As the racially disproportionate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic becomes ever more apparent, the media has scrambled to keep up. Responding to demands for greater government transparency on COVID-19 data, the Atlantic launched the COVID Tracking Project, which includes a “racial data tracker” developed in collaboration with Ibram X. Kendi’s Center for Antiracist Research at Boston University. However, while racial disparities are now being tracked and covered extensively, media outlets have struggled to provide deeper context for the disparate outcomes, and coverage has often provided more heat than light.
Many outlets have given oxygen to fringe anti-lockdown protests and helped to circulate misinformation. Right-wing outlets have overlooked the significance of race as part of a broader effort to downplay the impact of the virus. Meanwhile, President Donald Trump’s eagerness to “reopen” the nation and his racist naming of the virus show scant regard for America’s communities of color.
In the face of such challenges, Black newspapers and media outlets such as the Sacramento Observer, the Chicago Defender and the Triibe have all turned their attention toward the pandemic. Trade organizations such as the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA) have followed suit, stressing COVID-19’s racially disproportionate impact on Black communities and pushing back against racist media narratives. In doing so, they are continuing the Black press’ historic mission as an important disseminator of public-health information to Black communities. Yet even as Black-owned media outlets work to help Black Americans remain informed during the pandemic, they are shouldering long-standing economic pressures that have only worsened in the age of COVID-19.
Since the early decades of the 19th century, the Black press has played a vital role in educating Black America on issues related to public health. Driven by a desire to be accepted within mainstream American society, early Black publishers stressed that “good health” was a vital part of achieving integration and becoming a “successful” member of the middle class. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, tobacco-related health information and calls for temperance were a staple feature within the pages of Black newspapers such as the Chicago Defender and the Pittsburgh Courier. Black newspapers also became an important source of information about contraceptives after the emergence of the modern birth control movement — information that was often denied to Black Americans living under the Jim Crow system in the South.
In addition to providing public-health information, Black newspapers also pushed back against eugenicist narratives in mainstream outlets that framed Black people as unhygienic and carriers of disease, or suggested that Black people were less affected by major disease outbreaks and public-health crises.
During the 1918 influenza pandemic, for example, the failures of mainstream media outlets to document Black life led to reports that Black Americans were somehow “immune” to the flu. These notions were forcefully resisted by the Black press. More broadly, throughout the first-half of the 20th century, Black newspapers worked to counteract widespread assumptions that syphilis was a Black American disease caused by a lack of personal hygiene and sexual promiscuity. The Black press also fought against city ordinances that justified school and housing segregation through the claim that high rates of tuberculosis within Black communities were a threat to white people.
Over the past 50 years, Black publications have continued to disseminate vital public-health information to underserved Black communities and to challenge racist assumptions or narratives peddled by mainstream media outlets. Black consumer magazine Ebony, which became the most popular Black periodical in the country during the decades after World War II, regularly featured stories on public-health issues, emerging as a vital source for information about sickle cell anemia during the 1970s and 1980s, and established influential regular features such as “House Call,” a monthly column dispensing “expert advice on Health and Fitness.”
While the response to the onset of the AIDS crisis during the 1980s by many Black periodicals was initially slow, Black media outlets eventually played an important role in highlighting the disproportionate impact of the epidemic.
More recently, publications such as the Chicago Defender have addressed widespread gun violence in urban communities as a public-health issue, while contemporary Black lifestyle publications such as Essence have continued to make information about “best health practices” a central aspect of their coverage. And this is very important because studies have shown that many Black Americans remain dependent on Black newspapers for health news, particularly with regard to diseases such as cancer and diabetes.
Given this continued dependence, it is unsurprising that a number of Black media outlets have moved quickly in response to COVID-19. Black newspapers ranging from the Birmingham Times to the Houston Defender have added dedicated coronavirus sections to their online mastheads, while others, such as the Sacramento Observer, are including daily COVID-19 updates on their landing pages. Digital Black publications such as the Triibe have responded in kind, challenging racially punitive coverage of pandemic lockdowns and encouraging younger generations of Black Americans to take the virus seriously. On a national level, the NNPA — the nation’s leading trade organization for more than 200 Black community newspapers — established a Coronavirus Task Force in March to help disseminate information about the pandemic to Black American communities and made “Overcoming COVID-19” the theme for its annual conference in early July.
While such initiatives are encouraging, the pandemic has also underscored both the limitations and vulnerability of Black-owned publications. The majority of the NNPA’s members operate on a weekly or biweekly basis, meaning that up-to-date coverage is often difficult. Few Black publications can afford to maintain well-developed or user-friendly websites, meaning their coronavirus coverage can be difficult to navigate. Many remain family-run enterprises operated by aging publishers; a concentration of age and expertise that leaves them highly vulnerable to the virus’ impact.
Perhaps more concerning is the pandemic’s economic threat, which has exacerbated a decades-long trend of declining circulation and advertising revenue. Writing for Black Voice News, Chida Rebecca has described the pandemic as “a menace like no other, threatening to silence the voice of the many African American newspapers that were already fighting so hard to be heard.” These fears were the focus of an NNPA Facebook Live event hosted in early May, which posed the question, “Can the Black Press Survive COVID-19?” Among the contributors was Brenda Andrews of the New Journal and Guide, one of the nation’s longest-running Black newspapers which, thanks to the pandemic, has been forced to halt publication for the first time in its 120-year history.
Aware of the tremendous challenges facing Andrews and other Black publishers, Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., and other vocal allies have pushed for federal stimulus funds to become available to Black media enterprises. Bass co-signed a letter to U.S. congressional leadership in April, emphasizing the historic importance of Black and ethnic media outlets and their continued significance for “many communities of color [who] rely on their local newspapers or radio stations … for information.” Some outlets have been able to secure external loans or grants, with 15 member publishers of the NNPA receiving funding from the Facebook Journalism Project. As the organization’s president, Benjamin Chavis Jr., notes, financial support is critically needed by the Black press; not only for its continued provision of vital public-health information to Black American communities, but to preserve its long-standing role as “a vital prerequisite to an inclusive democracy.”
E. James West is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in American History at Northumbria University, UK. He is the author of “Ebony Magazine and Lerone Bennett Jr.: Popular Black History in Postwar America” (Illinois, 2020).