We have three branches in the United States government: executive, legislative, and judicial. And if you’ll recall your high school civics class, you know that a functional democracy also has the fourth estate: the press.
The purpose of a press is to hold people (particularly those in power) accountable and share information, enabling people to make informed decisions. But no one is immune to bias, including the press. Members of the press will care about and report on certain, limited topics. And if those members of the press don’t reflect people in broader society, information and accountability inevitably fall through the cracks.
“Literature and other arts are supposed to hold up the mirror to nature. With only the fractional ‘exceptional’ and the ‘quaint’ portrayed, a true picture of Negro life in America cannot be.” – Zora Neale Hurston
Despite discrimination, Black people have been reporting on their experiences and society more broadly for close to two centuries. The first Black-owned and operated newspaper was “Freedom’s Journal,” started in 1827. “We wish to plead our own cause. Too long have others spoken for us. Too long has the public been deceived by misrepresentations, in things which concern us dearly.” (You can read the newspapers here.)
Other papers emerged, like Frederick Douglass’s “The North Star,” with the motto “Right is of no sex – truth is of no color – God is the father of us all, and we are all brethren.”
Nell Irvin Painter looked at the first 100 years of Black Journalism in a 1971 article and found “the two distinctive characteristics of Black journalism which most clearly differentiate it from the white press in two centuries are: 1. A racial rather than partisan orientation; and 2. a sense of supranational racial identity. This first, the racial orientation, renders the Black press, almost by definition, one of protest.”
Painter’s article also notes that while both white- and Black-run abolitionist papers before emancipation were both very concerned about abolition, white abolitionists “by and large, limited their interest to the Southern slave population; they ignored the tremendous hardships inflicted upon the Northern Black population.”
In 1875, with Reconstruction a failure, members of 13 Black newspapers gathered to coordinate “their efforts to serve the race by publicizing oppression and Jim Crowism, particularly in the South.” Black journalism grew, with more newspapers and publications coming out to serve different regional and national interests. Black journalists and editors were essential in telling stories from around the country and shaping the public discourse. There are too many examples to name; this article gives a small sampling of some of the amazing Black women reporters.
Ida B. Wells used investigative journalism to make people rethink the now all-too-common lynchings taking place around the country. Ethel Payne “put civil rights on the national agenda.” Alice Dunnigan, the first Black female journalist with White House Credentials, covered Jim Crow issues while she experienced them. (You can – and should – read excerpts from a book about Ethel Payne and a book by Alice Dunnigan).
Even in more modern times, with more Black reporters and avenues for publication, issues persist. Imagine being a reporter covering politics, particularly in the last election season and in the time since. Actually, don’t imagine it. You can watch this Comedy Central clip, which includes people suggesting to Black journalists live on TV that “Black people are prone to criminality” or that “you kinda look like [a cocaine dealer].”
Modern Black members of the media, much as their predecessors did, still face discrimination and analysis from a system steeped in white supremacy. There’s tone policing. There’s the way white media reports on black and brown bodies. There’s much more, but we’ll let other people say it. We recommend you take a moment to read Howard French’s article on “The Enduring Whiteness of American Media: What three decades in journalism has taught me about the persistence of racism in the US” and Ta-Nehesi Coates’ response, “The Black Journalist and the Racial Mountain: It’s not what the wider world says about black writers that should concern them, so much as what they say about themselves.”
Rather than wax on any longer, we’ll leave you with a quote from Coates:
“Writing a book from a black perspective is freeing. Seeing it constantly examined from a white perspective is depressing.”
There are plenty of Black voices in the media today. Seek out the Black voices in your community, or start with one of the many journalists inducted into the National Association of Black Journalists “Hall of Fame.”