Newsrooms in this country have known for nearly half a century that coverage of African-American communities needs fixing. In 1968, the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, also known as the Kerner Commission, argued that newsrooms should provide more inclusive reporting on racial issues in response to a summer of nationwide inner-city social disorder the summer before. Last year, the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson provided ample opportunity to see whether the news media had improved its newsgathering sensitivity. According to many observers, it came up short.
In a dozen in-depth interviews I conducted for research at the University of Texas-Austin, African-American respondents said that Ferguson news coverage in the wake of the shooting once again did nothing to improve credibility or build better relationships with diverse communities.
“In society, trust is not given at the drop of a hat,” a 34-year-old a real estate developer in Chicago told the paper’s author. “So how could media assume a single media performance during a single news event is strong enough to significantly affect trust? The Michael Brown story didn’t affect the way I felt, feel, or will feel about the media.”
This response should serve as a crucial and, to be sure, urgent warning to journalists. Researchers have shown that trust in the media can lead to more time spent following the news. And the more someone follows the news, the more likely one will be engaged in the democratic process. So if African Americans don’t trust the news, they might be further disenfranchised from the democratic process, the consequences of which impact the health of a plural social experience.
During this research, respondents suggested ways for the news media to improve credibility.
1. Stick to the truth. Most interviewees suggested that the news media could build better trust by avoiding reports of unconfirmed rumors and innuendo.
2. Further diversify newsrooms. The news media should hire more African-American journalists, especially to cover predominantly African-American communities.
3. Offer diversity training. A 39-year-old Ferguson racial justice worker explained that covering different social groups is not intuitive. Reporters need to be educated on the nuances found in varying communities. This, she said, will teach reporters to “ask the questions in an empathetic and culturally sensitive way.”
4. Offer more positive stories. The news media too often reside in places of tragedy and disruption. Those stories must be covered to an extent, but room should be made for a richer tapestry of story themes. “The little moments, however sad, inspiring, basic, triumphant, regretful or nostalgic, hit home to humans,” a Chicago accountant said. “Of New York, and of the U.S., and of the world. It’s the basic thing that connects us all, and I think highlighting that could help bridge some gaps.”
5. Don’t obsess over race. One of the more unexpected responses from interviewees was the suggestion that race can also be a distraction to responsible news coverage. A St. Louis graduate student said the news media fumbled a bigger story in Ferguson, one of abusive and unreasonable force by police officers. “The major issue should have been that an officer gunned down an unarmed man in the streets. Race aside, this should be the larger issue. Was it just, and how can we prevent it from happening? Do we need to reevaluate our system of law enforcement?”
The study’s participants also gave suggestions on how the news media could improve relationships between press and community.
1. Focus on people—not stories. During major news events, reporters can tend to sacrifice basic moments of humanity in service to scoops. A Ferguson resident said, “Acknowledge and speak to the people in the community. In African-American communities, we say ‘hi’ to each other, we make eye contact and acknowledge one another. There were several times when I saw the media ignore and look away from the people looking at them. Sometimes they looked terrified and afraid.”
2. Advocate for communities. While many news observers have said that advocacy is not the typical role of mainstream news media outlets, some respondents said it should be. “You want to improve this broken relationship?” a Texas pharmacy representative asked. “Then defend more, exploit less. Allow people to see there is more to African-American life than [crime, drugs, and gangs]. Quit showing us in a negative light.”
3. Remember the Youth. The news media has a responsibility to explain how news events might affect the youth as well as adults. How, for instance, would the Ferguson story change classroom environments? How were young people responding to or participating in the social demonstrations?
4. It’s the Little Things. At least one respondent suggested that news reporters could participate in additional productive ways. “Bring water, or food, or something to show that you are part of the community and that you care,” one study participant said.
Respondents in this study said they wanted more out of the news. Of course, whether the news media take their advice remains to be seen. But even though the news media’s coverage didn’t help build credibility during the Michael Brown coverage, the good news is that African-American respondents still followed the news and will continue to do so going forward. They felt a sense of civic and social responsibility, they said. It stands to reason, then, that any efforts to improve media trust and build better relationships in their communities can—and must—go a long way in reporting people of color in more responsible and productive ways.
In fact, while interviewees said that the news media in Ferguson might not have always been outwardly empathetic to the African-American community’s plight, at least one Ferguson respondent was empathetic about the work those reporters were doing. “They’re kind of brave and courageous for being in some of these stories that they go in,” one interviewee said. “And me myself? I wouldn’t do it.”
Author’s note: Shane M. Graber, a doctoral student of journalism at the University of Texas-Austin, authored the research from which this article is taken. The paper, “Defend More, Exploit Less: African Americans on Media Trust and News Use After Ferguson,” was presented at the 2015 AEJMC conference in San Francisco.