In 1967, responding to a number of riots in black neighborhoods of cities including Detroit, Los Angeles, and Chicago, President Lyndon Johnson convened an investigatory commission to figure out how and why the riots had occurred.
Seven months later, the commission published the informally named Kerner Report, spotlighting how institutional and explicit anti-black racism, police brutality, concentrated poverty, and political disenfranchisement had come together to spark the riots.
The report also strongly criticized major media's shoddy coverage of the riots, warning that a “significant imbalance” between reality and news reports of the riots was exacerbating the schism between the country's “two societies, one black, one white -- separate and unequal.” The report concluded:
Along with the country as a whole, the press has too long basked in a white world, looking out of it, if at all, with white men's eyes and a white perspective. That is no longer good enough. The painful process of readjustment that is required of the American news media must begin now. They must make a reality of integration--in both their product and personnel. They must insist on the highest standards of accuracy--not only reporting single events with care and skepticism, but placing each event into meaningful perspective. They must report the travail of our cities with compassion and depth.
Fifty years later, mainstream media continues to be defined by the “white perspective” that the Kerner Report hoped to challenge. And the media circus that surrounded the protests against police brutality in Ferguson, MO, in August 2014 and Baltimore, MD, in April 2015 shows how little has changed in the broken way the mainstream media talks about race, violence, and systemic inequality.
Exaggerating The “Scope And Intensity” Of Protests
The Kerner Report criticized media coverage of the 1967 riots for exaggerating the “scope and intensity of the disorders,” which created “an impression at odds with the overall reality of events”:
... there were instances of gross flaws in presenting news of the 1967 riots. Some newspapers printed scare headlines unsupported by the mild stories that followed. All media reported rumors that had no basis in fact.
This is not “just another story.” It should not be treated like one. ... Reporters and editors must be sure that descriptions and pictures of violence, and emotional or inflammatory sequences or articles, even though “true” in isolation, are really representative and do not convey an impression at odds with the overall reality of events.
Following Michael Brown's high-profile death at the hands of police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, MO, and Freddie Gray's death while in the custody of Baltimore's police department, protests over the use of excessive police force and racial discrimination erupted. Though protesters clashed with police at times, the demonstrations largely consisted of civil rights leaders, activists, politicians, and residents coming together to mourn the injustices and raise awareness of the circumstances.
TV and print media flooded their coverage of the Baltimore and Ferguson unrest with incendiary imagery, misleadingly casting the demonstration sites as war zones. CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News rolled videos on loop of Baltimore buildings ablaze, police cars destroyed, and protesters in gas masks. Print newspapers led their front-page coverage with “fiery images of angry protesters attacking police vehicles, looting and burning buildings ... police in riot gear and tense moments between law enforcement and demonstrators,” according to American Journalism Review. Online publications continuously posted incendiary pictures showing lawlessness and destruction.
(Photo courtesy of American Journalism Review)
But the sensationalized images that dominated cable and print media coverage of Baltimore and Ferguson painted a misleading picture of the crises there. As many commentators noted, the scenes in Baltimore and Ferguson were significantly calmer and less sensational than media watchers would likely have realized. ColorOfChange.org warned reporters covering Ferguson that “stories coming out of many major media outlets [painting] a picture of total lawlessness ... could not be further from the truth.” The Daily Show also mocked the breathless media coverage of disorder in Baltimore.
Baltimore resident Danielle Williams also called out this type of selective reporting during an on-the-street interview with MSNBC's Thomas Roberts, saying “when we were out here protesting all last week for six days straight peacefully, there were no news cameras, there were no helicopters, there was no riot gear, and nobody heard us. So now that we've burned down buildings and set businesses on fire and looted buildings, now all of the sudden everybody wants to hear us.”
Media also often printed exaggerated headlines that were unsubstantiated by the article body. An April 2015 Economist article describing the Baltimore protests was headlined “It's Chaos” and said the demonstrations were “best described not as a riot but as anarchy.”
But the article noted that “few protesters or people [were] fighting the police or hurling stones” and that “people standing around [were] mostly taking photos on their phones.” What was first labeled as “anarchy” was then chronicled as “groups of young men, boys really, wearing bandanas and hoodies ... staring at anyone passing, and occasionally throwing projectiles at cars.”
Likewise, a Wall Street Journal article was headlined “Arrests in Baltimore as Freddie Gray Protests Turn Violent.” But the piece mostly hyped what was otherwise non-violent protesting, including an “impromptu 'die-in'” and “a small group [throwing] cans and plastic bottles in the direction of police officers.”
