Michele Norris, host and special correspondent at NPR, asserts that race only gets airtime during monumental events.
“People think racism is a problem of the past. It’s not,” said Bob Butler, president of the National Association of Black Journalists during Saturday’s session of “Race Coverage: 50 Years of Change.”
Four panelists with experience covering minorities shared advice and observations about starting accurate, necessary racial dialogues.
The panel began with investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell and associate professor at Mississippi University Kathleen Woodruff Wickham talking about the oftentimes-slanted coverage of the Civil Rights Movement.
The paper Mitchell currently works at, The Clarion-Ledger in Mississippi, was one of the most biased during the movement, he said.
“It was pretty awful. Worse than awful,” Mitchell said, later describing the front page of the paper after the 1963 March on Washington as having the headline “Washington is Clean Again with Negro Trash Removed.”
Wickham attributed much of the prejudiced coverage to ignorance and lack of newsroom diversity.
“The white communities had absolutely no idea what was happening in the black communities. If they had even bothered to read the Black Press, they would have had a completely different viewpoint of the story,” she said.
Michele Norris, host and special correspondent at NPR and Butler brought the conversation back to current media coverage. Both agreed that while progress has been made since the 1960s, there is still biased, lacking coverage when it comes to race.
“On the positive side, I do think there is more coverage of the positive aspects of the black community,” Butler said. “Back in the 60s, blacks were only being shown in the media as being arrested or as criminals or victims of black on black crime. Ironically, in the paper now, you see that same stuff,” he said.
Norris said she would like to see race in the media outside of the more monumental events that tend to trigger discussions about minorities.
“The moments we focus as a country on race are big, explosive issues: the O.J. Simpson trial, Trayvon Martin, the election of our first black president, fights over immigration reform,” Norris said. “We pay attention to it when we’re forced to pay attention to it and don’t pay attention to the ways it colors our life in much smaller, subtler ways.”
All speakers agreed that in order to get the voices of minorities heard in the media, newspaper and media staffs need to hire diverse people.
“It starts in the newsroom. You need people of different race, culture, gender, age, sexual orientation. You need different perspectives and story ideas from a diverse group,” Wickham said.