In May of last year, Mayor Lori Lightfoot took a bold and controversial step to mark her first two years in office: She granted one-on-one interviews exclusively to reporters of color. Lightfoot said her one-day policy was meant to draw attention to a lack of diversity in the city’s press corps, but critics called it a publicity stunt that deflected efforts to evaluate her performance in office.
Nearly a year later, the press corps still does not fully reflect Chicago’s diversity. But some say the mayor hasn’t done her part to follow up on the issue. Numerous reporters of color say they continue to have limited-to-zero access to Lightfoot. An invitation to talk about the problem with at least one newsroom leader went unanswered. And, critics say the mayor has ignored an opportunity to push policies to financially support local newsrooms of color.
A WBEZ analysis of Lightfoot’s schedule also shows that — excluding the one-day action — of 35 interviews with local outlets in the past year, only six were with organizations that represent people of color. She conducted 31 interviews with national or nonlocal outlets during the same timeframe, from May 2021 to mid-March. Five additional scheduled interview time slots did not specify an outlet.
“The follow-up after has not been good at all, and that’s what’s left a sour taste in my mouth,” said Brandon Pope, president of the Chicago chapter of the National Association of Black Journalists. “And honestly, it kind of sours the entire thing, because it does feel like a stunt. And it does feel like we were used for political props.”
Pope is among half a dozen reporters of color who spoke to WBEZ for this story. He and others agree with Lightfoot that local news outlets need more diversity, but they are critical of how she highlighted the problem and how she has handled access since.
In a statement, the mayor’s office said she’s spoken with journalists of color who appreciated the attention she’s given to the issue of media diversity. And, her office wrote, she believes her callout of the media has prompted some change.
“The Mayor has also noticed that some publications have started featuring people of color in a more positive light with above the fold stories which portray success and accomplishments and not merely perpetrators or victims of crime,” the statement reads in part. “Some progress has been made, but not enough.”
Lightfoot’s 2021 callout
South Side Weekly‘s Editor-in-Chief Jacqueline Serrato, who is Latina, said she requested an interview during the two-year anniversary uproar but didn’t get one.
“Lightfoot took [the issue of diversity] and kind of used it for her own purposes of wanting to demonstrate that she was advocating for or she was cool with journalists of color, when I don’t think that’s been the case so far,” Serrato said.
Back in May 2021, The TRiiBE’s co-founders Morgan Elise Johnson and Tiffany Walden received a phone call offering a one-on-one with Lightfoot days before her two-year anniversary. The online news organization, which focuses on stories about the Black community, rarely got attention from the mayor’s office, the two recalled, saying the interview was an opportunity they’d “never turn down.” Lightfoot’s office did not mention she was only doing interviews with reporters of color, Johnson said.
That news broke later, on Twitter, through a post from a white reporter who was denied an interview, setting off a media firestorm. It was then that the mayor’s office informed The TRiiBE they were part of a larger effort, Johnson said.
“I think that we were initially pawns in the beginning because when the mayor’s office pitched this to us, they didn’t tell us that, ‘By the way, we’re doing this initiative where we’re only interviewing with Black and brown journalists.’ They didn’t tell us that,” Johnson said.
Johnson and Walden said the rollout of the diversity action appeared disorganized and put the outlet in a stressful 24-hour spiral. While they prepared to interview the mayor, they had to field interview requests of their own from news outlets seeking comment.
“[S]he knew that she would be able to spin this whole thing, take it to a whole different place than what it needed to be focused on, which was: What has she done in the last two years as mayor?” Walden said.
Still, staff at the seven-person outlet went into overdrive to prepare their columnist, Bella BAHHS, for the interview, seeing it as a critical opportunity to speak truth to a powerful politician. The TRiiBE questioned Lightfoot about the lack of resources for Chicagoans getting out of prison, her views on qualified immunity for police officers, and the INVEST South/West program Lightfoot claims has pushed tens of millions of dollars to disinvested parts of the city. Lightfoot also struggled to name Black restaurants on the South and West sides where she eats.
Johnson and Walden said they haven’t heard much from the mayor’s office since, and continue to face difficulty gaining access.
In a letter sent to reporters outlining her one-day policy, Lightfoot said diversifying the media isn’t her job and “shouldn’t be.”
“I don’t have time for it,” Lightfoot said. “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.”
Still, Lightfoot ended the appeal by asking news outlets to tell her what they “plan to do to address this concern,” saying it’s “impossible for this glaring lack of diversity not to be reflected in the daily coverage of government, politics and city life every single day.”
