Back to News

Blackface scandal shows need for newsroom diversity, journalists say at Speaker Series event

Feb 26, 2019

Posted in: News

By Brian McNeill, University Public Affairs (text), Joshua Smith, PR Sequence Coordinator (photos), and Gary Gillam, Audio and Video Lab Supervisor (video)

News coverage of the blackface scandal embroiling Virginia has underscored the need for greater newsroom diversity and a more nuanced understanding by media of race and racism, a panel of Richmond-area journalists said Monday night at Virginia Commonwealth University.

“I think some things go right past a lot of journalists and they don’t think twice,” said Mechelle Hankerson, a reporter with Virginia Mercury. “They’re like, ‘This isn’t racist, they didn’t use the n-word.’ There is no understanding of the nuance of racism in the vast majority of newsrooms. And so our job of holding people accountable when they do something wrong, we’re just not performing that well when it comes to racism as the press.”

The panel discussion, “Blackface, the Scandal and the Media: A Discussion About Racism in Virginia,” was organized by the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture in the College of Humanities and Sciences.

Moderating the discussion was Clarence Thomas, Ph.D., associate professor of broadcast journalism in the Robertson School. Thomas’ first question for the journalists: How did the media miss during the 2017 election that Gov. Ralph Northam’s medical school yearbook page displayed a photo of someone wearing blackface and another wearing Ku Klux Klan robes?

Jeff South, a former newspaper reporter and editor who is an associate professor of journalism in the Robertson School and who directs VCU’s Capital News Service program, said that question has prompted much debate among Virginia journalists. One answer, he said, is likely that newsroom layoffs diminished the press’ ability to investigate fully.

“It’s clearly a failing of journalists to vet people who were running for high public office,” he said. “I mean, that is the role of accountable media, to hold institutions up [to scrutiny] and to drill into folks who want to represent us. So clearly it’s been a failing.”

Why, Thomas asked, did the media immediately focus on the person wearing blackface on Northam’s yearbook page and all but ignore the person wearing Ku Klux Klan robes?

“Of course this whole notion of blackface is hurtful and it is insulting,” he said. “But the Ku Klux Klan is a domestic terrorist organization that has killed people. … They lynch people. And here we are making a big deal of blackface. Why wasn’t there an outcry [like], ‘My God, here’s a Klan next to a picture of you in your yearbook?’”

Hankerson suggested that the answer lies in a lack of diversity in media, particularly among editors.

“When you look at the people who lead newsrooms, they are overwhelmingly white males,” she said. “And I think when we saw that picture in the media, what drives a lot of coverage is what do people not understand? What do we need to explain? And for white males, I think the question was, ‘Wait a second, why is this blackface thing so bad?’ We all know about the Klan, but I think in the eyes of most newsroom leaders that didn’t need an explanation and so it didn’t get the attention it deserved.”

 

Michael Paul Williams, a columnist with the Richmond Times-Dispatch, agreed that more newsroom diversity would help the media cover race and racism with more nuance, sensitivity and historical context.

“Who’s in the newsroom and who’s making decisions in the newsroom reflects the priorities of the newsroom, the sensitivities of the newsroom, the awareness of the newsroom,” he said. “If it never occurs to you that something is wrong or a ‘thing,’ you’ll never investigate it. You’ll never have reporters pursue it. So, I think, most certainly, how you process the blackface story, if there are no people of color in the room, it’s totally different.”

The news industry once had grandiose ambitions for newsrooms to reflect the diversity of the communities they cover, but much of that has fallen away amid economic downturns and newsroom cutbacks.

“We lose all credibility in trying to attack institutions that don’t have diversity and that are racist when our newsrooms so poorly reflect the communities that they cover,” Williams said.

Samantha Willis, a freelance journalist and editor, said she has been frustrated by an emerging narrative in the national media that Northam has been forgiven. That narrative is being driven by polls, such as a Washington Post-Schar School Poll that found 48 percent of white Virginians said Northam should step down, while 37 percent of black Virginians said he should step down.

“[This narrative says] Virginians largely — and especially African Americans — have forgiven Gov. Northam. Calling us out like, ‘Look, the black people say it’s OK, so he must be all right to stay,’” she said. “I am one of the people who says there is no way we can move forward with a real effort at reconciliation, reconciling our very ugly and very real racist history that continues to impact our public policies that continue to have detrimental impacts on people of color, with someone who just fundamentally does not understand the needs and the histories of those communities as governor.”

