Can journalism’s “reckoning” with racism progress to accountability — and redress?
Newsrooms are beginning to interrogate these standards by moving away from the ideology of “if it bleeds, it leads” in favor of tangible initiatives, like right to be forgotten policies and more comprehensive, humanizing reporting that explores the roots of violence and its impact.
Even more transformational shifts are on the horizon. Calls to abolish the police and prisons entirely are now being joined by complementary demands to “defund the crime beat” by dramatically investing in journalism spearheaded by communities of color and reconfiguring media to rethink public safety.
Among the most influential of these voices has been Media 2070, a project from the media advocacy organization Free Press. In 2020, Media 2070 launched as a research essay detailing the history of U.S. media and its participation in — and reliance upon — anti-Black racism and harm. Most importantly, the essay outlines the need for media reparations. This specific form of reparations seeks economic and political redress from media institutions and policymakers for the harms their coverage has wrought on Black communities.
The power of this call to action is its ability to see the entirety of the media landscape and the multitude of actors who deserve redress — from the communities that have been harmed by coverage to underpaid and underappreciated Black journalists who have been stifled by their newsrooms. I sat down with Alicia Bell, co-creator and founding director of Media 2070, and Venneikia Williams, Media 2070’s campaign manager, to discuss their work and their vision for the future.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Maybe people lose their jobs, and they transition someone else into the role who isn’t necessarily any different from the person who was there before, so it’s not a meaningful transfer of power. So when we talk about how to get to the redress, there’s no risk that we really see being taken.
There are organizers within these newsrooms who have been pushing for these things, but once the performative act of apology is done, we never really get to solutions of supporting and paying journalists. Money isn’t the only thing that’s required. It is one of the things that we recognize is important, as people need to be paid and their material needs need to be met — but then the conditions they’re working within have to be changed. You can’t just change the surface and not change the practices. We often talk about building a reparative culture within a space and what it looks like to actually infuse care into the work, but capitalistic structures and the forces that be don’t necessarily prioritize that.
I think it’s going to take folks organizing — whether that’s stakeholder activism for corporations or organizing for policy change — to make those changes happen, because in the same ways that there is a potential to benefit from purchasing these newsrooms, they also benefit from the failure of these organizations. Oftentimes, they’re going to get some sort of bailout. They’re going to be okay. They’re going to have something else to fall back on. If they think they will benefit no matter what and keep wealth in the hands of a few people [by] maintaining a journalism that allows for that, then they win. I think that’s why it requires organizing, mobilizing, building relationships, and having a million conversations with a variety of different people to make change happen.
And in terms of harm, you can say the same thing. [Just like] when stations were syndicating radio shows from white supremacists and white citizen councils, you see the same kind of platforming happening now on social media. When newsrooms fail to pay Black journalists equitably, you can see the same thing when it comes to TikTok influencers.
So for us, working in the realm of traditional journalism, it’s a bit of practice because if we can iterate, learn, build, and organize in this space, then we can use similar processes and tactics when it comes to social media or tech infrastructure.
So even though we’ve been anchored in conversation with many traditional journalism people, we still work in coalition with folks who are doing work around tech reparations. Safiya Noble, for example, is building out what tech reparations would look like, so it’s been really important for us to follow her work and be in conversation with her. I always generally worry about what’s going to happen next with social media, but also there is hope because none of these strategies are new.
The magic — because magic can be good or bad — of narrative is that it can counteract your lived experience. That’s such a wild thing to me because, for example, the narrative of policing never correlates to the neighborhoods they name. So people’s lived experience is that if you see more police, then the neighborhood would be deemed unsafe. If there are less police, the neighborhood is really safe. But then for some reason, the narrative holds that the police keep us safe.
There also were folks encouraging these newsrooms to divest all or a part of their money into an endowment for local Black-run community papers — and I think those kinds of things are possible. Even if newsrooms created pooled funds to cover bonds or pay for bail, that could be really impactful.
For folks who don’t have friends or family members who are or who have been incarcerated, the understanding of incarceration is so different from what it’s really like. There is so much room [for newsrooms] to do really basic information sharing, like [about] how folks inside get phone calls. Newsrooms can even consider how they can be in conversation with incarcerated or formerly incarcerated folks and ask directly: What can we do to repair harm, and what can we do to support you moving forward?
I would say there’s already a good response, but what we’re hoping is that it wasn’t just a moment and that folks really want to lean into and delve into the principles that we talked about and those eight things that they can do. It will be a check-in of, “Have you actually been doing this?” And if not, is there more that can be done? And here’s how we take it a step further.
Tamar Sarai is a features staff reporter at Prism, an independent and nonprofit newsroom led by journalists of color. It reports from the ground up and at the intersections of injustice
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