Commentary: Racial Disparities of COVID-19 Shed Light on the Disparities in West Virginia Journalism

Graphic: David Smith/100 Days in Appalachia
Graphic: David Smith/100 Days in Appalachia

In recent weeks, I’ve watched West Virginia make national headlines and receive praise for its seemingly efficient rollout of the coronavirus vaccine. 

Just last week, NPR interviewed the head of the state’s task force overseeing the vaccine rollout here to glorify his accomplishments, placing the interview under the headline West Virginia’s Vaccination Rate Ranks Among Highest In World. About 16 percent of the state’s population has received one dose so far, but the headlines don’t tell the full truth.

The headlines never mentioned Black West Virginians.

We know that Black Americans are dying at 1.4 times the rate of white Americans, but across the country, white Americans are getting vaccinated at twice the rate

Racial and ethnic data about who is receiving vaccines in West Virginia isn’t readily available to the public. The data everywhere is challenging, but the crop of national stories about West Virginia’s rollout overlook – and undermine – the need for data on the state’s health disparities that have persisted during COVID-19. And you can’t talk about those health disparities without mentioning the state’s media disparities that go along with them.

When it comes to communicating with Black communities in this state, West Virginia leans on the Herbert Henderson Office of Minority Affairs. The office’s executive director and one staffer attend those Martin Luther King Day celebrations and token Black History month events, but in almost a year of daily state government press conferences about the coronavirus, the office who leads the  COVID-19 Advisory Commission on African American Disparities has not been given the microphone to speak to the public. 

Instead, the state continues its tradition of relying on the Black Church as health information brokers – a system  that was designed by slavery and reinforced by segregation.

We learn from West Virginia native Henry Louis Gates’s PBS Documentary series, “The Black Church,” why. In the series, Gates takes a macro look at why the Black church was so important during and following legal slavery in this country, and remains so important today, explaining how Black people have been systematically brutalized and debased throughout our history as a nation, from the inhumane system of human slavery to a century of Jim Crow racism to the vicious murder of George Floyd.

Gates explains how Black churches were the first institutions built by Black people and run independently, even when it was illegal for Black people to read the Bible or a newspaper. Black Americans’ literacy has always been a direct threat to the justification of slavery — that Black people were “less than human” — just as literacy today undermines the pursuit of equity and reparations.

The first Black newspaper in West Virginia, The Advocate, appeared in 1901 and the last, The Beacon Digest, closed in 2006. According to the West Virginia Press Association, not one of West Virginia’s 70 newspapers in 35 years has employed  more than three Black reporters at one time, of which I was one.

Very little data is available on diversity in the news media in West Virginia – how many people of color work as reporters, editors, in sales, or distribution – much like what we see from the health data during this global pandemic. There is a history behind the inequality we see in our newsrooms, too – a history that includes media organizations profiteering off of chattel slavery during its early years, and racist journalism dividing communities, inciting violence and leading to countless lynchings. Although they themselves are not newsrooms, social media platforms are often seen as news sources and in 2020, they allowed white supremacists to use their platforms to organize, fundraise, recruit and spread hate while upholding white supremacy.

America seems to be on a 50 year cycle of recognizing the role, responsibility and negligence of the media in promoting white supremacy. It was 50 years ago that the Kerner Report criticized newspapers and television for failing to report on African American life adequately or to employ more than a token number of Blacks. Fifty years before the Kerner Report, the Chicago Commission on Race Relations of 1919 released their indictment showing journalism contributed to racial violence. If we continue to follow the pattern, it will be 2070 before the media’s role in the white supremacist and domestic extremist movements of toady are fully acknowledged.

America deeply needs context, community-rooted journalism and reparations to address information inequality and build trust in information portals. Media reparations that can happen today in Appalachia would look not only like more Black reporters and editors, but owners too. It would look like the opening up access to the Black opinion writing on the digital pages of regional newspapers. In West Virginia, Black pastors like Matthew Watts, Rev. Ronald English and Rev. David Fryson have written hundreds of op-eds over the years for the state’s premiere newspaper, the Charleston Gazette-Mail, and all of those writings must be accessed through a paid subscription.  Black history sits behind the paywall, restricted to users who have the means to access the content. 

These Black pastors in West Virginia offer a voice in the absence of Black people and a reminder that we alternate between not being seen and being hypervisible whenever there is a health disparity or social problem. And when these problems occur, Black people in West Virginia are likely to be caught in the crosshairs — and in the paradox of visibility, especially in the world of white-run news media that needs a remedy.

So, as we continue to glorify West Virginia’s efforts to vaccinate its people, remember who is not being vaccinated. As we continue to write news stories that we say are to help get information to vulnerable populations, remember who is not doing the writing. 

Crystal Good (she/her/hers) is hard to put in just one box. She prefers Affrilachian artist, digital media entrepreneur, and social advocate. She is a West Virginia University Newstart Fellow and the author ofValley Girl.” Follow her on Twitter, @cgoodwoman.

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