Why the CBS digital team needs black reporters covering the 2020 election

CBS News’s failure to include a black reporter on its political embed unit is a grave miss on many fronts

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published January 15, 2019 6:30PM (EST)


At the close of last week, CBS News introduced its 12-person team of digital journalists dedicated to covering all things related to the 2020 presidential elections via press release. The idea, according to CBS News vice president and Washington bureau chief Christopher Isham, was to take “the first step in positioning CBS News as a prime political destination for the 2020 election.”

“This is a critical time in our nation's politics,” Isham declared in the official statement, “and CBS News will be at the leading edge of campaign coverage."

A bold and savvy move for certain — that is, until one takes a gander at the cultural make-up of the team’s eight correspondents and four associate producers.

Not a one is African American.

Soon after CBS released the announcement in the afternoon on Friday, January 11, Twitter was aflame with criticism.

The negative reaction hit Variety and other mainstream publications on Monday after filtering through progressive outlets and naturally attracted its share of ignorant social media counterpoints based on zero evidence.

In CBS’ terms, its political embed unit — “our boots on the ground for the 2019-2020 election cycle,” according to the network’s release — probably looks fairly diverse. Two out of its four producers are women, as are three of its reporters. Two of reporting team members are Asian men, one is Muslim and one is a Latinx woman.

In neglecting to include at least one black reporter in the mix, though, CBS is setting itself up to make the same mistakes both political parties made in 2016. Essentially, it indicates to African-American news consumers — who comprise one of the most significant voting blocs to Democrats forming battle plans for 2020 presidential election — that issues that are important to them may not receive the incisive coverage and scrutiny they merit.

This blunder has several wrinkles to it, negative optics being just one of them.

“It suggests that the adoption of digital and the way in which they are leveraging digital for political voice, impact and influence is quite significant,” said S. Craig Watkins, founding director of the Institute for Media Innovation at the University of Texas at Austin. “For that reason alone, it's striking that, insofar as CBS is likely positioning this as an opportunity to make a play in the digital space, that they're overlooking one the most important voices and perspectives that's helping to define that space, particularly for Millennial generations and perhaps even younger.”

Watkins, a professor who studies the role social media plays in the lives of young consumers, is referring specifically to young African Americans. He pointed out that this demographic was among one of the earliest adopters of Twitter, pointing to the platform’s role in galvanizing Black Lives Matter and the #OscarsSoWhite campaign.

“When you think about hashtags, when you think about social media-driven conversation, it's young African Americans who are playing a central role in shaping and driving some of the most important conversations about race and social inequality in this country,” the very topics expected to be at the forefront of debates surrounding this election, Watkins pointed out.

Dr. Moya Bailey, an assistant professor at Northeastern University, takes this a step further, observing news organizations formulating boots-on-the-ground political coverage would be wise to specifically recruit black female journalists for their digital teams.

“That perspective is really important when we're thinking about the election, particularly since this last election was so clearly dominated with these questions around race and gender,” Bailey pointed out. “If we look at the voting record of black women compared to white women, I think these questions are definitely going to come up again about who's voting for whom and why, and what are the drivers that push that.”

She added that she’s observed black women journalists pay particular attention to this issue, and displaying the most willingness to ask the difficult questions surrounding the topic. “I'm thinking about April Ryan and her experiences in the White House, just what her perspective has brought. Even the way that the president has responded to her really says something about why someone who exists at the intersection of blackness and womanhood is really important for this conversation.”

The composition of this digital team also indicates a distinction between the way CBS appears to view its legacy news business and its still-growing digital imprint. For one, it is composed primarily of younger reporters. From an outside view, this speaks to the network’s desire to appeal to the millennial consumer that’s more likely to get their news online and via social media platforms.

But that trend holds for all news consumers: a 2018 Pew Research Center report indicates that 93 percent of consumers get at least some news from online sources, calling the online space “host for the digital homes of both legacy news outlets and new, ‘born on the web’ news outlets.”

Data provided in a more extensive Pew Research Center Study released in 2017 indicates that three-quarters of non-white consumers, around 74 percent, turn to social media sites for their news, up from 64 percent in 2016.

Watkins, for his part, led a team of researchers at the Institute for Media Innovation that compiled more specific data about black Millennial social media consumption, part of a forthcoming report  titled “Millennials, Social Media, and Politics”:

A key and consistent finding throughout our data analysis is that African American Millennials use social media more frequently than their White counterparts and for a wider variety of activities. Further, our findings suggest that African Americans are more likely to feel empowered, informed, and motivated by their use of social media than young Whites and Latinos. As a result of findings like these we believe that educators, media executives, and policy makers should begin to view African Americans as active, trend-setting, and empowered when it comes to their use of social media.

CBSN has only been in existence since 2014. Meanwhile, CBS’ broadcast news staff has long featured a number of black correspondents as well as decision makers at the executive level. This includes Kimberly Godwin, elevated to vice president of news in 2017, responsible “for the editorial direction and launch and coordination of all CBS News newsgathering resources domestically and around the globe,” according to a network press release.

