Emeri Burks

555. Media industry still wrestles with racial reckoning sparked by George Floyd’s death

Immediately following the death of George Floyd in 2020, as reporters across the country covered protests, journalists of color in addition to regular citizens urged the conversation about race in the U.S. to change. For many reporters, their first goal was to change the conversation and language used in their own newsrooms.

“At the time, there was a lot of reason to be hopeful about all the changes happening in the industry. Tons of journalists of color were speaking openly about the systemic racism perpetuated by an inherent in the news media industry itself,” says Emeri Burks, an independent journalist. “It seemed as if we were starting to talk about these things much more openly. Then August (2020) came and (former president) Trump started saying the criminals were going to come for us in our homes in the countryside. … It stole our short attention span away.”

As part of her work toward a master’s degree from the Missouri School of Journalism, Burks interviewed 12 journalists about the media industry’s racial reckoning following Floyd’s murder for a report recently published by the Donald J. Reynolds Journalism Institute. Among those she interviewed were CBS News journalist Wesley Lowery; Jenni Monet, an Indigenous Affairs journalist; LA Bureau Chief and Arizona University professor Shaya Tayefe Mohajer and Minnesota Daily’s Managing Editor Tiffany Bui. 

Burks also included two white journalists in addition to accounting for five major racial minority groups and conducted structured interviews with each over Zoom to discuss “their relationships to George Floyd, the changes taking place in the industry and how they were used to people talking to them about their professional responsibilities,” Burks says. “It was really important to me to see how their bosses were telling them what their jobs were.” 

Some positive changes have been made in newsrooms, Burks says. “You can talk about the ethical policies newsrooms everywhere have increasingly had since 2020, a lot of them have changed their wording to show respect and deference to individual perspectives. A lot more notice has been put out there to hold journalists and newsrooms to be accountable, for example, when police are saying something that may not actually be true. A better and much stronger piece of evidence may be how we talk about things like climate change, about the Big Lie, about systemic racism. Since George Floyd, we’re a lot more punchy about these things. There’re a lot more topics we’re afraid to present the wrong idea of.” 

But what is the experience of Black journalists and other people of color working in news? Have things improved, from their perspective, or has it all been lip service up front before being pushed aside?

Many journalists of color said they were initially told by their editors not to present opinion in their reporting about Floyd’s death and to “be careful not to weigh in too heavily on current events, not to appear at major protests. Some got in trouble attending Black Lives Matter protests. Some got in trouble for calling comments of Trump’s racist.” 

The question of objectivity came up many times. “If you look at the traditional mainstream institution of journalism, this model that’s based on a free and independent press, one of the major tenets is objectivity, what can be verified and proven to be true. That alone is what should be in the news,” Burk says. “A lot of people really have this mindset. It’s still the most common point of view. A number of the participants presented that as well. Others presented the question about whether it’s possible to be objective in our reporting and also whether this thing we’re calling neutral is actually neutral and not just representation of cis white male culture.” 

Neither Burks nor her participants want to eliminate or mute that particular voice in the media, to be clear. “It’s tempting to say the cis white male perspective is not valuable in this day and age. That’s not true. It remains critical and important to the greater social discourse. But it’s not really in danger of being under-represented anytime soon. This is the voice that’s been out there in strength for the majority of modern American history. A lot of other voices are very often underrepresented. These voices, not only do we not hear them, they carry the perspective of the biases and blindnesses we ourselves might not be aware of. The voice of color tenant of Critical Race Theory posits that underrepresented voices have an inherent value to them that should be respected in a freedom and democracy-loving environment. It’s worthwhile information we’re not getting otherwise.” 

Independent journalist Emeri Burks interviewed 12 journalists as part of her masters degree work for the University of Missouri School of Journalism.The Donald J. Reynolds Journalism Institute recently published Burks’ report about the media industry’s racial reckoning in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death.

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