Thursday, April 10, 1:20 p.m: “Objective” Race Reporting: Is It as Big a Myth as “Postracial America”?
Journalists who gathered Thursday morning at the National Action Network’s annual convention to discuss “the role of media in crafting the social narrative” agreed that the idea of a “postracial America” was a myth—but some went even further, arguing that “objective” reporting of race in America was an unrealistic and naive goal.
“Remember that George Wallace never said he was a racist. He never used the word. So how can you say we live in a postracial society when the folks who were in a ‘preracial’ society never said they were racist to begin with?” asked panelist and Siriux XM Radio host Joe Madison.
Johnson Publishing Co. CEO Desiree Rogers said she’d seen evidence of Americans being even more racist than in the past—most recently in the case of racialized death and rape threats against Ebony.com Senior Digital Editor Jamilah Lemieux, who misidentified the Republican National Committee’s Deputy Press Secretary Raffi Williams as a white man during a Twitter exchange.
“It used to take a few drinks before people would tell you how they felt,” Rogers said. “Not anymore.”
The same biases and attitudes that fuel racial attacks, panelists argued, can inform even seemingly straightforward reporting. Especially when it comes to stories related to race in America, “There is no such thing as objective journalism … there’s always a point of view,” said Elinor Tatum, publisher and editor-chief of the New York Amsterdam News, New York City’s oldest and largest black newspaper.
Citing issues including civil rights, education and the “school-to-prison pipeline,” she said, “We have seen what the mainstream media has done to facts over recent years. In theory there should be a truth and a nontruth, but we have seen our truths be twisted into unrecognizable shapes.”
Jonathan Alter, former senior editor of Newsweek magazine, cautioned convention delegates against becoming what he called “prisoners of a phony notion of objectivity.” In the same way that it’s disingenuous to act as if there are two legitimate sides to the climate-change debate, he said, “The same thing applies on a lot of racial issues.” Reporters’ goal, Alter argued, should be not to create an illusion of objectivity by interviewing people with opposing views but, rather, to frame these issues in ways that better serve the public.
Madison cited Malcolm X’s statement that the media has “power to make the innocent guilty and to make the guilty innocent,” and went on to connect that view to a story connected to the NAN convention, referencing what he called the “cartoonish, derogatory images” and headlines pertaining to the Smoking Gun’s report indicating that NAN’s founder and president, Al Sharpton, worked as an FBI informant.
Sharpton, who moderated the panel, said, “Media can be used for and against you. It’s like electricity. It can light up a room or it can burn it down, according to who’s in control of the switch.”