From anguish to action: Tackling racism and systemic inequities

By Jon Funabiki

The horrific killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers and the COVID-19 pandemic’s ruthless attack on communities of color has galvanized people’s attention to the vast inequalities and systemic forms of racism that permeate American society. Rev. Al Sharpton declared at Mr. Floyd’s funeral in Minneapolis that there is hope for change because the swelling protests show that it is “a different time and a different season.”

With hopes that we can move from anguish to action, Renaissance Journalism is taking new steps to help journalists tackle inequality, systemic inequities and racism in America, which is at the heart of our mission.

It started when the COVID-19 virus hit the San Francisco Bay Area, our home base since 2009, and state and local cities implemented shelter-at-home restrictions. We realized immediately that our friends and colleagues in the newsrooms faced daunting challenges. Even as they raced to cover the pandemic’s devastating impacts, journalists needed to adopt safety measures and adapt reporting methods to protect their own health. Simultaneously, however, their own news companies and stations struggled with lost advertising revenues and donations caused by the pandemic’s economic fallout.

The dilemma could be easily seen in the case of El Tecolote, a small but vital bilingual newspaper that serves the Latinx community in San Francisco’s Mission District. The city’s shelter-at-home order and restrictions on local shops and restaurants had a stifling impact on the newspaper’s revenues. Yet, as COVID-19 spread, Latinx residents would be especially hard hit and the Mission District would become one of the city’s worst hot spots

Our immediate response was to establish the COVID-19 Relief Grants for Local News Organizations. With the help of seven funders, we awarded $185,000 to 20 nonprofit community, ethnic and university news outlets in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The 20 nonprofit news outlets in our cohort range in size and reach many distinct demographic and geographic groups. All cover a wide range of critical social justice and equity issues, such as tenant protections, worker protections, support for unhoused people, healthcare equity and immigrant rights. Additionally, the grantees have been active in Renaissance Journalism’s programs, including the Census 2020: Everyone Counts Reporting Project and Bay Area Media Collaborative.

Tackling Racism and Systemic Inequities

In our continuing effort to stimulate bold, strong journalism that addresses inequality, we plan to offer training and grants to help Bay Area journalists undertake special reporting projects on issues of systemic inequities and structural racism. We will announce details shortly.

Nationally, Renaissance Journalism also is developing a fellowship program to help journalists investigate housing insecurity and affordability, another key issue where the effects of systemic racism and structural inequalities are quite evident. This program builds on the Media & Housing Roundtables that we conducted in Pittsburgh, San Antonio and Fresno with support from the Ford Foundation and local funders in each city. Insights from the roundtables informed our publication Housing Reporting Rx: A Journalist’s Guide to Covering the Housing Crisis, which can be downloaded from our website.

A Call for Action

We understand that racism and inequality have been intricately woven into American society since the founding days, and that it cannot be eradicated by any single news story. Instead, progress will require a deep and sustained commitment by all journalists. The work will be challenging, frustrating and, sometimes, even dangerous.

Newsrooms themselves cannot escape the need for reform, either. It’s been more than 50 years since the Kerner Commission investigated the urban rebellions of the 1960s and blasted newspapers and television stations for snubbing black communities and journalists. Yes, there has been some change, but not nearly enough.

The protests in the streets represent a call for action. Today.

As the Rev. Sharpton said so forcefully:

“What happened to Floyd happens every day in this country, in education, in health services, and in every area of American life. It’s time for us to stand up in George’s name and say, ‘Get your knee off our necks.’ That’s the problem—no matter who you are.”