Newsrooms covering Baltimore and Ferguson also disseminated misinformation that often originated from local city and police department officials. On April 27, 2015, The Baltimore Sun reported that a mass police presence had been pre-emptively convened near a Baltimore mall because of a “flier that circulated widely” among students online advocating a “purge,” referencing the 2013 movie The Purge that dramatized a night of lawlessness and anarchy.
After Baltimore students finished school and headed toward the mall, they were greeted by police in riot gear. Because of the purge rumors, the police allegedly shut down the subway and blocked buses from leaving, leaving hundreds of students on the streets unable to get home. A violent clash ensued. Baltimore Police Department Capt. Kowalczyk said the police would identify and arrest “lawless individuals with no regard” for safety.
But the purge rumor was immediately disputed. Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR) tried tracing The Baltimore Sun's account of the flier's distribution and said the evidence was “murky at best.” FAIR noted how the Sun's shaky reporting ended up “creat[ing] a perception of actual danger that the proffered evidence doesn't substantiate.” Mother Jones poked holes in the police's narrative that they responded to a “rumored plan” of students executing a purge, noting that “many of the kids, according to eyewitnesses, were stuck there because of police actions” -- not because they wanted to fight.
Such shoddy reporting does more than run counter to journalistic ethics and best practices. Back in 1968, the Kerner report said the commission was “deeply concerned that millions of Americans, who must rely on the mass media, ... formed incorrect impressions and judgments about what went on in many American cities.”
Ignoring Systemic Inequality Behind Unrest And Protests
The Kerner Commission also harangued media for failing to investigate how systemic and institutional racism contributed to the riots:
The media report and write from the standpoint of a white man's world. The ills of the ghetto, the difficulties of life there, the Negro's burning sense of grievance, are seldom conveyed.
The media--especially television--also have failed to present and analyze to a sufficient extent the basic reasons for the disorders. ... [C]overage during the riot period itself gives far more emphasis to control of rioters and black-white confrontation than to the underlying causes of the disturbances.
In 2014, Race Forward: The Center for Racial Justice Innovation analyzed over a thousand national and local newspapers articles and cable television news transcripts to determine what percentage of race and racism coverage was “systemically aware” -- meaning it “mentions or highlights policies and/or practices that lead to racial disparities; describes the root causes of disparities including the history and compounding effects of institutions; and/or describes or challenges the aforementioned.”
The study concluded that “most of the mainstream media's racism content is not 'systemically aware,'” finding that “about two out of three articles on race and racism failed to include a perspective with any insight on systemic-level racism.” It also concluded that “very rarely” did media “feature prominent, robust coverage of racial justice advocacy or solutions.”
Media coverage of the events in Baltimore and Ferguson similarly failed to investigate the role systemic inequality and institutional racism played in creating unrest, denying audiences the ability to understand those news events in context.
A second Race Forward analysis examined media's race coverage specific to the Ferguson protests, seeking to determine “how much attention [race is] actually getting in the coverage.”
The study found that media overwhelmingly failed to contextualize the Ferguson protests in a broader discussion of racist policing practices. The Race Forward report found that although nearly half of the articles included “terms such as 'race,' 'racial,' 'racism,' 'racist,' and 'diversity,'” “only 34 of 994 articles analyzed led with a minimally systemically aware perspective.”
During a contentious interview with Fox's Sean Hannity, Adam Jackson, CEO of Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, explained how this kind of reporting skewed understandings of the protests in Baltimore:
ADAM JACKSON: The fundamental problem with the coverage of these stories is that it's mired with racist subterfuge, because to talk about the violence that's going on in Baltimore, and not talking about the systemic inequalities and racist policing practices that have led us to this point, it posits a situation where we're talking about either high violence in our communities or racist police when ... the task should be to fix both.
Following unrest in Ferguson after Darren Wilson was not indicted, NPR TV critic Eric Deggans noted that cable news coverage of Brown's death had largely avoided a broader discussion of systemic issues like “poverty, urban gangs, aggressive drug enforcement and more”:
[T]ackling a difficult story about race in a panel debate format doesn't serve the issue and distracts from the serious questions at hand. It only serves television news networks' need for conflict among well-known opinionators.
Trying to talk about systemic racial issues during a crisis is always much harder.
Lack Of Diversity In Newsrooms And Reporting
The Kerner Commission also attributed media's distorted race coverage to a lack of diversity in the newsroom:
The journalistic profession has been shockingly backward in seeking out, hiring, training, and promoting Negroes.
If the media are to report with understanding, wisdom and sympathy on the problems of cities and problems of the black man -- for the two are increasingly intertwined -- they must employ, promote and listen to Negro journalists.
