Mistrust of the media in Black communities

Story and photo by CATIE QUIGLEY

The media are going through a period of reexamination and the issues of representation and diversity have come to the forefront. African Americans often feel misrepresented or simply ignored by the press, and Utah’s almost homogenous white population only exacerbates this problem.

Historically, the press in the United States portrays Black people differently than white people. Mass media companies are generally owned and led by white people, with only 17% of newsroom staff in the U.S. made up of people of color as of 2018.

Because of the lack of diversity within newsrooms, stories that are written about the Black community are often tainted by bias, as white reporters are reluctant to enter Black spaces in order to find all sides of the truth.

Therefore, we often see stories that feature Black people when a Black person, especially a Black male, commits a crime. They are often portrayed differently than white people who commit a similar crime and are characterized as being violent, often photographed in handcuffs or portrayed in a mugshot, while being characterized as combative and negative.

One of the most pervasive issues, said Shawn Newell, vice president of the Salt Lake City branch of the NAACP, is that Black people are seen as a uniform group by the media. “Black people are lumped together as being the same and it’s not based on an individual basis, whereas a lot of times when there is a white assailant or person that is doing wrong, it is focused on that one individual only, and they don’t pull in the entire culture or ethnicity as being the issue when that occurs.”

Peaceful protestors demand justice for George Floyd’s murder at a Salt Lake City protest on May 30, 2020.

Protests, especially ones that are seen as radical or revolutionary, like those that happened over the summer in Salt Lake City and across the United States to protest the murder of George Floyd, bring a whole new set of issues in media coverage. Research supports a protest paradigm, “which suggests that protests are generally marginalized, they’re made to seem more extreme than they might actually be; often the people who are quoted in that coverage are not the best representatives of that movement,” said Kevin Coe, a professor at the University of Utah who specializes in political communication.

This protest paradigm serves to further skew the representation of Black people in the media, especially exemplified by the Black Lives Matter protests of the summer of 2020. Acknowledging that several protests did turn into true riots, there were many other ones that were quickly characterized as riots by the media in spite of almost 95% of participants practicing peacefulness.

These differences in language between representation of Black and white populations is not limited to protest. Subtle, yet important distinguishing characteristics in language also reflect how African American communities are represented.

“When you start to use language that is all encompassing when it shouldn’t be —that’s destructive,” Newell said in a Zoom interview. Therefore, when words like “they,” or “them,” or “that community,” are associated with a Black criminal, there is a heavier impact on the perception of the entire community that had nothing to do with that particular incident.

The “violent Black man” is a common trope in media, often reflected in headlines that are featured with a mug shot, while stories about white offenders who commit similar crimes often feature details about their past community work or academic achievement. When consumed consistently by the public, the subconscious microaggressions begin to become reflected in society, which is detrimental to the Black community as a whole. “The way we talk about groups of people, the way we characterize certain phenomena, all of those things shape our perception,” Coe said in a Zoom interview.

In the wake of the Black Lives Matter Movement and the summer’s protests, companies and newsrooms across the country are beginning to recognize the lack of diversity of reporters and the stories that were being published. However, Utah, with a 90% white population, poses a unique set of challenges to gaining and maintaining diversity in the media.

Nadia Crow was the first Black anchorwoman hired at a major network in Utah. In 2013, Channel 4 recruited her from out of state. By 2016, she had decided to leave for Seattle.

Newell reasons that “the culture needs to be built before you start to try to pull people into those environments” as a way to prevent any sort of discrimination against Black people when they try to join the media.

This is especially important in Utah, where the majority of consumers are white, and a Black face might be surprising and less welcome to some viewers, whether consciously or not, Newell said.

As a way to combat these sort of racial biases, Black-owned publications are a way for Black people to create their own space in the media. Impact Magazine, founded by Tunisha Brown, states that the mission is to “empower, encourage, and educate readers about Black Excellence.”

Brown started Impact Magazine “because I wanted to see a representation of the people that I know exist in my community,” she said in a Zoom interview. Being from Trenton, New Jersey, she saw that the local media only wrote about her community when there was a way to frame them as “always robbing, doing drugs, or just anything in a negative light.” But she saw the positive actions of her peers as well.

Fourteen years later, Impact Magazine is a successful publication that has featured prominent Black men and women such as Malik Yoba and Aisha Hinds. Brown spotlights the importance of having Black media sources because it offers a space that allows Black people to be safe, a space to escape the discriminatory language of mass media. “I think having our own voice is very powerful, because we are telling stories from our perspective,” Brown said.

Though the media still have a long way to go, awareness is growing about the discriminatory language and lack of representation for Black people in media, especially in the last year. Many publications are taking steps in the right direction, including local stations in Utah.

KSL radio stations are taking steps in this direction. Tanya Vea, vice president of Bonneville Salt Lake, discussed the problems that her station faced, and the possible solutions that are being enacted.

While stating that inclusivity has always been important to Bonneville Salt Lake, she acknowledges that the station “can be better at seeking stories out in those [minority] communities instead of waiting for them to come to us, and that’s where we need to improve,” she said in a Zoom interview.

To improve this issue, the company recently implemented a community board, which takes people from underrepresented communities and gives them a direct channel to share their community’s stories with the station.

While racial diversity in Utah’s media is far from perfect, last summer’s movements toward racial diversity have brought about positive change.

“The reality of it is that we are not going anywhere,” Newell said. “We’re all in this together, we’re all sharing the same spaces, we’re all breathing the same air, and we have to find a way to get along, we have to find a way to not have these barriers inside of our head.”