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Research Looks at How Stories in BIPOC Communities are Told

Patti Singer

Norma Holland used her perspective as former reporter and anchor at 13WHAM to discuss how journalists can improve coverage of BIPOC communities. Photo by Patti Singer/Minority Reporter Media Group

The people who gather the news and the people who read or listen to those stories agreed on a few things when it comes to covering communities of color.

News outlets need more reporters who look like the people whose stories they are telling. News organizations also need to build trust with communities being covered and they need to find a range of stories that avoid stereotypes.

“I believe journalists in our city, journalists who I count as my dear friends, care deeply about being sources of trusted information, information that accurately and fairly reflects the community in which we live,” said former 13WHAM reporter and anchor Norma Holland.

“Newsroom leaders should encourage reporters to build relationships … and develop those relationships with the community leaders to see beyond the surface and uncover perspectives that don’t normally get attention,” Holland said in response to a survey that gauged public and media perception of stories affecting Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) in the Rochester-Finger Lakes region.

“Shaping Our Stories 2021: Media Portrayals of Race in Rochester, NY follows up on a 2018 report from Causewave Community Partners that the agency said helped start a community conversation about media representation of race.

The update was influenced by the COVID-19 pandemic and the reaction to the homicides of George Floyd and Daniel Prude.

The survey reports responses from the community and media.

The community poll was conducted online between Dec. 8-29, 2020 and involved 713 interviews in a nine-county area. The demographics of respondents matched that of the region, and included 201 BIPOC residents, 92 of whom were Black/African American and 63 of whom were Hispanic.

Over time, responses from the white community indicated closer alignment to opinions of BIPOC residents.

However, there were gaps between white and BIPOC respondents in their perceptions of bias in several major stories, including coverage of the indictment against Mayor Lovely Warren, an ethics complaint against Rep. Joe Morelle, impact of COVID among communities of color and stories about unrest in the wake of police-involved incidents.

The survey did not directly ask whether social media was supplanting traditional, or what is considered mass media. But respondents were given options for where they got their news, and the poll reported that 44% of BIPOC respondents read posts by local influencers on their personal accounts. Among white respondents, 31% read posts by local influencers.

The media poll was conducted between Jan. 11 and March 11 2021. Of the 48 journalists who responded, 27 were white and 21 were BIPOC; 29 were male and 19 were female; and 25 were younger than 40 and 23 were 40 or older.

The survey did not ask whether any media respondents had participated in the previous version. The traditional media outlets have seen downsizing and turnover of staff since the 2018 report was released.

Media respondents expressed awareness of their responsibility in presenting stories about BIPOC communities.

Holland, the director of public relations and engagement for the University of Rochester Office of Equity and Inclusion, sat on the steering committee for “Shaping Our Stories.” She addressed a question about how reporters could develop cultural competency – an approach used in health care and education to increase understanding.

“I feel that any reporter who is in direct contact with members of a community, getting to know them apart from news coverage … develops a cultural competency,” she said. “That in and of itself, I think is going to lead to a lot more sensitive coverage of issues that affect communities of color in particular. …”

Todd Butler, president and CEO of Causewave Community Partners, encourage journalists to adopt an approach of cultural humility. “That recognizes I’m not always going to get it right and when someone gives me feedback, I should welcome that feedback as an opportunity to grow.”

Butler said Causewave was committed to staying focused on how BIPOC communities are portrayed and said there are plans for discussions among journalists about improving coverage. He said Causewave also has been pitching stories about BIPOC communities to traditional media and had about 20 of 30 suggestions picked up with local TV and print outlets.