How the very designation of what we decide is news shows a major bias.
This first blog post explores how we select news stories while the next ones will explore issues surrounding diverse sourcing, community pushback and internal resistance.
It's funny that objective and unbiased have become the central tenets of American journalism. Especially because I think anyone who doesn't see themselves in the hegemonic coverage of today's papers knows the truth: the media is sometimes just another branch for white supremacy.
Case in point: What is news? How are stories selected for coverage?
I've always struggled with the very designation of news in the first place. How do we decide what stories are worth telling? How do we decide which stories aren't worth telling? In my experience, we don't often examine how and/or why we tell certain stories. There's just not enough time or space in the typically overloaded newsroom to do that kind of analysis.
I'll give you an example from my own personal-professional life. I was working for a smaller broadcast station and we were expecting a major snowstorm. I remember standing in a Wegmans parking lot, snot frozen to my upper lip.
Do you know what the story was on?
What Wegmans shoppers were purchasing to prepare for the storm.
It was so cold, the batteries in my equipment died within just 20-30 minutes. I did all of that for a few soundbites about "getting beer and hunkering down." It bothered me for days but it was a story that came from my editor. When I tried to pitch more harder-hitting stories I ran into the timeliness element: there was no way I could push off current deadlines to tackle something so large.
I don't think I'm the only reporter who has felt this frustration and I am certainly not the only person who wants to see more community-driven coverage:
Andrea Wenzel explores this phenomenon more in-depth in Community-Centered Journalism, which dives into the relationship between newsrooms and the community at large:
"We're on the South Side. They don't care about people on the South Side. That's my opinion," Dorothy, a Chicago resident, said in a conversation with WBEZ's Curious City She expressed frustration with a complete lack of coverage in her community and said that when reporters do come they tend to focus on negative stories.
Dorothy isn't alone. In fact, I was recently working the Juneteenth festival and almost everyone I spoke to expressed doubt that the news would even bother to cover it:
"We hope to see them here but a positive event like this? I doubt it." I was talking to Aneesah Willis of Roc'n'Knits. "I think if people start shooting then they'll come down here but I'd be surprised if they came just to tell the story," she continued. She's echoing a common sentiment that is a real newsroom trope: "if it bleeds, it leads."
Why isn't the Juneteenth festival news? Why do community members feel there must be a shooting before they see reporters? Why won't newsrooms pick up the story? While two outlets did come to the event the truth is that most chose not to.
Again, what stories are chosen communicates a lot to the community at large. My Wegmans story told listeners that we found that important to report on. The whole truth is typically a bit more complex: today's newsrooms are the busiest they've ever been and the most understaffed but most people have no true understanding of what that means for them and the service they expect from reporters. They continue to see certain stories chosen over theirs again and again– whether it's the mom and pop who gets more coverage than a black-owned business doing similar work or a lack of diverse sourcing in every story.There is a clear preference for lily-white coverage and an overall eschewing of our stories.
Which stories we decide are worth pursuing speaks volumes.
Ultimately, there are so many stories across America, but you won't always find them in the news. Why? They're not chosen for coverage. Factors like staffing and funding matter but they don't completely explain the dearth of BIPOC stories in mainstream news.
Afro-American History: Primary Sources, Edited by Thomas R. Frazier
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