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How to Build an Antiracist Newsroom

From the very beginning, news and information systems in the United States have operated with a business model that hinges on anti-Blackness. For example: Newspaper ads for “runaway slaves,” segregationist propaganda aired on local TV, and tech companies incentivizing the spread of racist disinformation. In other words, such systems are based on racist stereotypes, race-based criminalization, and, ultimately, the exploitation of Black media workers.

When use of the N-word skyrocketed by nearly 500% on Twitter in the 12 hours following Elon Musk’s takeover of the social media platform, we saw this simply as media doing what media have always done.

But it’s time to enter a new world, pushed forward by public health crises, climate change, and a global uprising for Black lives, among other forces. What sort of media system can help us reach a safe, free, and healthy future? 

We believe the answer is a news system defined by anti-racist care.

Profiting From Black Pain

In 2020, Smith College professor Jordan E. Taylor published the results of research showing that thousands of early newspapers in the U.S. published paid ads promoting the sale of enslaved African people and used that revenue to stay financially afloat. 

In 1827, the Freedom’s Journal—the nation’s first Black newspaper—ushered in the Black press. Along with it came a different journalism—one that questioned racist institutions and demanded accountability.

Then came the attacks. 

White supremacist assaults on Black-owned newspapers like Freedom’s Journal were frequent and vicious. When Ida B. Wells-Barnett wrote an anti-lynching editorial in 1892 for the Memphis newspaper she co-owned, the Free Speech and Headlight, a white mob attacked and burned down its offices. 

And when white mobs destroyed the vibrant Black business district in Tulsa’s Greenwood area in 1921, widely referred to as “Black Wall Street,” they burned down two Black-owned newspapers: The Oklahoma Sun and the Tulsa Star. With the destruction of these papers, Black communities lost much of our ability to record and redress the devastation of racial injustice.

The Past Is Prologue

In 1894, Josephus Daniels purchased The News & Observer and immediately launched a yearslong coordinated press campaign against so-called “negro rule” in Wilmington, North Carolina. He inflamed fears of Reconstruction-era gains made by the Black community, and he smeared individual leaders like Alex Manly, owner of Wilmington’s only Black newspaper, the Daily Record

Daniels’ efforts came to a head in 1898 when white mobs undertook a violent assault on the Black community of Wilmington, leaving between 30 and 600 people dead and dozens of homes and businesses burned to the ground. The mob successfully deposed multiracial officials who had been democratically elected just two days prior, replacing them with white supremacists who immediately passed laws preventing African Americans from voting for nearly 70 years. 

The News & Observer remained under control of the Daniels family until 1995, when it was sold to the McClatchy Company. In 2006, the newspaper published an editorial apologizing for its role in the massacre. This story is a case study for why we need media reparations.

Consider this history and the fact that we’ve never cleaned house or reckoned with the role that the paper (and others like it) played. There has never been a wholesale dismantling of the policies that have allowed the perpetrators of anti-Black racism to own and shape newsrooms, to amass multimedia power and ownership, and to pass this power down to relatives and associates.

The culture of white supremacy in newsrooms remains entrenched in spite of rare instances of apologies such as McClatchy’s. So, it’s not hard to understand why today’s newsrooms are still woefully lacking in diversity. 

Black journalists made up only 5.6% of all newsroom staffers working at daily publications in 2017, according to the American Society of News Editors’ (ASNE) annual study. (Although it first conducted the study in 1978, ASNE announced in 2020 that it would no longer continue the annual research due to a lack of participation.)

For those who are able to break into the industry, toxic environments are largely the norm. Journalist Carla Murphy’s 2020 “Leavers” survey indicated a dynamic in which most journalists of color, particularly Black women, leave the field at the mid-career point. She wrote, “Proceeding along this line of inquiry re-frames the newsroom/the industry as the problem—not ‘Leavers’ inability to ‘fit’ in nor a lack of training.”

In 2020, Black journalists and allies at outlets like The Los Angeles TimesThe New York Times, and beyond went public with their demands for change, echoing calls that were heard over 50 years ago in the 1968 Kerner report, and over 100 years ago in the 1922 Chicago Commission on Race Relations report. How long before can we finally disrupt this cycle?

Care Is the Key

Black journalists exist at a nearly impossible intersection: They are tasked with upholding the act of reporting as a bedrock of democracy—while simultaneously experiencing generational disenfranchisement and anti-Black state violence.

With this analysis in hand, the Media 2070 project and our partners across the country have posited that the key to a sustainable future news system—one that works to repair generations of harm—is media reparations.

Media reparations means redistributing power and resources to realize a future in which Black people control their own stories and narratives from ideation through production and distribution. And as with all reparations, it is not a destination, it’s a process. 

For the media system, we know that process begins with developing a culture of anti-racist care, which can look like many things, including:

  • Trusting Black journalists, both when they move forward and offer to tell nuanced stories about Black people and Black communities—and when they need to grieve and move back.
  • Proactively sharing resources and creating space, paid time off, and other institutional policies for Black staff to take care of themselves and their well-being.
  • Auditing and assessing whether our newsrooms’ stories, structures, leadership, and demographics demonstrate care for Black communities and reflect the communities, regions, or country we’re part of. Making concrete changes wherever we’re not showing care.

These points and more are part of Media 2070’s Newsroom Pledge to Care for Black Journalists and Communities. We invite media organizations to sign this pledge, or, if you’re not part of a media organization, you can take action here to urge newsrooms in your area to join the pledge.

Changing Cultural Conditions

Since we launched the Newsroom Pledge in 2021, 80 organizations have signed it, including Mother Jones, the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY, Scalawag Magazine, the Tucson Sentinel, WREG-3 Memphis, and, most recently, YES! Magazine

We also released an award-winning documentary called Black in the Newsroom that details the mistreatment of Elizabeth Montgomery, an Arizona-based journalist who discovered she was being paid far less than a white counterpart—a disparity that is backed up by the News Guild’s 2022 study revealing that women of color in Gannett newsrooms earned nearly $16,000 a year less than white male peers.

What do we all lose when newsrooms lose Black journalists and journalists of color? What do we gain when our communities are cared for and our stories are stewarded well? These questions are the starting point for the process of redress and repair.

Culture is the forest floor where policy either flourishes or dies. Community-minded Black journalists are well-positioned to help create conditions for all kinds of justice. But it’s up to all of us, in newsrooms as well as in communities, to dream and deliver the nourishing environment that Black journalists need. The journey starts today, with care.

CORRECTION: This article was updated at 2:23 p.m. on March 2, 2023, to fix the erroneous date of the 1968 Kerner report. Read our corrections policy here.

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Diamond Hardiman is a cultural organizer grown from the love of a family from Aurora and Park Hill, Colorado. In her role as a program manager at Free Press, she works with the Media 2070 and News Voices teams to name what is required for local-news ecosystems to confront their histories of harm and listen to communities seeding repair. Before joining Free Press, she worked as a tenants-rights advocate and bail abolitionist in St.Louis. She can be reached at media2070.org.
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Venneikia Williams serves as campaign manager for Media 2070, a project of Free Press. She is co-editor of and contributor to “Liberating Church: A 21st Century Hush Harbor Manifesto.” She can be reached via email: [email protected]
Collette Watson is director of the Media 2070 media reparations project at Free Press and co-founder of Black River Life Media. She previously worked with Black Alliance for Just Immigration.
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