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African-Americans show profound distrust of mainstream media


Survey suggests not likely to change soon

African-Americans, scarred by a history of mistrust of the media, have little faith that news organizations will do a good job of covering their communities fairly, and that’s not likely to change anytime soon, according to a Pew Research Center study released this week.

“Few actually believe that this will change, not giving a lot of hope into the future,’’ said Katerina Eva Matsa, director of news and information research at the Pew Research Center.

The Pew Research Center conducted a survey to examine the relationship between Black Americans and news in the U.S. It comes more than three years after the murder of George Floyd ramped up social justice movements, calling out institutions, including the media, about their role in covering communities of color and the impact that has in forcing change.

Pew surveyed nearly 5,000 Black adults from Feb. 22 to March 5 this year and online focus groups in July and August of 2022 on a host of questions, including how they think Black people are portrayed in the media, whether much of it is negative or fair, and whether it’s likely to improve.

Only 14% of Black Americans are highly confident Black people will be covered fairly in their lifetimes, saying it is extremely or very likely to happen, the survey found. Of the respondents, 38% said it’s not likely or not at all likely to happen, and 40% said it’s somewhat likely.

Bremanté Bryant, an adjunct professor at Howard University, a historically Black university in Washington, D.C., said he’s not surprised by the Pew findings, which he said are in line with what he hears from students and young adults.

“When [African-Americans] look at the mainstream media, they see that as 'the White media' and the news that they often get are from social media sites that come from a Black perspective, whether that’s Black Twitter or that's the Root,’’ Bryant said. “They want to get news from as they see it, ‘Black folks talking about Black things.’ And to be honest, even with that, they're not totally trusting of that.”

The Pew survey found that nearly two-thirds of Black adults said the news they see or hear about Black people is often more negative than news about people from other racial and ethnic groups.

Matsa said one reason is that respondents said some news organizations support specific agendas. They also point to journalists not being well informed and news outlets often harboring racist views.

“There’s a lot of those issues and opinions that Black Americans are holding as major reasons why coverage that they're seeing is racist or racially insensitive,’’ Matsa said.

The survey found that 53% of Black Republicans and 50% of Black Democrats said media coverage often misses important information about Black communities. And 46% of Black Republicans and 44% of Black Democrats agree that media coverage largely stereotypes Black people.

Black Americans' distrust of the media is not new, experts said. That’s in part why the Black press was created. It was the Black press that often reported on pressing issues in the Black community, including the wave of lynchings and violence against Black citizens, particularly in the South.

“The Black press was really a counter to what the mainstream press was not doing, which was either not telling the stories or telling the stories from a negative point of view of the Black and African American community,’’ Bryant said.

He said media coverage of Black communities has improved in some ways, but “we're starting to regress because you are seeing more and more small newspapers being wiped out and that includes the Black press.”

Mainstream media has a long history of racial profiling and perpetuating stereotypes of Black Americans. Some newspapers not only supported Jim Crow and segregation practices but also defended them.

“Black Americans' distrust of media and perceptions of the Fourth Estate as another institution that inflicted harm is there and those perceptions were well earned,’’ said Sherri Williams, assistant professor in race, media and communication at the School of Communication at American University in Washington, D.C.

After the protests that followed Floyd’s death, many news organizations vowed to improve coverage of communities of color. Some pledged to do more to diversify their newsrooms and increase the number of people of color leading those newsrooms.

Those promises have often fallen short, experts said.

“There still hasn't been sustained coverage of Black communities in a way that not only prioritizes what's important to them, and also doesn't lean into stereotypes,’’ said Williams, who teaches classes on race and representation including Identity, Power and Misrepresentation and Race, Ethnic and Community Reporting.

The Pew survey found respondents said there are some paths to improving coverage, including diversifying more newsrooms and sources for stories and better educating reporters about the history and issues in Black communities.

They also said including more Black people as sources (54%) and hiring more Black people as newsroom leaders (53%) and as journalists (44%) at news outlets would be highly effective.