In December, CNN fired “star prime time host” Chis Cuomo (Forbes) in the wake of revelations that he passed his brother, Andrew, negative information about the women saying the then-Governor of New York sexually harassed them (CNBC). The rise and fall of Chris Cuomo shows media bias is an ongoing danger.
Half a year earlier, we learned Chris was advising his brother (CNN) at the same time the two were conducting friendly on-air interviews. “CNN made a deliberate programming decision to have the two bros yuk it up on the air,” said Mark Feldstein of the University of Maryland. “No doubt it was good for ratings. But not for the public’s perception of journalistic fairness” (Variety).
• Support local independent media outlets, including street newspapers, independent Black newspapers, nonprofit news outlets, and news sites focused on communities of color.
• Donate to Allied Media Projects to support media created for social justice.
• Apply a critical lens to the news you consume. Who are the sources? Who’s left out? What topics are covered at the exclusion of others? Who funds the channel or publication? What sort of solutions does an article or news segment set us up to consider? What else is possible?
Virtually no other public figure could expect the same sort of favorable coverage that Andrew received from his brother, much less assistance in fending off sexual harassment accusations. The case of Andrew and Chris Cuomo shows media bias in a particularly egregious — and patriarchal — form. It’s one of many instances where skewed news coverage has real impacts on marginalized people and those seeking justice.
While Andrew Cuomo received consistently favorable coverage from CNN, racial justice movements consistently received unfavorable coverage. A study of 40 years of protest coverage from major American newspapers found that protests are generally depicted as nuisances. Stories center on the inconvenience of commuters or shopkeepers rather than the reasons why protestors are in the streets in the first place. News coverage “is biased towards the status quo” (Niemen Lab).
And not all protests are covered equally, either. Stories about Black civil rights protests, in particular, are least likely to describe the protest’s actual objectives and demands when compared to other protests, such as those in favor of women’s rights or a major political party (Nature).
There are many contributing factors. Historically, editors “wanted their coverage to appear centrist… to appeal to the broadest possible audience” (Time). Quick turnaround times for journalists might lead them to take a police press report sitting in their inbox at face value rather than devoting time to tracking down arrestees who might have a different view. And newsrooms are disproportionately white, with the percentage of white reporters sometimes double that of the communities they cover (Nieman Lab).
Two apparently obvious solutions would be to increase newsroom diversity and insist on journalistic objectivity, but there are additional considerations to take into account. The newspaper industry has said it’s trying to increase the number of Black newsroom employees since the 1960s, but progress has been minuscule: a 0.2% increase between 1998 and 2017. But as FAIR’s Janine Jackson points out, though increasing the percentage of BIPOC journalists is crucial, it’s not just about numbers or pro-diversity op-eds. What’s crucial is that the industry undo white supremacist practices and norms, like those allowing one newspaper to ban Black journalists from covering certain stories and another to run “Buildings Matter, Too” as a headline (FAIR).
Journalistic objectivity doesn’t mean journalists shouldn’t have a position on the stories they cover. Black (and non-Black) journalists should have a stake in BLM protests and still be able to cover them. The case of Chris Cuomo shows media bias not because the relatives of politicians shouldn’t be allowed to report on American politics but because of his skewed coverage and underhanded support of Andrew.
Journalist Ida B. Wells started researching lynchings after a close friend was lynched. A co-founder of the NAACP, she was certainly “biased” against lynchings. She also pioneered modern investigative reporting and is the source of much of what we know about the extent and barbarity of lynchings in the post-Reconstruction South (Library of Congress). Objective reporting doesn’t mean journalism that’s neutral or disinterested when it comes to injustice.
Consuming news critically is crucial because, as Wells said, “the people must know before they act.” This means looking at why certain stories are considered newsworthy, how issues are framed, which perspectives are included, and which of those are considered authoritative. It’s also important to support media and journalism by folks typically left out by the 90% of American media outlets owned by the same six corporations (Business Insider). There are dozens of independent Black news outlets across the country (Black News), and sites like mitú, NextShark, and Colorlines focus on stories related to communities of color. Street newspapers across the U.S. feature the perspectives and analyses of unhoused people (National Coalition for the Homeless) — there’s consistent coverage of the housing crisis in many outlets, but it’s hard to imagine people who understand more about housing precarity than unhoused writers. And initiatives like the Allied Media Projects support grassroots leaders from marginalized communities in using media to support and promote their organizing work.
While the prominence of Chris Cuomo shows media bias towards the powerful and privileged, we should look for fair coverage of issues relevant to racial, economic, and social justice.
• The career of Chris Cuomo shows media bias towards his brother, a governor.
• News coverage is generally unfavorable towards racial justice protests.
• The media we support and how we analyze it is important as we decide how to think about and act on the issues it raises.