The lack of newsroom diversity is just as germane and dire in 2015 as it was nearly 50 years ago. In 1967, “fewer than 5 percent of the people employed by the news business” were black, according to the Kerner Report. In 2015, 4.74 percent of newspaper employees were black, according to the latest data from the American Society of News Editors. Since 2000, the number of black journalists in newspaper newsrooms -- including supervisors, copy editors, producers, reporters, and photographers -- has dropped 52.3 percent.
Some media leaders have sought to justify, or at least explain, these dismal numbers on newsroom diversity. Former Slate editor David Plotz said the recession caused newsrooms to go into “survival mode” and prioritize “saving ... jobs” over ensuring diversity. NYMag.com's Ben Williams said, “It's well-established that, in part due to economic reasons, not enough 'diverse' candidates enter journalism on the ground floor to begin with. So the biggest factor in improving newsroom diversity is getting more non-white male employees into the profession to begin with.”
But these arguments and others that invoke a so-called pipeline problem are “hollow,” in the words of the Kerner Report. “The number of minorities graduating from journalism programs and applying for jobs doesn't seem to be the problem after all,” Alex Williams wrote for the Columbia Journalism Review in 2015. According to his study, non-white graduates who “specialized in print or broadcasting” were 17 percent less likely to be hired by print and broadcast journalism organizations than non-minorities. “The problem,” he wrote, “is that these candidates are not being hired.”
The Media As “Instruments Of The White Power Structure”
The Kerner Report determined that the sweeping failure of media's race coverage in the 1960s had fostered a far-reaching sentiment of “distrust” in the black community for the media:
[Persons interviewed] believe ... that the media are instruments of the white power structure. They think that these white interests guide the entire white community, from the journalists' friends and neighbors to city officials, police officers, and department store owners.
Fifty years later, similar distrust of mainstream news media persists. A September 2014 survey by the American Press Institute found that 75 percent of African-Americans thought the press accurately portrayed African-American people and issues “moderately,” “slightly,” or “not at all.” The authors posited that the “news ecosystem itself” -- one where the black community has scant access to black-centered news sources -- “is uneven, potentially creating uneven perceptions.”
Another survey, by the Pew Research Center, found that nearly 60 percent of African-Americans “say that news coverage of blacks is generally too negative.” Conversely, 75 percent said coverage of whites was “too positive” or “generally fair.” And a majority of African-Americans said the “amount of coverage news organizations give to race relations” is “too little.”
The media's flawed race coverage has real consequences. The Kerner Report warned, “If what the white American reads in the newspapers or sees on television conditions his expectation of what is ordinary and normal in the larger society, he will neither understand nor accept the black American.” Today's flawed reporting continues to pose an obstacle to educating broader audiences about the realities of racial injustice, police brutality, and systemic inequality.
It Doesn't Have To Be This Way
The media hasn't always provided such skewed coverage of race, racism, and violence. During the 1950s and 1960s, the press played a key role in bringing to light the systematic discrimination of black Americans, helping to galvanize widespread reform.
As detailed in Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff's book The Race Beat, a history of reporting during the Civil Rights era, Gunnar Myrdal, a Swedish economist and sociologist sent by the Carnegie Corporation to the American South, reported in the 1940s that the plight of black Americans could be improved only if white Americans in the North became aware of their struggle. Consequently, Myrdal wrote in the book An American Dilemma, “the future of race relations ... rested largely in the hands of the American press” exposing these racial crises.
As the civil rights movement swept the nation, the press listened. Roberts and Klibanoff explained that the way the white press reported on race conspicuously improved over the next two decades, with newspapers opening new bureaus in the South, assigning full-time staff to cover the movement, and hiring black reporters. Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), a prominent civil rights leader during the time, told the authors, “If it hadn't been for the media -- the print media and television -- the civil rights movement would have been like a bird without wings, a choir without a song.”
But when the demonstrations turned violent in the latter half of the 1960s, the authors write, the improvements in coverage slipped away. Whereas “white journalists” reporting on civil rights in the South “were threatened by white mobs and found safety in black neighborhoods,” the journalists investigating rioting in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles in 1965 “fled black mobs” and reported on the strife “from a distance, from outside the ghetto looking in.” As the riots raged on, according to the book, black people saw the news “portray[ing] the militancy of black power” and "'simplistically' focusing on the violence and mayhem of the riots" without examining the underlying problems, leading to the problems detailed by the Kerner Commission and the way the media continues to report on race now.
Fifty years ago, the Kerner Report urged the American media to begin the “painful process” of fixing its racial justice reporting. The fact that its criticisms are still so pertinent, and the historical example of responsible reporting throughout the civil rights movement, point to the need for higher standards in accurate, appropriate, and inclusive race coverage.