A Variety report published on Monday cites the recent promotion of another African-American woman, Lorna Jones, to managing editor for Washington news coverage.

Meanwhile, the presidential campaign reporters and associate producers announced last week will contribute to on-air coverage as well as CBSN, the network’s streaming service that’s being positioned as an up-to-the-minute breaking news destination.

Knowing this, then, only makes the lack of black inclusion on its digital team more baffling. Not including an African-American reporter on the team reflects an unfortunate neglect on CBS’ part to hire and cultivate young black talent to cover prominent beats such as this, and in this space.

“I do think we should recognize the type of diversity that is represented in this collection of digital reporters. CBS is, in one respect, to be applauded for that,” Watkins said. “But again, when we think about  the history of politics in this country, when we think about the  youth demographic and what's at stake for them, it just seems as if you would want to be as comprehensive as you possibly could in terms of diversity and inclusion."

Bear in mind, this is an industry-wide concern and far from limited to CBS.

“We know that every level of media the population is not reflected in the top layers of management or in the newsroom reporting structure,” said Christina Bellantoni, a 20-year industry veteran who is currently professor of professional practice and the director of the Annenberg Media Center. "Yes, there are strides. I think that it's great that next generation of journalists is incredibly diverse. . . . But we're not seeing those changes reflected in the overall media yet in any way.”

Exhibit A: CBS News’ digital team, formed in the midst of an administration whose top executive has targeted and attempted to degrade black reporters — particularly black female reporters —since its first days.

“Newsrooms in general should reflect their readership and we know that that is an overall problem in all of media, particularly at this moment in this presidential campaign,” Bellantoni said. “It is more important than ever to represent a lot of different perspectives.”

Bailey theorized that CBS, like other legacy news outlets, is “responding to who they imagine their base to be. Perhaps they don't imagine black people, or people who are interested in the thoughts and opinions of black women, digital journalists and black people [in general], to be part of their readership or part of their audience. If that's how they feel, I think they are going to actually make that manifest if they haven't already.”

“What will be interesting,” Bailey added, “is to see how other journalists or other outlets respond in their own turn. Will they actually be more likely to take up including black people as part of their digital team, given the way that people have seen how black Twitter and other black digital media movements have actually changed and shaped the way that we think about politics?”

Potential challenges have already arisen elsewhere on that front. Consider this team is tasked to cover a field of potential Democratic primary contenders that is expected to include California Sen. Kamala Harris and, on the Senate level, Stacey Abrams.

And as many on social media witnessed last Thursday, covering these candidates can present opportunities, and possible pitfalls, for reporters lacking familiarity with black culture. This was the miserable fate for the Washington Post’s Chelsea Janes, assigned to cover a D.C.-area event pegged to the release of Harris’ book “The Truth We Hold.”

Many attendants were Harris’ sisters from the Howard University chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha, the oldest black sorority in the United States. In greeting and solidarity Harris’ sisters sounded the trademark “skee-wee” call, which Janes described by way of a tweet that has since been deleted as a “screech” — a terrible no-no.

This resulted in Janes enduring a legendary dragging.

Understand, none of this makes white journalists automatically unqualified to cover black concerns, or those of any marginalized community. Any dedicated reporter has the ability to thoroughly study and report on any story to which they are assigned. But digital reporting tends to be a fast-moving enterprise that values expediency over depth, a factor that seems to have contributed to Janes’ misfire — a blunder which, to be honest, is fairly low-stakes in a world where news outlets are still hesitant to call Iowa congressman and proud white nationalist Steve King a racist.

Then again, as several people pointed out, Janes could have turned to someone in the room asked what “skee-wee” meant. She did not.

A black reporter might not have put that question to someone in the room either, but the chances are greater that he or she would not have had to do so.

“We have something called feminist standpoint theory, and basically the idea is that your lived experiences, the way that you exist in the world, informs the way you look at it,” Bailey explained. “It means that there's a potential there for different kind of insight that isn't possible when people have other aspects or identities that informed their life with a certain level of privilege.

“When you are in a position of marginalization, you are better attuned to the ways that, that marginalization ends up shaping the world around you,” she added.

Personal perspective matters in the news business. It always has. It is a vital preventative to heavy skew and bias against marginalized groups, be that group defined by culture, social or economic circumstance. A balanced newsroom isn’t merely a gathering point in the information business, it operates as an exchange of ideas, philosophies, and paradigms as they’re lived by people who hail from a variety of social, economic and cultural backgrounds.

Given the changing of the guard among the top ranks of the network’s news division, this is not the sort of stumble CBS should be making right now. The network recently named Susan Zirinsky president and senior executive producer of CBS News, making her the first woman to hold that seat at the network; she replaces David Rhodes.

As part of her position, Zirinsky inherits the news division’s digital arm that Rhodes is credited with creating. While she doesn’t officially take on her role until March, it could be in her interest to examine this issue sooner that that.

Salon reached out to CBS with a request to interview its news division’s political director Caitlin Conant, and was provided this statement in response: “This group is the initial wave of what will be an outstanding and diverse group of journalists assigned to cover the 2020 election for CBS News.”

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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