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By Collette Watson, Diamond Hardiman and Alicia Bell
Culture is Material. Although seemingly intangible, culture undergirds everything from our collective values to the design of our neighborhoods and cities.
Achieving justice for the entirety of the public requires shifting culture. In particular, there must be a cultural transformation in the United States away from the deeply held myth of Black inferiority. One way that starts is with reporters and newsrooms everywhere telling stories in service of repair.
Since colonial times, U.S. media outlets have distorted narratives, perpetuated damaging stereotypes about Black people, and helped criminalize us. In 1706, the Boston News-Letter made history as America’s first continuously published newspaper. It also published a deeply anti-Black statement in its first issue: “Negroes are generally Eye-Servants, great Thieves, much addicted to stealing, Lying, and Purloining. They do not People our Country as Whites would do whereby we should be strengthened against an Enemy.”
Almost 300 years later, during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the media spread misinformation about so-called looting and violence in predominantly Black neighborhoods. People in marginalized Black communities were simply trying to get basic necessities. Still, they were targeted as “looters,” while journalists described white residents as “survivors.” This discriminatory dichotomy is par for the course when it comes to disaster reporting.
History of media has always been anti-Black
Throughout the history of our media, anti-Black racism has been part of the business model of media platforms, intending to solidify white readership and support.
Stories and reporting grounded in racism created the narratives that have been weaponized as justification for kidnapping, enslavement, human trafficking, and all kinds of state violence against Black bodies. Today, these anti-Black narratives undergird regressive policies like bans on African-American studies in Arkansas and Florida and the false perception of Black Lives Matter as a violent movement.
Among a laundry list of media harms, the limited coverage of the Flint water crisis stands out as a painful example of the indifference to the health and well-being of Black communities disproportionately impacted by environmental injustice.
The city’s crisis began in 2014 when residents began complaining about the smell and taste of their water. While local news outlets extensively covered the calamity from its inception, national news outlets ignored what was happening for two years. By disregarding this story, the national media perpetuated a cycle of systemic negligence — similar to how the media covered up the Tulsa Race Massacre and many other injustices on U.S. soil.
This pattern of ignoring and silencing historical and present-day roots of injustice perpetuates the marginalization and dehumanization of Black people. And it feeds a societal narrative in which we blame the oppressed for problems in their communities.
There’s another way
But it’s not the only way to produce journalism. Instead, the same reporters and newsrooms that have created harm, or quietly allowed it, can change course now by integrating media reparations into their editorial process.
Media reparations are about mending the wounds caused by systemic racism in the media system. It’s a process of completely reimagining our media system, away from the anti-Blackness that has defined it from the very beginning, toward a future media that is abundant with the resources needed for Black people to own and control our own stories.
Delivering truthful and in-depth reporting about the fullness of Black life and issues is an important beginning step.
“Narratives are a profound force,” said Collette Watson, director of Media 2070, an advocacy project dedicated to dreaming up the future of media reparations.
“We often think of racists and racism as mysterious madmen hanging onto the fringes of society. But the fact is that anti-Blackness is a common feature in our society, in everything from schools to hospitals and, of course, the media system that feeds our culture. The first step toward realizing racial justice is shifting our media system away from narratives of hate by cultivating narratives of repair.”
To bring that shift into fruition, Media 2070 has crafted a set of questions that every reporter can ask themselves to interrogate how their reporting could perpetuate systemic anti-Black harm:
Am I amplifying or silencing Black truths in my reporting?
As you gather information for your stories, engaging a variety of stakeholders who experience the same issue differently matters. That means interviewing Black residents, activists, and organizational leaders for a more holistic understanding of any issue you cover.
Current media practices often center corporate and police perspectives, reinforcing power structures that oppress marginalized communities. Good journalism holds power to account by exploring facts and truths as experienced by people across the power spectrum — rather than providing coverage that parrots corporate and law-enforcement talking points
Am I reinforcing stereotypical anti-Black myths in my reporting?
Stereotypes dehumanize Black people and other marginalized communities.
Some of the most common stereotypes reinforcing a Black inferiority framework involve conflating Blackness with poverty, presuming criminality, and adultifying Black children.
Instead of propping up stereotypes, your reporting should be grounded in real nuance. That means considering people within the context of systems and histories of harm, power, and oppression.
Is the language I’m using inclusive and rooted in respect?
Avoid terms that dehumanize Black people and trivialize the experiences of oppressed communities. This is particularly important when writing about the criminal-legal system, where reporters often use stereotypes and harmful language to describe those accused of crimes, including terms like “inmate” and “illegal immigrant.”
Use people-first language, as described by the Marshall Project. And, keep in mind that this is why authentic community relationship matters: While many people impacted by incarceration prefer people-first language, there are mixed feelings among Black disabled communities about people-first language. Consider how you move at these kinds of intersections.
Have I explored the root causes of present-day conditions in underserved Black communities?
Reporting on breaking news and current events without providing historical and systemic context can contribute to the cultural environment that engenders regressive policy, anti-Black hate, and racist violence.
While it may be faster to simply state what you observe at any given moment, the emphasis on speed is one of many features of our media system that has landed us in the throes of a disinformation crisis with roots in the long legacy of media racism. Exploring root causes is necessary for any reporter or newsroom seeking to uncover the truth and repair the harms of the past.
Am I stewarding stories with care in my reporting?
Corporate journalism often frames Black communities as subjects or targets rather than as co-creators and constituents of information and narratives. Black communities deserve journalism that serves their health and well-being.
Practice holding people’s stories with care, compassion, and tenderness — especially when reporting stories after traumatic events. Check out this resource featuring tips for journalists from restorative justice practitioners.
News leaders and journalists must tell stories that are a bridge rather than a barrier, bringing marginalized voices to the center. In this way, we can begin unearthing our communities’ long, untold truths.
Black identity encompasses disabled, queer, trans, religious minority, immigrant, and other identities often left out of our broader societal imagination. The journey toward reparative reporting requires taking steps now to ensure a [hopefully, near] future where Black communities are not a pawn used to stoke white fear and fetishization for ratings, clicks, views, and profits, but are instead viewed as the precious, prismatic and multi-dimensional souls we know ourselves to be.
It’s time to normalize justice, truth, and dignity in the media’s portrayal of Blackness. May there be no more journalism written in the blood of Black lives.
Collette Watson is the director of the Media 2070 project and the vice president of cultural strategy at Free Press, where Diamond Hardiman is the reparative journalism manager. Alicia Bell is a co-creator of the Media 2070 project and director of the Racial Equity in Journalism Fund at Borealis Philanthropy.