America was at a boiling point of racial division in 1967. Fed up with police brutality, and unequal opportunities in education, jobs, housing, health and wealth, African Americans in 109 cities throughout the country took to the streets in protest. The media of the day rushed to cover the ensuing riots. But their predominantly white perspective merely reinforced the very stereotypes that African Americans were fighting against.
The unrest led President Lyndon B. Johnson to commission a report exploring what happened and why. The resulting Kerner Commission report was an unflinching look at the many ways American social structures failed people of color, including a scathing description of an egregiously biased news industry.
“The press has too long basked in a white world looking out of it, if at all, with white men’s eyes and white perspective,” the report stated.
San Francisco State University Professor Jon Funabiki is deeply familiar with this bias, having seen it and made a study of it throughout his career. He participated in an event in Detroit, Michigan, on March 5 that commemorated the Kerner report’s 50th anniversary. The Ford Foundation held the panel discussion titled, Represent! Forging A New Future for Journalism and Media Diversity.
“The Kerner Commission report, which really criticized journalism — I mean, was pretty ferocious criticism — did have quite an impact on journalism and journalism education,” Funabiki said in an interview.
The report led to a number of strategies for recruitment in news organizations as well as education and recruitment in journalism colleges. It also led to revealing research into media performance.
Funabiki has been keenly aware of news media biases for nearly his entire life — first as a high school student in East Palo Alto, then as a journalism student in San Francisco State University, and throughout in his career.
“I grew up in a black community,” he said. “I can recall how stories in our local newspapers, if they were about our community or our high school especially, which was predominantly black, the stories were pretty negative. And they didn’t reflect the actual lived experience that I saw in the school.”
Media biases were further solidified for Funabiki when he researched the ways San Francisco newspapers during the Second World War wrote about Japanese Americans, who were then being forcibly placed in internment camps.
“Japanese Americans were called traitors and spies. They used the term ‘Jap.’ They quoted people saying, ‘You can’t trust Japanese Americans. You have to put them in concentration camps,’” Funabiki said. “I was absolutely shocked that journalists would do that… the overall bias — racism, really.”
During his career as a journalist, he witnessed media stereotyping in news firsthand, and how few people of color worked in the newsroom.
During the Ford Foundation discussion, panel members each emphasized that there’s still a long way to go to achieve balance when it comes to minorities in the newsroom.
“Journalists of color feel isolated when they’re the only person of color. When you’re the only person representing every minority, it can be daunting,” said Martina Guzmán, board chair of Feet in Two Worlds, which, for the past 14 years, has brought the work of immigrant and ethnic media journalists from communities across the U.S. to public radio and the web.
More diverse newsrooms would help to achieve the ultimate goal set out by the Kerner Commission: to better reflect the realities of minorities and help heal the harmful racial divisions that existed 50 years ago and in some places, remains today.
“Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal,” the report stated.
Panelist Ed Lewis, who co-founded Essence Magazine in 1970 “to celebrate the beauty and intelligence of black women,” said the Kerner report warning holds just as much weight today.
“I honestly believe, with Trump being in the White House, that people of color should have no illusions about where they stand. They should understand that there are a large number of people who don’t like us,” Lewis said.
That means it’s incumbent upon people of color to “have our interests assessed and dealt with within our society,” he said.
But with such meager progress made over 50 years, how do activists remain optimistic? asked moderator Farai Chideya, novelist, multimedia journalist and radio host.
Guzmán admitted to feeling frustrated early on, when she wasn’t seeing “radical transformation right now.” Then a mentor gave her a pep talk that broadened her awareness of the fight for equality.
“We fight and we pass the torch onto the next generation,” Guzmán said. “You’ve just got to keep chipping away at that wall.”
Funabiki said that while he’s also frustrated with complacency in the media and in the community, he’s also optimistic.
“This is actually the most exciting time to be in the media,” he said. “A lot of the old rules are starting to fall aside because journalists and other media makers realize it’s not working very well and we’ve got to try some new things. So there’s where I want to place my bets.”
To that end, in 2009 Funabiki founded Renaissance Journalism, an organization dedicated to breaking boundaries between journalists and the community, thereby bringing diversity and social justice into reporting.
Funabiki told the panel about one of the organization’s initiatives called On The Table, which asks Bay Area journalists to host a dinner conversation with people in the community — “just plain folks” — during candid conversations about a difficult topic, such as the housing crisis, gentrification and the meaning of home.
“You’d be surprised the different kinds of conversations we have when we’re breaking bread and chatting rather than interviewing and sticking a mic in someone’s face,” Funabiki said. “It really does change the journalist’s understanding of what people are concerned about.”
Photo courtesy of Allan Dranberg and the Ford Foundation