The Mainstream Media Are Still Failing Black Voices
“A change is gonna come,” Sam Cooke sang on an album that came out in February of 1964. Five months later, with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it did. Since then, the times have kept a-changing, but the burden of being Black in America has barely budged.
Changes, though, keep coming, and ever since the murder of George Floyd last year ushered in a new age of racial unrest and reckoning in the US, a number of mainstream publications and websites have shifted their focus to race-related content. That has resulted in increased awareness and more freelance work for me, but I’ve remained wary.
Is it just about keeping up appearances, or do the White editors and executives who call most of the shots for mainstream media organizations actually want to enact meaningful change? Like I said, I’m skeptical — and not just because it’s my nature to have doubts.
I’ve written a number of race-themed pieces for one of these content-shifting websites over the last year. It’s a major player that’s tied to an American publishing institution, one so iconic and reputable globally that my Australian husband grew up with it. As encouraged as I was by the steady stream of how-not-to-be-racist content, their commitment to Black careers hasn’t held up as well.
What’s the point of telling your readers how not to be racist, if behind the scenes, you are treating a Black journalist whose work you claim to value as if he doesn’t matter?
As is the case with many websites, even ones with huge international followings, the pay hasn’t been great. I believed in the work I was doing, though, so that wasn’t a major deterrent. Still, after completing a few stories that required more writing and research than the $200 rate deserved, I sent an email to my editor asking if I could receive a boost in my compensation.
This editor, someone who had to ask me to recommend a Black writer for a story she wanted to assign last year at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests, never responded to that email. But I noticed with my next assignment that the rate was increased to $250. We continued collaborating for the next several months, and I received consistent positive reinforcement for my work.
Then at the beginning of December, when a different editor told me that going forward, my stories would require additional original interviews, I reconsidered my compensation. I sent an email to her in which I pointed out that my articles already required many hours of research and were topping out at around 2,000 words, which meant I was being paid well under the normal freelance rate. If original interviews were now being required, perhaps I could be paid more for the extra time and effort.
I didn’t know if I would get another $50 boost, but I did expect a response. I sent that email on December 4, and I’m still waiting for one. I have yet to hear back from that editor, and I haven’t received any further assignments.
This makes me sad, but not because I’m going to miss those occasional $250 drops into my PayPal account. It makes me sad because it’s pushing me to question their actual commitment to Black lives and racial equality. Is it all just content?
I am a Black Journalist, and I Have Always Felt Like an Outsider in the World of Media
Black talent matters. It needs to be nurtured and valued.
What’s the point of telling your readers how not to be racist, if behind the scenes, you are treating a Black journalist whose work you claim to value as if he doesn’t matter? This is the problem with performative activism. It’s all about optics, change because it makes you look woke. Behind the scenes, though, the performers are asleep at the wheel, as blind and tone deaf as always.
Sadly, this is a problem throughout the mainstream media, and it’s probably obvious to any Black journalist looking for a full-time gig right now. You can spend hours filling out applications on LinkedIn, the ones that ask all of these diversity questions at the end, as if diversity is top priority, and never get a single invitation for an interview.
Black journalists only matter when race is trending and the mainstream media need to roll us out to create an illusion of diversity. When it comes to committing to our careers, the gatekeepers would rather look the other way.
I am a veteran journalist with 30 years of experience who has worked on six continents, and I cannot get an HR executive at Meredith Corporation — which now owns two of my professional alma maters, People and Entertainment Weekly — to return my emails when enquiring about an open position at a publication where I used to be a senior editor.
It makes me feel like Black journalists only matter when race is trending and the mainstream media need to roll us out to create an illusion of diversity. When it comes to committing to our careers, the gatekeepers would rather look the other way.
My Variety editor recently told me she is determined to find “the next Jeremy.” I wish more White media executives were as committed to spotting and nurturing minority talent. I was lucky enough to have great mentors who believed in me at the beginning of my career. Will “the next Jeremy” have theirs?
A change isn’t gonna come without honest and dedicated effort. It will require more than calling on those of us who are already established to serve as talking heads. That’s using talent, not grooming it. When it’s time to fill anchor positions, the default for network and cable news remains White. Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update” got its first Black co-anchor, Michael Che, in 2014, and it still feels more progressive than most real-life national news telecasts.
Why I Refuse to Ever Take Another Edit Test
Job recruitment used to be about finding superior talent. Now it’s just ticking boxes.
While there are a handful of Black anchors popping up on TV newscasts and hosting network and cable news programs (CNN’s Don Lemon and Van Jones and MSNBC’s Joy Reid come to mind), the most visible ones — the David Muirs, the Chuck Todds, the Rachel Maddows, are almost invariably White. With the exception of The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah, the major late-night comedy hosts, the ones paid big bucks to have the final word on the day’s news, are all White. If you go to YouTube and look at the latest news videos, the people leading the discussions will be overwhelmingly White.
Where does this leave my Black and brown colleagues? Some of us are being carefully pulled through the glass ceiling without breaking it. On January 4, New York Magazine announced the hiring of a Black woman, Lindsay Peoples Wagner, as the new editor-in-chief of The Cut. Wagner’s ascent gives me more hope than a succession of articles with clickable titles like “10 Things You Can Do to Fight Racism.”
Despite the frustration I feel when editors and HR executives ghost me, I’ve had a great career. I’m disappointed by the continuing lack of meaningful inclusion but not bitter. I still get to do work I’m proud of, here on Medium and elsewhere.
Still, I often wonder what things would be like if the media were as committed to diversity as they want the public to think they are, if they considered Black voices to be as valuable as White ones — and not just in times of racial agita. Maybe more people of color would be leading the discussions instead of just participating in them.
White supremacy is the oldest story in America, and every time the media report on it and condemn it, I chuckle because they’re still so deep in it. And as any good reporter learned in journalism school, you can most effectively tell a story when you’re not part of the story.