Fighting for a Voice: Why Black Reporters Covering Black Athletes Makes for Better Journalism
Why this matters
American media demographics still do not represent the makeup of the country, let alone the largely Black U.S. sports leagues. This dynamic means Black athletes' stories can be lost in translation or even outright challenged by those who report the news.
After a road win against the Boston Red Sox in 2017, Baltimore Orioles All-Star center fielder Adam Jones told a USA Today reporter that one of the fans at Fenway Park had thrown a bag of peanuts at him and that he’d been called the n-word “a handful of times” during the baseball game.
Jones’ revelation, which was confirmed by Red Sox officials, was dispiriting but, unfortunately, not surprising. It wasn’t the first time Jones had heard racist taunts in Boston, and he wasn’t the only Black player to report experiencing such abuse at Fenway – even Black members of the Red Sox said they’d had it hurled at them while playing in their home ballpark.
Also dispiriting but not surprising: the reaction from some of Boston’s most visible sports media members.
Radio hosts Kirk Minihane and Gerry Callahan of WEEI, two White men, immediately cast doubt on Jones’ assertion that he’d been called the slur, even after Red Sox president Sam Kennedy appeared on the station to support Jones and say officials knew who the offending fan was. WEEI’s morning show had long established itself as a place where racist and sexist discourse was acceptable; in 2003, Callahan and his co-host at the time compared a Black high school student to an escaped gorilla, and in 2014, a Minihane rant about Fox sideline reporter Erin Andrews included calling her a “gutless b****.”
Albert Breer, a White man and suburban Boston native who covers the NFL for Sports Illustrated, suggested on Twitter that Jones should provide proof of what was said to him. Breer estimated that he had been to roughly 200 games at Fenway Park and had never heard a slur used. He subsequently tweeted that he “wasn’t doubting” Jones but that he “wanted more information” because he considered the use of the n-word a “very unusual occurrence” at Fenway.
If Jones had been covered by a group of reporters who looked liked him – and perhaps had experienced racial insensitivity in Boston themselves – then maybe he would have received more benefit of the doubt. Only that couldn’t have happened. There are two sports radio stations in Boston; in May 2017, there were a combined 17 primary hosts on those stations. All were men; sixteen were White. The picture was similar in the sports departments of the area’s two biggest newspapers, The Boston Globe and the Boston Herald, which between them had one Black columnist.
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When it comes to a lack of diversity in sports media, Boston isn’t an outlier. Each year, the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida grades various institutions, including the media, on their hiring practices with regard to race and gender. The 2021 media report card showed that while the numbers have gotten better since the previous report card in 2018, representation of women and people of color is still lacking. Less than a quarter of all Associated Press Sports Editors member journalists were people of color, and 19.3 percent were women. Just over 5 percent of the women were of color. Many of those people are frontline reporters – not middle or upper managers who make decisions and hold even greater power to shape stories and coverage.
What is lost from our understanding of sports when the demographics of the people reporting, writing, and talking about it fail to reflect both athletes and the population at large? The incident with Jones offers a cultural case study – one that merits a closer look and speaks to larger issues within the industry.
‘You Have to Acknowledge People’s Experiences’
The common denominator among the reaction to Jones from gatekeeping Boston media voices was defensiveness – demands for proof, assertions that it must have been an isolated incident (even though Black athletes in other sports say otherwise), and an underlying implication that the hurt feelings of White media figures over their community being painted as racist was more important than the feelings of a Black athlete who experienced actual racism.
ESPN columnist and book author Howard Bryant, a Boston-born Black man, said that his birth city “always wants it both ways. Boston wants to tell you to get over everything while fighting you over everything. And because of that, things never change. Because you can’t change if you’re resisting even the most basic of experiences.
“You have to acknowledge people’s experiences, and especially someone like Adam Jones, who was one of the most standup guys in baseball.”