Willis said the media should stop relying on polls to serve as a temperature gauge for the entire black community.

“We are tired of being referred to as a monolithic block,” she said. “‘All the black community all across Virginia. They just forgive Northam.’ We don’t feel that way. We don’t feel the same on a variety of issues.”

The issue of blackface is far bigger than just Northam’s yearbook or Attorney General Mark Herring acknowledging that he wore blackface at a college party in 1980, Thomas said. It has been found in college yearbooks across the country, including at VCU, he said. And USA Today, he noted, last week found a “stunning number” of published images of blatant racism on campus in a review of 900 yearbooks at 120 schools across the country.

 

“Most universities would be hard-pressed to find a yearbook without some sort of blackface or racist image from the past. And that doesn’t let anyone off the hook. I think that means we need to have a very serious conversation as a state, as a culture and society, about what we do now to make sure that we have truly moved past this, and that we have helped the people who are hurt by this heal, and to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” Hankerson said. “I love VCU, but Virginia has the history that it has, even in recent history, unfortunately, and this is part of it.”

South pointed out that Megyn Kelly lost her NBC show last fall after she defended wearing blackface as a Halloween costume.

“That’s 2018. And so the stereotypes, the racism that is ingrained in people, it’s not just the 1980s. It’s now, of course,” he said. “And the fact that you have national media personalities who see nothing wrong with this is truly disturbing.”

Willis said she wasn’t surprised by Kelly’s lack of racial understanding, as it reflects a widespread unwillingness to try to understand the country’s deep racial history and racial and cultural issues.

“I think there are a lot more Megyn Kellys than people realize,” she said. “And I think there were a lot of editors who are approving or disapproving the content that the Megyn Kellys and other reporters are blasting into our homes and in our newspapers and in our magazines. I think there are a lot of editors with these same mindsets, [who] have no understanding of the historic and contemporary effect of these racist symbols and racist imagery.”

Willis added that the media’s coverage of the blackface scandal has demonstrated a lack of sensitivity too.

“I’m sure I’m not the only black journalist — I know that I’m not, because I’ve talked to many across the state — but I’m just so tired of blackface. I have to say that emphatically,” she said. “Another thing that we have to remember as journalists, and as media organizations, is that while we are reporting these stories about blackface, there’s a certain amount of trauma that comes along with viewing those images over and over for members of the descendant community.”

The media as a whole, Hankerson said, needs to be more courageous in calling racist things racist.

“We need to do better about calling out racism where we see it, and explaining to people what is racism,” she said. “Because so much of what we see that is racist is not the KKK. It’s not violently and purposely malicious racism. And I think that’s where we fall into things like finding a blackface photo decades after it was taken and someone throwing his hands up and being like, ‘Sorry,’ and thinking that’s enough.”

In light of the blackface scandal, Thomas asked the panel how, or if, Virginia might move forward.

Williams said we “can’t resign our way out of this problem.”

“This is not a Virginia problem and it’s not a blackface problem,” he said. “We’ve had patently racist policies being promulgated by our General Assembly. The refusal to give people health care is a racist policy. It mostly affects people of color. On the national level, border wall. That’s a racist policy. Patently racist policy. We don’t call it that because, I guess, we’re trying to promote some sort of false evenhandedness but it’s racism, simply and plain.”

By focusing on blackface, he said, we run the risk of missing the bigger problem of the racial context and implications of government policy.

“If we get caught up on blackface, I think we miss then a lot of what passes for government policy [that is] patently racist. And having people resign because they put a little shoe polish on their face isn’t going to resolve that,” Williams said. “Because there’s always going to be something else. And those policies, frankly, have real, probably greater, impact than those yearbook photos.”

Monday’s panel discussion was part of the Robertson School’s ongoing speaker series. In January, author Emerson Brooking gave a talk on “The Weaponization of Social Media.” On March 25, Kristen Cavallo, CEO of the Martin Agency, will discuss “Female Leadership in the Age of #MeToo” at 5 p.m. in the University Student Commons Theater.

Please also watch a report by WRIC-8 News, a story from VCU's Capital News Service as well as reports by the Commonwealth Times and the Virgina Press Association about the Speaker Series event.