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By: Collette Watson, Diamond Hardiman and Nyasia Almestica
To secure media reparations, we need Black journalists. Often underappreciated, Black reporters play a major role in uncovering hidden injustices that plague communities nationwide.
Rather than celebrate and build on these vital contributions, there has been an ongoing effort to erase their efforts.
However, recognizing how Black reporters shape journalism isn’t merely a matter of historical accuracy; it’s essential to the broader concept of media reparations — a process that seeks to abolish harmful systems in media.
Ethel Payne challenged White “objectivity”
In spotlighting the kinds of racial injustices that the mainstream media often ignore, Black journalists challenge the news industry’s emphasis on so-called objectivity, a concept that has centered White perspectives as fact and anything else as “biased.”
Ethel Payne, dubbed the “First Lady of the Black Press,” was an architect of change. As a prominent civil-rights activist and the first African-American woman to join the White House press corps, Payne was a trailblazing journalist who reported on political advancements and social disparities in America.
She was fearless in the pursuit of truth and had no qualms about asking the tough questions.
For example, at a White House press conference in July 1954, while the Civil Rights Movement was in full swing, Payne courageously asked President Eisenhower about his position on banning segregation on interstate travel.
He famously responded that he wasn’t interested in supporting “special groups.” Payne was criticized by the Eisenhower administration for her question and iced out for the remainder of the conference, an example of the historical pattern of exclusion and silencing of Black journalists’ voices in the media that persists today.
Payne continued to tirelessly cover the Civil Rights Movement while working for The Chicago Defender. She reported on pivotal figures and events like Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott and interviewed Martin Luther King Jr. before he gained national prominence.
Despite her ability to passionately report on overlooked issues disproportionately facing Black Americans, Payne and the Defender remained largely unnoticed by white audiences.
Black journalists reshape public awareness
Just as Ethel Payne used journalism to highlight oppressive systems harming Black communities, so did Marvel Cooke. Cooke was the first African-American woman to become a reporter at The Daily Compass, a mainstream White-owned newspaper. She used her investigative journalism skills in her new position to raise awareness of the 1935 Bronx Slave Market.
In January 1950, Cooke wrote articles that captured how “slave markets” made it difficult for Black women to find day jobs in the heart of the Great Depression. She exposed the overt racism, grueling work conditions, and low wages Black women endured.
By working alongside these women, Cooke shattered dehumanizing stereotypes about Black women and exposed the systemic exploitation they experienced.
Black journalists reshape public awareness and promote social change by exposing the consequences of white supremacy.
The “Why Black Media Matters Now” report found that between March 2020 and May 2021, 23 percent of articles published by Black media outlets discussed racism and issues impacting Black communities compared to 8 percent of articles by mainstream media.
Black reporters are at the forefront of reframing the national discourse on Black lives and eliminating harmful stereotypes.
Media Reparations in the 21st Century
“Embracing the achievements of Black journalists goes beyond superficial awards,” said Collette Watson, director of Media 2070, an advocacy project working to transform the media landscape through media reparations. “Cease the propagation of anti-Black narratives, compensate Black reporters and elevate them to leadership positions.”
This reparative work shouldn’t rest on the shoulders of exhausted Black journalists.
They have been advocating for marginalized communities for generations. News organizations must create policies that benefit Black reporters and, in turn, advocate for underserved communities.
White-owned media institutions must also elevate Black journalists to leadership roles. It matters who has control of storytelling.
A 2018 survey found that only about one-fifth of Black newsroom employees were in leadership roles. By gatekeeping leadership positions, the criminalization of Black people remains a sensational narrative normalized in the media. The result? A cycle of injustice that contributes to racial disparities in the criminal-justice system.
Media 2070 offers news organizations the opportunity to expand their efforts beyond DEI training to redress the deep-seated racism within the media’s history.
Repair entails more than recognition and financial compensation. It should be rooted in compassion and care for Black reporters, who are crucial to the fight for media reparations.
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. Nyasia Almestica is a publicist at Manon Media, an agency led by CEO Tianna Manon.