Records and interviews show at least one outlet tried to follow up on the issue. Crain’s Chicago Business publisher and executive editor Jim Kirk reached out to the mayor, who didn’t respond.
“My door is always open for a discussion on this important topic, and others,” Kirk wrote. “I’m happy to come by and meet to discuss at your convenience. Looking forward to talking.”
Government support for local media
Obviously, Lightfoot does not have the power to change the makeup of newsrooms. That is a problem that newsroom leaders, executives and editors must grapple with. And in a statement in response to this story, a spokesperson for Lightfoot reiterated the problem still persists and that “much of the editorial boards, newsrooms and industry leadership remains white and male.”
But there is recent precedent for government bodies supporting community journalism that serves disinvested communities, said Tim Franklin, a senior associate dean at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism. Franklin, a former editor at the Chicago Tribune, now leads the school’s “Local News Initiative,” a research project designed to bolster the sustainability of local news.
“When this first emerged as the major story, I thought, oh, this is great. We’re now going to get serious about elevating the issue of diversity,” Franklin said. “We’re going to get serious about what could the government’s role potentially be in helping local and community news outlets, that I think is a very healthy conversation to have.”
Franklin points to New York City, for instance, where former Mayor Bill de Blasio signed an executive order mandating that city agencies spend at least 50% of their media advertising budgets on community news outlets.
A study from the school of journalism at the City University of New York revealed that initiative proved successful in supporting underserved outlets in the city, delivering $9.9 million to more than 230 outlets — nearly a quarter of whom had never received city advertising before.
In her letter in 2021, Lightfoot touted efforts she’s taken to “prioritize outlets led by people of color,” stating her administration has hosted ethnic media roundtables and “focused paid public service media ad dollars” in the direction of Black and Latinx TV and radio stations.
Several reporters of color cited those roundtables as an example of how Lightfoot’s administration has made efforts in the past to connect with the Black and brown press. But several Black reporters said there have only been a handful of them during Lightfoot’s first term, and none in the past year. By contrast, Lightfoot has held three off-record conversations with the City Hall press corps in the past year.
Lightfoot did not provide further details in 2021, or in response to WBEZ’s questions this week, about how much money her agencies spend on ads in Black and Latinx outlets. Weeks after she instituted the one-day action on interviews, though, Lightfoot directed her staff to look into the effort in New York City, according to internal emails released as part of a public records request. It’s unclear what, if anything, came of that inquiry.
Veteran political consultant Delmarie Cobb, who is Black, said Lightfoot could do more to boost the city’s Black and brown press.
“If I put a Black person at ABC, or at the Chicago Tribune or the Chicago Sun-Times, well, that’s a Black person who has a job. And yes, that’s important,” Cobb said. “But what does that do in terms of sustaining Black outlets, or community outlets or Latino outlets? And that’s what has to happen. We’re watching these newspapers, actually, you know, die on the vine, because they’re not getting the advertising dollars in order to be sustainable.”
Advertising dollars aside, local reporters are full of ideas for what they’d like to see from a mayoral administration that takes prioritizing Black and brown reporters seriously. Pope, with the NABJ, said his organization has been hosting roundtable discussions with sports franchises, for example, on how to increase access for reporters of color at sporting events and press conferences.
“The mayor’s office never reached out to us, never talked to [NABJ]. There was no coordination there at all. I would have loved to see Mayor Lightfoot in the mayor’s office, do the same thing with us,” Pope said.
“We could have a media roundtable and listening session and hear from these outlets and have them ask questions [like], ‘How do I get access? How does that process work?’ and have people from the mayor’s press team actually explain how that works.”
In a statement, a spokesperson for Lightfoot said the mayor “remains committed to pushing for increased diversity not only in the press corps but in the many roles that make up a newsroom.”
But the response did not provide answers to specific questions about what the mayor has done in the past year to build upon the one-day action, or provide further details on several of the claims Lightfoot made in her letter about what she was already doing to support reporters of color.
Cobb said the criticism Lightfoot is facing on this issue could signal a larger challenge she may have to contend with during her expected reelection campaign: appealing to Black voters, and convincing them that she’s made good on her promises. Some in the Black community who supported her in the past may feel used, Cobb said, like some in the Black media say they do about her action.
“And so is that a pattern? Or were those relationships real?” Cobb said. “Or were those relationships just advantageous at the time?”
Mariah Woelfel covers Chicago city government at WBEZ. You can follow her @MariahWoelfel.