For Bryant, the media reaction to Jones brought to mind the story of Charles Stuart, one of the ugliest incidents in Boston history. In 1989, Stuart, a successful businessman who was White, shot and killed his pregnant wife in an effort to collect her life insurance policy. He lied to police, claiming that she had been killed by a Black man during an attempted carjacking; for days, police under the direction of then-Mayor Ray Flynn descended upon the city’s majority Black neighborhoods to harass every man they came across, looking for the alleged killer. Eventually, after arresting one man and targeting another, police realized that Stuart was the killer. He jumped off a local bridge.
Meanwhile, significant damage had been done to the city’s Black community. Bryant remembers how the media in Boston chronicled it all – and how, at the time, he saw that Black voices were completely absent from that coverage. That cemented his decision to become a journalist.
“People take their cues, their public cues, from public discourse,” Bryant said. “When I say Boston wants it both ways, that also refers to the Red Sox. That people don’t want to be called racist in Boston, yet they enable the most racist voices to speak. The Red Sox for years had an opportunity to rein in WEEI or at least threaten them to say, ‘Look, you’re not going to be the flagship if this is the voice that you’re projecting out,’ but they never did that.
“What kind of city would want that voice to speak for it? And as long as that voice speaks for it, they’re always going to be saddled with this reputation because you would denounce that, you would say, ‘We don’t want this representing us.’ But if you don’t do that, then clearly you’re OK with this voice representing you.”
Ask any Black American – regardless of background or job or income level – about facing race-based abuse in their own lives, and you’re likely to hear a story, if not multiple stories. If Boston area sports media outlets had more Black voices and journalists when Jones spoke out, it’s hard to imagine that the reaction would have been as skeptical and defensive.
‘That’s Not Good For Any Business’
Greg Lee, a Black man and longtime sports editor who is now The Boston Globe’s senior assistant managing editor for talent and community, also does a lot of work to help media outlets diversify their staffs. He said the biggest flaw of homogeneous organizations is that they end up producing homogeneous content.
“When you have all similar types of people in your building, you’ll get the same type of thoughts and there’s no room for conversation because they all think the same,” he says. “And that’s not good for any business. You don’t have a lot of stakeholders in the room to foster a real conversation, even if they’re hard conversations.”
That’s particularly true for the media, which has a basic function of finding and telling important stories about an increasingly diverse sports world and larger society. It’s not that reporters covering athletes need to be the same race or gender as those athletes to do a good job, though that can smooth interactions with interview subjects and enhance articles. It’s that having more Black journalists brings a different perspective to newsrooms and articles, which in turn enriches the audience’s experience by adding accuracy, balance, depth, and variety.
“Having all sides and all aspects and points of view reflected [is important],” Lee said. “A lot of times when you have the same type of newsroom of White people, they don’t have the sense of perspective when it comes to nuanced issues within different groups. Not just Black people, Hispanics, gay and lesbian groups … you want to have a diversity of voices making sure that you have an accurate portrayal when you’re talking about all these different groups.”
In order to diversify their sports staffs, newspapers and online outlets will have to lower some long-standing barriers that are arguably of their own making. First and foremost, journalism salaries have increased little over the past couple of decades, especially at the entry level, and don’t do a good job reflecting the cost of living in certain cities. This is a problem for young, non-White reporters attempting to break into the industry, because statistically they’re more likely to have higher student loan bills and less likely to have parents or other family members who can help them pay rent or otherwise help financially while they work to get their careers off the ground. Another negative: Lee, who has also worked at The Washington Post and The South Florida Sun-Sentinel, said it’s not uncommon for Black reporters to earn less than White colleagues with the same résumé and work experience.
All of this can discourage journalists of color from entering or remaining in the media. So can the fact that editorial staffs still skew heavily White and male, a fact that can leave reporters from marginalized communities unsupported or enduring charges of bias when they write from their perspectives or lean on their lived experiences. Some have their very presence called into question or are seen as “affirmative action hires,” with their acumen or achievements dismissed because they’re not White, or are women, or both.
“It’s what I refer to as the ‘assumption of competence,’” Bryant said. “They [White media members] assume each other’s competence. They assume your [non-White media members’] incompetence.”
