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Trial & Tribulation: How has media perpetuated racism when covering the Black community?

By Kevin Dragseth

The killing of George Floyd in May 2020 and now the official start of Derek Chauvin's trial on March 29, 2021 have pointed a spotlight on Minnesota's longstanding issues with racial inequity - but these events have also sparked a local and national reckoning with the undercurrents of racism that flow through just about every aspect of our lives. In this episode of Trial & Tribulation: Racism and Justice in Minnesota, we take a look at the role that media has played in perpetuating harmful stereotypes that have very real impacts on how police interact with Black men, in particular.
Objectivity is a word that we hear a lot when it comes to journalism and reporters. But according to a recent Pew Research study (chart #8), when 76% of newsroom employees are white and 61% are male, is objectivity really just the white male gaze? When it comes to narratives around police shootings, the news has often shown a bias toward the police narrative. But in the aftermath of George Floyd's killing and the Minneapolis Uprising, are newsrooms doing better?

While legacy media organizations continue to wrestle with how they report on and share community-driven stories and how they depict people of color, Black media organizations such as KMOJ and the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder serve dual roles: They advocate for the communities they serve, and they report the facts of the stories that most impact the listeners and readers they reach.

Without a doubt, the events of the last year have spurred media organizations of all stripes to train the lens on their own practices and to ask the question: What does the future hold?


Vivian Jenkins Nelsen, Co-Founder of INTER-RACE:

Hasn't the media had a come-to-Jesus moment?

Kyndell Harkness, Assistant Managing Editor of Diversity & Community, Star Tribune:

We as media have centered whiteness for so long, we just don't see it.

Resmaa Menakem, Racialized Trauma Therapist:

Your oppressor has as much right to say about you as you do by saying, "I no longer want you to oppress me."

Kyndell Harkness:

Leaving communities out of the narrative is to put a nail in your own coffin.

Kyeland Jackson, Host & Reporter:

Hey, y'all. The trial of Derek Chauvin for the killing of George Floyd has officially begun. Media organizations from across the world are covering this historic trial, pointing their cameras to the Hennepin County courtroom. But a lot of us don't know about the faces behind those cameras and how the way that they tell our stories can hurt our communities. Racism is alive in journalism, thanks to bias and unequal representation. Even now, some media are facing backlash for how they've covered racial issues. So here's the question: How has the media perpetuated racism when covering our communities? And are they doing any better since George Floyd's death?

Jason Sole, Abolitionist & Criminal Justice Educator: 

This stuff triggers us back to Jamar Clark, it triggers us to other times where we've been through this, and just been taken through this process, and dumped in the garbage over and over again.

Kyndell Harkness:

Jamar Clark, Philando Castile and George Floyd are examples of perpetuating narratives of Black men and Black women to be viewed as dangerous. And the images that we have created, the stories that we have told of what Black men are supposed to be, feeds into what is happening with policing in our communities. You can't separate the two.

Jason Sole:

If you try and get caught up in all these factors about George Floyd's life and not just look at that eight minutes and 46 seconds. We got the evidence.

Mel Reeves, Editor, Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder:

We all saw him kill George Floyd. You know, no matter what they're trying to say almost. And they had me watching for the press and see how much the press buys into it. That's what's gonna be interesting to watch in the coming weeks. See how much of the mainstream press buys into the defense's argument, and see how much they push back on it.

Jason Sole:

George Floyd's killing woke a lot of people up. But with media, and social media, and all these different things, people can slip right back to pre-George Floyd killing. You know, so that's how it works, with so many different sound bites, and so many things you're taking in, you start thinking like, "Dang man, yeah. He had a record."

Kyndell Harkness:

For the Star Tribune, we've done a lot of planning around how we're gonna cover this trial. Before, planning would've most likely just been trial coverage with some community stories, right? But this time, there is an entire community team. So not only do we have a trial team that is, you know, reporters and an editor who are just taking a look at the trial. But then there's another bunch of reporters and editors who are just talking about community. And before George Floyd, I doubt that would've happened.

Kyeland Jackson:

We're seeing this change in the way that newsrooms report on communities, including among us here at Twin Cities PBS. At the same time, a lot of professionals are questioning the way that we've defined objectivity.

Vivian Jenkins Nelsen:

There we go, objective. If I hear that word objective one more time, in regard to media, I will just throw up.

Kyndell Harkness:

How can you be truly objective? Is objectivity actually just white maleness? You know? Because that is the default, correct?

Freddie Bell, General Manager, KMOJ:

I bring the fact that I get stopped by a police officer and I'm really concerned about what's going on. My white counterpart may not have that experience. We take all of this to a news story. We take all of this to a news conference. And so now it's that knowledge base that we use in order to discern what's in front of us that we call news.

Vivian Jenkins Nelsen:

It's absurd. You come to the job with all your biases, all your lenses. And this is the time that you have to ask, "What am I doing here?"

Mel Reeves:

So the idea that anybody's objective is, is, is a misnomer. It's inaccurate, and folks who insist on it, I start to suspect may be a little disingenuous.

