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Lightfoot raises the right point about diversity in Chicago journalism — but in the wrong way

Lightfoot’s pledge to grant interviews only to Black and Brown reporters feels like another mayoral jab at the press than a pure stand against media racism.

Lori Lightfoot talks to reporters on Wednesday, the morning after defeating Toni Preckwinkle in the 2019 Chicago mayoral election, at a Clark/Lake CTA Station in Chicago, on April 3, 2019. | Victor Hilitski/For the Sun-Times
Mayor Lori Lightfoot said she intends to mark her second anniversary in office by giving one-on-one interviews to journalists of color only.
Sun-Times Media file

Mayor Lori Lightfoot raised an important issue Wednesday when she chastised the local news media for its lack of racial diversity.

She’s right. Anyone who’s worked in this business or has observed its goings-on can see that in a city with a population more than two-thirds Black and Brown — and it has been for decades — the journalists most likely to bring you the news are white.

As a result, we continue to see Black and Brown communities being underserved by the news media or being viewed through the narrow perspective of crime, dysfunction and disinvestment. The coverage is better now than it used to be, but as a business we have a long way to go.

That said, Lightfoot’s attempt to address this inequity by announcing that she is granting interviews only to Black and Brown reporters regarding her 2nd anniversary in office is a move that feels in line with her near-pugilistic relationship with the town’s news gatherers, rather than a pure stand against media racism.

Just last week, we learned the mayor once canceled her subscription to a newspaper in town (not this one) because she didn’t like how it covered her.

And as to the issue of treating people of color with fairness, it was Lightfoot who famously told a group of Black aldermen last year, “Don’t ask me for s—t for the next three years” when she got word they weren’t immediately backing her budget.

If Lightfoot really cares about solving the issue of media inequity, she simply could have called in the reporters of color and done the interviews without the advance virtue signaling.

So instead of bringing credible attention to a real problem, it looks to us like Lightfoot, battered by the press, is attempting to use reporters of color to get positive news coverage. And it all strikes us as wrong and more than a bit naive.

Missed opportunity

“I have been struck since my first day on the campaign trail back in 2018 by the overwhelming whiteness and maleness of Chicago media outlets, editorial boards, the political press corps, and yes, the City Hall press corps specifically,” Lightfoot wrote in a letter to City Hall reporters announcing her plan.

“The Chicago media leadership must evolve with the times in order to be a true reflection of the vibrant, vast diversity of the city,” she wrote. “Diversity matters, and without it, how can you as the media truly speak to the needs and interest of the diverse and nuanced constituency you claim to serve . . . ?”

We can’t argue with that. But Lightfoot must know that the pathway to big city journalism — much like the field of law from which she came — often means running up expensive college tuition, then taking low-paying entry level positions at smaller media outlets. This tilts much of game away from working-class minorities who might be interested in the profession but have to immediately earn a living after college.

As mayor, Lightfoot has the power to address this in ways far more significant than writing a letter. She could beef up Chicago Public Schools’ journalism programs and really fund student media outlets.

Or how about making journalism and news reporting more of a presence in the City Colleges of Chicago curriculum?

None of this is to discount racism as a huge obstacle that keeps Black and Brown people out of media jobs.

“This isn’t my job. It shouldn’t be,” she wrote. “I don’t have time for it. But as with so many festering problems, it has only gotten worse with time. So here I am, like so many other Black women before me, having to call your attention to this problem.”

Lightfoot can do more than call attention to this very real problem — and walk away with a few press interviews. If this is a concern, as it should be, there are things she can do to help. That she didn’t is a missed opportunity.

Mayor ill-served by this move

Newspaper hiring bosses across the country used to pose a question to Black potential hires that was as insulting as it was pervasive: Are you black first? Or a reporter first?

The meaning behind the question was that Black journalists, unlike their white counterparts, couldn’t objectively report about things happening in — and to — their communities.

By publicly coupling her edict with her frustrations with the media as a Black woman mayor, Lightfoot risks reinforcing the long-held and false notion that Black and Brown journalists are people of color first and reporters second — biased in favor of sources that look like they do.

The mayor is ill-served by this move. And so are the journalists she believes she is helping.

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