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By: Fisile Mabuza and Tianna Mañón
Reporting is tough. Journalists are constantly consuming content that may be horrific, gruesome or otherwise troubling. Studies have shown the impact that reporting can have on one’s mental and emotional health. For Black reporters, the psychological challenges are compounded by the experience of anti-Black racism in the media system.
Media 2070’s award-winning documentary Black in the Newsroom gives insight into the hurdles many Black journalists experience. The 15-minute film follows journalist Elizabeth Montgomery as she navigates anti-Blackness in the media and explores its pervasive harm to society.
“When Black journalists like Elizabeth are marginalized and pushed out of journalism, the results are disastrous,” said Collette Watson, vice president of cultural strategy for Free Press, co-creator of Media 2070 and director of Black in the Newsroom. “Lives and livelihoods are destroyed, and subsequent reporting fails to capture the full truth of our communities. This dramatically shapes discourse and policies that affect realities for all.”
“As Elizabeth bravely shares her story in our film,” Watson added, “we see that the conversation is bigger than issues around hiring and diversity. Anti-Black racism has been extremely profitable for the U.S. media business since colonial times.”
U.S. media: A history of anti-Black racism
The earliest colonial newspapers used revenue from “runaway slave” ads to stay afloat, and publishers — including Benjamin Franklin — often acted as brokers in the trafficking of enslaved African people. From these anti-Black roots, it’s no wonder that today’s Black reporters are more likely to be underpaid and under promoted.
Black reporters are also more likely to be targeted and forced out — in part because the stories they write often threaten the status quo of racial capitalism and white-racial hierarchy — which U.S. media corporations greatly benefit from. For example, the Federal Communications Commission issued the first broadcast licenses exclusively to white men, and those organizations have gone on to build multibillion-dollar fortunes in media wealth with no reconciliation of the harm to excluded communities.
The current media system and the policies that structure it are designed to exploit and dehumanize Black journalists while under-resourcing Black-owned media. Groups of journalists are rising up in resistance to these practices, and films like Black in the Newsroom highlight the truth of their experiences. They also demonstrate that Black media-makers are more likely to report hard-hitting stories that serve the information needs of people of color, at a time when the country’s changing demographics increasingly demand such shifts.
Media 2070 demands media reparations for Black newsrooms
“I’m making you look real good out here in the streets,” Elizabeth Montgomery says in the film. She covered high-profile stories for The Arizona Republic but discovered she was being paid more than $20,000 less than her white counterpart, who had 10 years’ less experience.
The documentary is part of Media 2070’s larger campaign pushing for media reparations. The campaign launched in 2020 with an essay that deeply examines the history of anti-Black harm in the U.S. media system. The Media 2070 team is also organizing for changes at the federal level, calling on the FCC to investigate its history of racism in media policymaking, which has resulted in a de facto media-apartheid system.
While it’s crucial for the FCC to examine how its policy choices and actions have harmed Black people and other communities of color, media institutions must also address the pain they’ve inflicted.
“To address deep-rooted systemic harm, media organizations must engage in a thoughtful and community-engaged process of media reparations,” Watson said. “This involves acknowledgement, reckoning, accountability and redress, and a commitment to caring for Black journalists and communities. This process is the only path forward to a true multiracial democracy, and the types of news and information our communities deserve.”
Learn more and get involved with Media 2070 to see how it’s working with media-makers, scholars, community organizers and more to transform the future of media.