Listen to this article here
Throughout history, Black reporters and journalists around the nation have been paid tens of thousands of dollars less than their White counterparts. And yet they are much more likely to cover racial-justice protests, hold police and other institutions accountable, and take on complex beats.
In our award-winning documentary, Black in the Newsroom, the Media 2070 project looks deeply into these dynamics as we follow Elizabeth Montgomery, a reporter who was hired for her dream job as an arts-and-culture reporter at The Arizona Republic.
Almost immediately, Montgomery faced abusive comments from leadership, pay discrimination, and a generally toxic environment. Over time, the challenges compounded to eventually push her out of the journalism industry. Her struggles exemplify the larger issue of racism in the media and how it impacts our society.
Media 2070 uplifts crucial role of Black journalists
Black in the Newsroom was produced by the Media 2070 project at Free Press, an advocacy group working to dream up media reparations. The Media 2070 project debuted in 2020 with a 100-page research essay detailing historical examples of the media’s anti-Black harms.
The essay explains how the media industry — including but not limited to journalism, film, television, music, book publishing, social media, and Big Tech — all profit from perpetuating a White-supremacist worldview.
Newsrooms’ anti-Blackness dates all the way back to the chattel-slavery era. The earliest newspapers in colonial America published ads for those engaged in trafficking enslaved African people, often with the newspaper publishers themselves brokering the deal.
This revenue allowed these publications to stay in operation. Today, too many newspapers feature inaccurate coverage of Black communities, often criminalizing residents or failing to spotlight positive news.
These same papers are also highly toxic environments for Black journalists and other journalists of color attempting to exist on staff — and Black newspapers are severely underfunded compared to their White-led counterparts. Black journalists are hard-pressed to find an environment where they can experience the abundant resources and care they need to deliver truthful reporting on our communities.
“Right now, it’s nearly impossible to exist as a Black person in the field of journalism.”
I became particularly clear on these dynamics when I saw Elizabeth Montgomery bravely posting online about her experience as a Black woman journalist at the Arizona Republic in the summer of 2021.
The News Guild had published a study that same year that showed that Gannett, the nation’s largest newspaper chain, was paying journalists of color an average of $16,000 less than their White counterparts. Meanwhile, Montgomery had discovered that she was being paid $20,000 less than a White colleague who had about 10 years less experience. I watched in awe as she shared her truth amid an exodus of journalists of color from the same newsroom.
Montgomery’s story stood out because I had personally witnessed the impact of her reporting on my local area. During the pandemic lockdown, she wrote a story on Grassrootz Bookstore, the only Black-owned bookstore in Arizona. Unlike many small businesses that were hurt during the COVID-related economic downturn, Grassrootz was flourishing in part thanks to Montgomery’s coverage.
Her reporting was instrumental: It empowered the store’s owners and other marginalized people in the community. She was seeking out under-told stories — while also being underpaid and exploited and finding it nearly impossible to survive.
The power of the Black press
Black journalists like Montgomery have been essential to community progress for generations. Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells, and so many others have challenged the status quo of White-racial hierarchy using the power of the press. Black Wall Street Times’ Deon Osborne once said: “Black press is the truest expression of democracy,” and I believe he’s exactly right. Who better to challenge America’s failures as a democracy than the journalists most impacted by disenfranchisement and systemic oppression?
Consider this: When the HBO show Watchmen premiered in 2019, it was the first time many viewers learned anything about the 1921 Tulsa Massacre. The truth is, the White mobs of Tulsa didn’t just destroy the Greenwood District: They also burned down its two Black-owned newspapers — largely robbing Black Tulsans of the means to have their history officially reported, recorded, and redressed.
What other Black stories have been diminished? What don’t we know in Phoenix, Denver, Tuscaloosa, and so many places across this country? What truths have been lost because the Black press and journalists have been under-supported or outright silenced?
Invest in Black media
With our film, Black in the Newsroom, the Media 2070 project is on a mission to tell the story of one Black journalist and to create a community of care around all Black journalists. Caring for Black journalists is just one step — but a critical one — on the path to a future that’s abundant with truth and reparations. It’s the key to facilitating a media system we’ve never had: one that is no longer defined by anti-Blackness.
We want a meaningful investment in Black journalists’ work. And we want community members to appreciate, defend and support conscientious Black journalists while partnering with them to unearth the information we need to stay safe, healthy, and strong.
People want accurate news. We want to see stories with people that look like us. We want the crime beat abolished, we want Black people to own and lead thriving newsrooms. If you believe we deserve a truthful newscape, get involved: Sign this petition to urge newsrooms to intentionally care for Black journalists and communities.
When you sign, you’ll have the option to stay connected with Media 2070 and the media-reparations movement. You’ll also get resources, invitations, and updates on in-person and virtual events, including local screenings of Black in the Newsroom and much more.
Media reparations are a process, not just a destination. We embark on this journey because we know that truthful news and media are critical to creating the conditions for all kinds of justice — and finally realizing a world where all Black people are free.
In the words of my fellow Media 2070 co-creator Alicia Bell, “May there be no more journalism written with the blood of Black lives.”
Collette Watson, who co-created Media 2070, is the vice president of cultural strategy at Free Press and the project director for Media 2070.