Why we need black journalists to cover Ferguson

There might be a reporter in the crowd.
There might be a reporter in the crowd.
Image: Reuters/Mario Anzuoni
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Joel Anderson is a black journalist at Buzzfeed who has been reporting from Ferguson, Missouri, and a story he shared on Twitter early on the morning of Aug. 18 is a pretty good indicator of why it’s so important for black journalists to report on the protests and the case stemming from the killing of black teenager Michael Brown.

The lack of diversity in newsrooms (pdf) has been a problem for a long time, and first-person accounts like Anderson’s underscore the need to hire journalists who can understand and directly relate to what the subjects of a story experience. Without his media identification, Anderson was just another black man.

In this instance, Anderson was able to have a deeper perspective than a white journalist for no other reason than the color of his skin. But throughout the protests, his coverage has been probing not just because he is a good journalist or because he is black, but because of his accumulated experiences, from noticing similarities between protesters and his own family members to understanding the truth of their stories through past prejudice he has faced. Anderson tells Quartz that he feels a sense of familiarity with protesters who might be overlooked by other journalists, which helps in his reporting.

“We’re documenting history. … It is important that people who look like the subjects are helping craft that history,” says Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery, who was arrested last week while working in a McDonalds near the protests. Lowery tells Quartz that since his arrest last week, people recognize him on the street and seek him out to share their stories—not only is he a black man, he has faced injustice in their hometown from the forces who they are protesting against. Lowery has also been open with his personal reactions on Twitter, in a story and in interviews since then.

It was actually riots that forced the US to examine newsrooms’ track records on diversity. In 1967, US president Lyndon Johnson convened the Kerner Commission to investigate race relations; its findings included the conclusion that an overwhelmingly white journalist force was inadequately covering racial tensions and conflicts. From the report:

Slights and indignities are part of the Negro’s daily life, and many of them come from what he now calls “the white press”—a press that repeatedly, if unconsciously, reflects the biases, the paternalism, the indifference of white America. This may be understandable, but it is not excusable in an institution that has the mission to inform and educate the whole of our society.

Obviously, journalism has changed since the 1960s. There are plenty of white journalists and other journalists of color in Ferguson right now who have been arrested, are reporting fairly, who have seen their fair share of struggle and privilege, yet can still listen to the stories of protesters with humility, Lowery tells Quartz.

It should also be noted that many black journalists in Ferguson are not tweeting about themselves, heeding the more traditional journalist path of keeping yourself out of the story, and even the ones who do tweet about themselves do so minimally compared to how much they tweet about news updates and protesters.

Yet skin color has remained integral to gaining access. The late Washington Post journalist Lynne Duke, a Pulitzer Prize finalist for her 1987 coverage of crack cocaine addiction in a Miami housing project, said a white reporter wouldn’t have been able to get the story as she did:

When I looked at the black crack addicts I saw something of myself in them, because in the eyes of white society, the color of our skin makes us identical. And that’s why no white person could have earned the confidence of the people at The Graveyard. There is a commonality of experience that we share. I am them.

Indeed, black women journalists might have an even greater reporting advantage in Ferguson than black men. My friend and Time video producer Salima Koroma reported from Ferguson over the weekend and tells Quartz that she felt like she blended in with protesters better than other reporters, because police don’t treat women like a threat as much as they do black men. And whereas some of the more aggressive protesters tended to either shift their words and actions in response to white journalists with cameras or demand that the white journalists leave altogether, she said she was able to film conversations between people without being noticed much, as an unassuming black woman with a small camera. Protesters who were hostile toward other journalists promised to protect her.

“It’s sort of like, you go to school as a black child, right, and all your life you’ve never had a black teacher,” Koroma says. “When you do have a black teacher or you do have a black president or you do have a black journalist who’s telling your story, you feel empowered and you feel like somebody’s on your side. And I think that’s important.”

Update: An earlier version of this story neglected to mention that Joel Anderson works at Buzzfeed.