‘He Trusted That I Was the Person He Should Speak To”
Five years after the Jones incident, the Chicago White Sox and New York Yankees scuffled on field after White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson took offense to something Yankees third baseman Josh Donaldson said to him. Donaldson provoked Anderson by calling him “Jackie,” in reference to Major League Baseball pioneer Jackie Robinson and a 2019 interview Anderson gave to Sports Illustrated in which he called himself “today’s Jackie Robinson” because he felt it was time for him to help change the game with regard to its unwritten rules and lack of fun.
Given the horrific racial abuse that Robinson endured, it wasn’t the most elegant metaphor from Anderson. Still, Donaldson seized on it as a way to try to get under Anderson’s skin. According to Anderson, Donaldson first used “Jackie” after the SI story came out, and Anderson told him then to stop. When Donaldson did it again on May 21, Anderson went after him physically.
There were, of course, those who said Anderson overreacted. But unlike in 2017 with Jones, Anderson took it upon himself to give his side of the story in his way, to an audience that would be receptive to him: he reached out to ESPN commentator Bomani Jones (no relation to the former Orioles star), who is also Black, and Jones was able to provide him a platform on his podcast, The Right Time.
“Out of nowhere I got a [direct message] and [Anderson] was like ‘when can I come on the podcast so that we could talk about this?’” Jones said. “He trusted that I was the person that he should speak to about what was going on.”
Anderson didn’t explicitly say that he went to Jones because he is Black; it was more that he wanted Jones himself. However, Jones thinks it would have been “unlikely” that Anderson “would have had that same level of comfort with a person who was not Black. Because I think there are two things at play here: One, there’s just the levels of nuance and understanding when somebody says something like Donaldson did where race ties in, like you could just say, ‘Oh, he compared himself to Jackie Robinson, …’ but there’s a reason why [Donaldson] chose to do this.
“I think the other thing, and maybe this is me projecting, but if I am Tim Anderson, I know that these guys in the clubhouse that are covering this team, these guys know what Josh Donaldson is about. They’ve been around Josh Donaldson for all the years he’s been in the league. They know this, and they’re not going to do anything about it.
“So I think part of me was being Black, I also think part of what really probably helped was me being separate from the baseball [media] ecosystem because these beat writers know what all guys on a team are or are not about.”
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Stories like Anderson’s and Adam Jones’ may help to explain why athletes turn to spaces like LeBron James’ Uninterrupted media platform or The Players’ Tribune, founded by Derek Jeter. While traditional journalists have reasons to be uncomfortable with those sites – where there can be little to no pushback from in-house ghostwriters on controversial or uncomfortable topics – non-White athletes in particular have the opportunity to tell their stories, their own ways, in their voices, without, for example, journalists cleaning up their African-American Vernacular English to make it more appealing to White audiences.
“The biggest thing I tell people all the time, news organizations and leadership, (is) you can talk about diversity from the top,” Lee said. “But the most important people in the newsroom are your middle managers who deal with reporters every day and talk to them every day, and if they’re not diverse in those areas, chances are you’re not keeping your diverse staffers because they don’t know how to manage them or have a relationship with them.”
Bryant asserts most people understand why diversity is needed – until that diversity means including Black voices.
“If you look at the history of writing and ethnicity, and if you take Black people out of it, everybody else understands the necessity; they understand the importance,” Bryant said. “They understand Oscar Wilde writing about the Irish or Virginia Woolf writing about women. They understand that those perspectives are not only important, but they’re urgent. You need somebody inside the tribe to explain how the tribe feels.
“But that is not something that is afforded to Black people without pressure. We get our voice, but only because we have to fight for it.”
The Influence of Sports Media
The media shapes how people view characters and issues in sport and society. Today, however, journalists' stories are increasingly found online and on social networks in addition to more traditional mediums like print, television and radio.
As the media itself has changed, its relationship to and impact on athletes and the sports industry has changed as well. Does a more disparate and diverse media ecosystem inspire hope for a better future in sport, or could old pitfalls arise again in an era defined by digitization and immediacy?