Racial reckoning ripples through media foundations

By Jon Funabiki

Triggered by the Black Lives Matter Movement, journalists across the United States are questioning the news media’s complicity in sustaining systemic racism and the inequities that permeate society. Recently, for example, the Los Angeles Times published an unflinching editorial apologizing for its “history of racism” and vowed to “redouble and refocus its efforts to become an inclusive and inspiring voice of California.”

Today, this drive for a reckoning in America is also rippling through philanthropy, which has become an increasingly influential player in media as nonprofit journalism has spread in the United States.

The Ford Foundation, Democracy Fund, Borealis Philanthropy, News Integrity Initiative and other key donor institutions are urging their counterparts to apply an equity mandate as they pick and choose which journalism and media organizations to support.

Among those leading the charge is Farai Chideya, the Ford Foundation’s journalism program officer, who commissioned a newly released study by Dot Connector Studio called “Reconstructing American News.” I should note here my connections: I served as Ford’s first journalism program officer from 1995 to 2006, and today Ford supports Renaissance Journalism’s work.

Chideya has long argued that racial justice cannot be achieved without real reform in newsrooms.

“The old ways of doing journalism simply aren’t working: we need true innovation if we want equity in journalism,” she says in an essay published recently on Medium. “Equitable news coverage—fueled by innovative new processes and the culturally-competent and empowered staff needed to produce it—is a powerful lever which can move civil society toward justice.”

I point to two kinds of media problems that have long plagued communities of color and other vulnerable groups. The first is the inherent bias in how news is reported, which has existed since the first colonial newspapers provoked readers with headlines about “rebellious Negroes” and “barbarous Indians.” The second is that deep, structural forces restrict who gets to create, control and prosper from news companies, and this has been true since the federal government approved postal discounts as a subsidy for a fledgling newspaper industry. To believe that the news media are somehow neutral or objective is to fantasize media history. They are, in fact, parts of America’s infrastructure of inequality.

There’s plenty of evidence that philanthropic funding patterns are replicating the imbalances that exist in commercial media. One analysis by Bill Birnbauer at Monash University demonstrates how. Birnbauer examined the funding sources of 60 members of the Institute for Nonprofit News. The data show that between 2009 and 2015, 40% of foundation grants and individual donations went to just three, large nonprofit news organizations, ProPublica, the Center for Public Integrity and the Center for Investigative Journalism. While all three produce great journalism, the point is that their vacuum cleaner-like funding success makes it all the more difficult for the smaller, lesser-known outfit that is trying to serve the news and information needs of a Black, Latinx or other community.

While the effects of news media bias may not be as sensational as a lynching or as visible as segregated housing, they are nevertheless detrimental to people of color, like the lead-poisoned water in Flint.

So, if this is a time for reckoning within the news media, it also is a time for funders to examine whether they are complicit and how they can promote reforms. When I worked at the Ford Foundation, there were very few large, national foundations committed to the funding of journalism, and among that handful, only Ford had an explicit social justice orientation.

Today, gratefully, many more foundations recognize the positive value of journalism to a democracy. I join Chideya and her colleagues in exhorting funders to ask themselves these questions: Are we perpetuating—or dismantling—an inherently flawed system? Is it enough to fund so-called “diversity” programs, or shouldn’t we be bold enough to strive to eliminate structural racism in the media and in the community? Is it enough to subsidize news organizations to hire more people of color if they still have no power?  Is it enough to help journalists at legacy outlets to learn how to cover diverse communities, or shouldn’t we also help these communities build their own media so they can control their own images and destinies?

I frequently quote the Kerner Commission’s historic study into the root causes of the urban riots that broke out in cities across the country in the 1960s. The commission concluded that the new media bore some of the blame because they had systematically ignored African American communities. Case in point: As the Los Angeles Times noted in its recent editorial, the newspaper had no Black journalists on staff when the riots in Watts occurred in 1965.

“The media report and write from the standpoint of a white man’s world,” the commission said. “The ills of the ghetto, the difficulties of life there, the Negro’s burning sense of grievance are seldom conveyed.”

The conclusion represented a powerful condemnation of the news media. Sadly, newsroom leaders at the time largely ignored the commission’s findings, including the key recommendation to integrate newsrooms.

The Kerner Commission’s study served as my moral compass at Ford and again at Renaissance Journalism. Now that the Black Lives Matter Movement and the Covid-19 pandemic have re-exposed the profound inequities in society, we can’t ignore the urgent need to reform journalism. It is the call of the times.