendas, 45% say it’s also because journalists aren’t informed, 42% agree with a question asking if racism is part of it, 37% blame it on the speed of the news cycle and 36% attribute it to a lack of Black staffers.

Few respondents see the problem being fixed anytime soon.

“Just 14% say it is extremely or very likely that Black Americans will be covered fairly in the news during their lifetime,” the authors of the Pew report write. “A far higher percentage – 38% – are deeply pessimistic about this, saying that it is not too or not at all likely to happen. Another 40% fall somewhere in the middle, saying it is somewhat likely to happen.

“Even the youngest Black adults are largely skeptical that Black people will be covered fairly in their lifetimes. Very few – 12% – of those ages 65 and older say this is extremely or very likely, as do 17% of Black adults under 30. However, the youngest group is somewhat less inclined to see this prospect as not too or not at all likely to happen (31% vs. 44%).”

Black adults 50 and over tend to get their news from local and national outlets, and younger people rely more on social media channels. Even those under 50 report having little trust in the accuracy of what they see on social media. Twenty-four percent of those responding say they get news from Black outlets extremely or fairly often, while another 40% say they do sometimes.

Dwayne Bray is a senior writer for Andscape. He writes about topics ranging from general sports to race relations to poverty. He previously ran ESPN television’s award-winning investigative team and is a die-hard Cleveland sports fan.