A couple of years ago, after the Charleston shooting and before I became a journalist, I remember watching an interviewer speak to self-described racists from the National Socialist Movement. In the wake of a national tragedy and discussions of race in this country, I asked myself: Why are journalists allowing space for these people to further the pain already inflicted by this tragedy?
I have now called myself a journalist for four years. But I can see plainly that the conversation about why journalists shouldn’t legitimize white supremacy has moved forward at a grindingly slow pace. January 6th, the day that started with a white supremacist mob storming the U.S. Capitol and ended with several people dead, made that clear. In the aftermath, some journalists, like Tina Vasquez, pointed out that the normalization of white supremacy is exactly how we got here. Others, like Molly Conger, pointed out that it’s not critical to interview far-right extremists and legitimize their platform.
But at the height of the insurrection pandemonium, while several news outlets tried to dissect these events and effectively scrutinize white supremacy, some reporters, most likely under their editors’ direction, either failed to acknowledge how white supremacy played a role or sought out the voices of hate in America.
Black Trauma Matters
After the insurrection, perpetrators of what many experts called a white power event were allowed to call themselves patriots on international news outlets like CNN, legitimizing their views and actions as necessary and in the country’s interest. The New York Times published a story with quotes from white supremacists, painting some as remorseful while ignoring the greater damage the event had on the Black and Brown communities that watched the events of the day unfold. And as recently as this month, The New York Times framed an insurrectionist as a “beloved teacher” that simply became misguided during the pandemic. While she supported President Donald Trump, who has espoused many racist opinions throughout his life and political career, the story asserted she was not racist.
Covering the voices of white supremacists for “balance” is concerning considering Black and Brown voices are some of the most ignored voices in mainstream news, and that white supremacy has benefitted from the media’s reluctance to scrutinize it. White supremacist voices are a direct threat to the existence of Black people, but major media outlets, from Fox News, to more liberal outlets like CNN and the TODAY Show, have covered them like an opinion that needs to be shared. This type of reporting exploits Black trauma and harms Black communities by replaying the words of hate. And by legitimizing these words, journalists help facilitate the oppression that these communities face each day.
This summer, after a police officer killed George Floyd, mainstream and social media played a role in perpetuating the trauma of Black people by constantly replaying the infamous videos of his final moments. In my mind, it was a gruesome reminder of our place in American society. That people like me must be forced to operate normally after watching these images is a feat in itself. But the news media should not be a part of the problem.
Repeatedly showing Black people images of brutality is oppressive, and these depictions can give oppressive groups the idea that these actions are “normal and fair.” Reproducing this brutality through white supremacist language can reinforce the idea that violence against Black people is acceptable.
It speaks volumes of the ease in which the news media put these words and videos on display.
Giving white supremacists a voice is like handing a megaphone to the bully: You make the perpetrators louder — to the detriment of Black people — while normalizing their messages to your readers. To give them even a semblance of legitimacy is to provide them with power.
I know their views are very much attached to the current systemic oppressive systems of this country. The existence of Black people in the U.S. is in part rooted in fear and pain. My existence in this country as a Black woman, a daughter of immigrants, is constantly called into question by those that don’t want me here. It’s traumatic, and reexperiencing this trauma through the media I consume only furthers the harm.
How can we move forward?
I thought that the media had moved past fluff pieces on white supremacy, especially after the “Unite the Right” rally in 2017 revealed the harms of doing so. And some news organizations have. But I still often see a willingness in news to adhere to objectivity: a myth steeped in a bias that favors white comfort.
Journalists must address the breadth and depth of the experience of communities of color.
Black and Brown folks do not want to constantly read about our trauma. Our existence does not hinge on racism and racist acts. We experience life in many modes. While it is important to cover white supremacy, it is also valuable to uplift our voices and report on our accomplishments despite white supremacy.
To better inform our journalism, Black journalists must be taken seriously. Black journalists are often ignored and disenfranchised, but historically, Black journalists like Ida B. Wells have been the challengers of objectivity in the name of equality and justice. In journalism’s aim for positive change, we must strive for this. Allowing more Black journalists in the newsroom will better inform media output that lacks the ability to highlight the varied perspectives and life experiences of the Black people they cover. But that is not enough.
Newsrooms must also address racism within the ranks of media, which directly connects to the way news is reported. And they must also tackle the structural inequality and elitism that persists in the industry that forces so many Black journalists, especially Black women journalists, to leave.
Many journalists began a deep introspection of their newsroom culture with last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests. The discussions continue today, where Black folks in media are still speaking on the discrimination and disenfranchisement they face in this industry.
We must transform media into a mutual relationship between consumer and producer to shape coverage in a way that uplifts both journalists of color and communities of color. Some organizations are pushing us toward that future: Media 2070, a coalition of journalists and activists, seeks to facilitate justice and repair harm done to Black communities by handing the means of media production to Black creators and allowing them agency in their narratives; and Press On, a media collective based in the South, works through “movement journalism,” which seeks to create community-driven reporting that challenges white supremacist narratives.
After the Charleston shooting, I remember watching that video patiently, waiting for the white interviewer to ask follow-up questions or retort that the platforming’s viewers were wrong. But instead, the interviewer sat patiently and let them speak. They framed Black Lives Matter advocates as the opposing side as if Black lives were a political debate.
The interviewer said, “There are many people that would find your comments racist, extreme and dangerous,” to detach themselves from the interview.
The problem is that they are racist, extreme, and dangerous. But in the name of “bothsideism,” often presented as “objectivity,” we are expected to let these voices prevail without much scrutiny.
White supremacy should be discussed, but it is how journalists talk about it that’s important. If you present racist viewpoints without contextualizing them, you will confuse your readers into thinking that these viewpoints hold weight, legitimizing them to your readers.
A news organization cannot be “objective” on the issue of racism in this country. This is how we got to where we are in the first place. And yet, year after year, I see news organizations attempt to present both sides of white supremacy. Now we are living with the consequences.
Hannah Getahun is a freelancer, contributor for the CalMatters College Journalism Network, and a former editor at CSULB’s student newspaper, the Daily Forty-Niner. This piece was edited by Janelle Salanga and Gabe Schneider.