I carry a significant amount of privilege as a Black journalist, but only within the Black community. People don’t fear that I will twist their words or exploit their sentiments; after all, their pain is in many ways my pain too. But all the Black journalists in the world cannot revive the deteriorating relationship between the Black community and mainstream media; the cuts are too deep, the effects of decades of criminalization and neglect are too traumatic, and as exemplified by the recent events at the University of Missouri, the trust between the two is virtually nonexistent.
The past few weeks have been a roller coaster of emotions for black college students, particularly for those at the University of Missouri. Mizzou graduate student Jonathan Butler embarked on a hunger strike that led to a full-blown campus demonstration against the institution’s complacency toward the systemic racism and harassment Black students have been experiencing since it became integrated in 1950. As the emotional toll of the protests mounted, protest organizers decided to section off part of the demonstration site as a safe space where affected students could vent, cry, and breathe. Mizzou student journalist Tim Tai tried to gain access to the area but was blocked by some students and faculty members. Not long after, media organizations of all political stripes launched an array of think pieces describing the students’ behavior as aggressive, intimidating, even accusing them of “acting like [the media] is making you feel unsafe.”
But these students weren’t acting.
From neglected neighborhoods to tense protests to heartbreaking funerals, the Black community has a longstanding history of granting reporters firsthand access to witness and document its agony; this more than complies with the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of the press. But understanding the sentiment behind creating a “media-free zone” would require one to understand and accept the fact that media remains unchecked in its racist, exploitative manner of chronicling Black pain. Our experiences are only valuable if some editor somewhere thinks they can bring in more clicks. Earlier this month, students at the historically-black Tennessee State University confronted a reporter on live television for only engaging with them when crime alerts were issued, while neglecting to chronicle the university’s high points. Our pain is relevant if, and only if, it can procure a byline. St. Louis natives have accused the Ferguson media frenzy of undermining their work to keep the peace during the protests. Yet the moment we request a break to digest the events unfurling around us without a camera flash, or simply seek to prevent our image from falling into the hands of those that would do us harm, we become “entitled.”
But the pundits and writers who accuse the Mizzou students of entitlement ought to realize that, by their own standards, they are perpetuating the exact same thing. Some have even gone so far as to invoke Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s media-friendly legacy as a means to dismiss legitimate accusations of cultural insensitivity and dehumanization.
Yes, MLK saw the media as a tool that could be used to document and promote civil disobedience to the nation. But that was fifty years ago. One can only wonder what the great Reverend would think of the New York Times’ infamous description of Mike Brown as “no angel” in a piece that can only be described as deliberate, prejudiced character-assault.
One need not imagine what MLK’s response would be to the numerous media outlets who made the conscious choice to demonize the Ferguson and Baltimore protesters as “thugs;” after all, he was the voice behind the phrase “a riot is the language of the unheard.”
For Black journalists, the racist sentiments behind the portrayal of the Black community often seep into the newsroom. A survey from the American Society of News Editors reveals that the number of Black journalists has declined to its lowest point in the last ten years, and many cite newsroom racism as the cause. I believe that. A recent conversation with a well respected journalist left me feeling emotionally conflicted upon receiving advice to “stay away from the race stuff” and commit to covering foreign affairs instead.
I did not listen.
How could I when “journalistic objectivity” is used as justification for cultural incompetence? Fair reporting on marginalized communities requires some sort of understanding of the stereotypes those communities face, like the frequent characterization of Black and Latino youth as criminals and thugs. But simply being aware of these stereotypes is not sufficient; a good journalist must also exhibit a willingness to move away from them.
The First Amendment will always be the most fundamentally useful tool in advocating for equal treatment and civil and human rights. However, this amendment does not and should not be used as an excuse for the lack of empathy, respect, and understanding shown to communities of color during times of deep anguish. After all, any healthy relationship must be mutually beneficial. But it is up to the media, and not the Black community, to recognize the value in this because our pain still exists when the press goes home.
A Proud Black Journalist
The image featured in this article was taken by Fibonacci Blue. The original image can be found here.