Why We Need More Black Women as News Decision-Makers

TV, print, radio and the online space need more black women making programming decisions behind-the-scenes at mainstream and independent news outlets.

Esther Armah attends the African American Literary Award Show at the Harlem Gatehouse Sept. 24, 2009, in New York City.
Esther Armah attends the African American Literary Award Show at the Harlem Gatehouse Sept. 24, 2009, in New York City. Jemal Countess/Getty Images

Juxtaposed with news coverage in recent weeks about the horrifying abduction of hundreds of Nigerian schoolgirls is the sheer volume of national media attention devoted to Donald Sterling’s garden-variety racist rants—a positioning that seems, frankly, absurd.

The girls’ story is thankfully starting to get traction, but too often in mainstream media, coverage of critical news trails more sensationalized stories.

Despite many news programs featuring African-American women as on-air hosts—Joy Reid of MSNBC’s The Reid Report, Robin Roberts on ABC’s Good Morning America, Gwen Ifill anchoring PBS Newshour and Michel Martin helming NPR’s Tell Me More, to name a few—there are still far too few people of color, particularly black women, in executive, editorial and production positions who have the decision-making authority to promote stories in ways that reflect the concerns of our communities.

It’s been more than two generations since a wave of largely independent black public-affairs programs, like Say Brother, Black Journal and Inside Bedford-Stuyvesant, emerged in the era after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. As Devorah Heitner explains in her book, Black Power TV, “An emerging sense that representation was a right, not a privilege, structured media activism in this era.” Now, some are again looking at independent black media as an alternative.

It is just such an impulse that motivated journalist and activist Esther Armah, who just launched The Spin: All Women Media Panel, a weekly syndicated radio program, after a successful crowdfunding campaign. The Spin features a regular roster of on-air contributors including Rutgers University professor and Salon contributor Brittney Cooper, filmmaker and writer dream hampton, social entrepreneur April Silver and author and activist Sofia Quintero, among other stellar scholars, artists, activists and pundits.  

Armah, who hosted a similar program during her run as a morning host on WBAI in New York City, was also moved by a recent report released by the Women’s Media Center (pdf), which highlight the gender gaps in major media in the U.S. Examining the top 10 national newspapers, the evening news broadcasts, the two major wire services and four major Internet news sources, the report found, “Women collectively were outnumbered by men—whether as full-time, freelance writers, online, in-print or on-air—or as citizen journalists or as non-paid commentators.”

Not surprisingly, the WMC report also noted that when women do appear as reporters or pundits in news media, it is most often as lifestyle, culture, health and entertainment reporters. Less common are women as commentators on subjects such as foreign affairs, business, technology or even politics. Though Tamron Hall, for example, hosts NewsNation With Tamron Hall daily on MSNBC, she is more prominent as an anchor on NBC’s Today show, where she is usually on her way to the “Orange Room” to cover social media reaction to some lifestyle or entertainment story.

As Lisa Cox, a veteran black news writer and producer, notes in the report, “The world is a melting pot full of varying experiences and viewpoints … a room full of men, of any race and age, would not possibly know how to deliver all of that news.” 

Importantly, alternative media and technology platforms have emerged as spheres where black women can make their voices and ideas heard. Women continue to outpace men in terms of social media use, and thus platforms such as YouTube or SoundCloud have become logical outlets for black women to find and craft their own media voices. What Issa Rae—a The Root 100 honoree known for her Web series The Mis-Adventures of Awkward Black Girl and now a talk host on Aspire TV—has done in terms of entertainment content, Armah and others are doing on similar platforms with news and commentary.

There’s also Regina Bradley’s Outkasted Conversations, which combines social commentary, music criticism and heady discourse, all around themes of Southern culture and the iconic musical group Outkast. Bradley’s and Armah’s ventures simply highlight that as mainstream media continue to ignore news that truly impacts communities of color, folk will need to reclaim the spirit of independent media that was so critical in the past.