Kyndell Harkness:

I feel like that word really just needs to be retired. It was always inaccurate. And we just didn't know it. And that's where like bias training is important. Understanding why you're choosing what you're choosing and making sure that you're checking yourself as you choose, I think gets us to better humans doing the work of, of telling other people's stories.

Mel Reeves:

Our writers, when they go to a protest, they hit some sample of, you know, write that too, you know, give all the perspectives that were shared at the protest. You can't obviously cover everything, but don't take the revolutionary perspective out 'cause you don't agree with it. You know, if a guy gets up and says, "This system sucks," don't take it out 'cause you think the system works. You weren't there to argue with him. You were there to cover what the heck he had to say. And so that's fair journalism.

Vivian Jenkins Nelsen:

It looks like media has started to understand how it's been complicit.

Resmaa Menakem:

What they say is objective really is about their mooring. Their mooring is that your oppressor has as much right to say about you as you do by saying, "I don't, I no longer want you to oppress me." I want to hear news that comes from the perspective that I am a human being, and that the way that I see and navigate and move through the world comes across to me through that news.

Mel Reeves:

And the history of the black press, that black press has been an advocacy journal. And that seems like to them, well, you can't play both ends. But we've had to play both ends, it's nobody's fault. Black people have been oppressed and still are oppressed. So if we're gonna talk about our situation, some of us have to be journalists that are doing it. But we have to, we take a side. The mainstream press takes a side. Now the journalists will tell you they don't, but that's because they're a little naive.

Dr. Artika Tyner, Attorney & Law Professor, University of St. Thomas:

One of the anchors of our community is KMOJ. They remind us that there's unity in the community. The power of multicultural media to bring voices together those unheard stories and connecting with people beyond just what the traditional media outlets are, and making sure that the messaging is culturally responsive to the needs of the people that you're attempting to reach.

Freddie Bell:

We are a community-based station. We are concerned about the issues affecting our community. And it's really interwoven with our mission. Number one, to train broadcasters, and then number two, to give our community information that they need in order to make well-defined, clear decisions about their lives.

Kyndell Harkness:

It's uplifting. And, and we need that, 'cause we're dealing with a lot of stuff and we need a place to go where we can be uplifted.

Freddie Bell:

Our broadcasters are talking about a civil unrest. They're talking about the social justice system. They're talking about health disparities. They're talking about housing. They're talking about all of these topics that impact us in a very direct way every day.

Kyndell Harkness:

And people need to have a place to tell their stories and that they feel safe in the telling and they feel that they will be represented in a way that feels whole. You know, I can't say that about legacy media at this point.

Kyeland Jackson:

So even as the old model is being reviewed, changes have led to more diverse voices in media, like mine, that are bringing more perspectives to the table that have been underserved for years.

Kyndell Harkness:

George Floyd's death has afforded us this opportunity to really look inward. We as media have centered whiteness for so long, we just didn't see it until now 'cause we haven't been looking at it. We've been dealing with financial crisis after financial crisis. We've been dealing with how digital has changed everything for us in terms of our financial health and and how we deliver the news. And so we were distracted for a long time. It wasn't that important for a long time. It is very much a white male gaze that we are trying to correct at this point. It's in the air that we're breathing 'cause it's just so foundational. So it's all structurally based. And so it's, it's about dismantling those structures and creating new ones that allow for more voices to sort of rise up.

Vivian Jenkins Nelsen:

This is a time for new and different ways of dealing with issues in our country. We are looking to you to be different.

Kyeland Jackson:

It's not easy to change years of journalism standards. Data from Pew Research found that 76% of newsroom employees are white, more than half are men. But there has been some progress that same research found that younger newsroom employees show more racial, ethnic and gender diversity than their older colleagues. What does all of that mean for the future of the media? Time will tell. Until next time then, peace and love.

Special Thanks: Freddie Bell, Kyndell Harkness, Resmaa Menakem, Vivian Jenkins Nelsen, Mel Reeves, Jason Sole, Dr. Artika Tyner
Production Team: Jess Bellville, Kevin Dragseth, Danae Hudson, Kyeland Jackson

Otto Bremer HP

This story is part of the digital storytelling project Racism Unveiled, which is funded by grants from the Otto Bremer Trust and HealthPartners.

As the trial of Derek Chauvin begins on March 8, 2021, communities of culture are going to experience that burning, suffocating feeling of trauma all over again. In the first episode of the weekly series, Trial & Tribulation: Racism and Justice in Minnesota, we talked to trauma expert, therapist and author of My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies, Resmaa Menakem about how people can cope right here, right now, as the trial stirs up old and new wounds.

As jury selection began in the murder trial of former MPD officer Derek Chauvin in early March, Minnesotans – and others around the world – got an inside look at how implicit and explicit forms of bias work against people of color as prospective jury members. In the second episode of Trial & Tribulation: Racism & Justice in Minnesota, we talked to a variety of experts on how the jury system does - and does not - work for Black Minnesotans. 

Data Reporter Kyeland Jackson left Louisville, Ky., Minnesota shortly after George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police. In “Tethered: How Race and Policing Binds Minneapolis to Louisville,” he hones in on the racism-fueled policing disparities that led to both Floyd’s and Breonna Taylor’s deaths.

Kevin Dragseth Read More
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