Black Journalists of the Past, Present and Future Shape American History

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Contributing Writers | Anissa Durham & Bianca Huntley Ortega 

The crisis of journalism has a long history rooted in racism and modern journalists must tackle its legacy. Three established journalists shared their experiences being Black in a newsroom and how they are paving the way for young reporters.

When W.E.B DuBois founded The Crisis his intention for the magazine was to highlight the impact of racism and its hindrance to the highest ideals of American democracy.

The National Association of Black Journalists was founded in 1975, in the midst of the Black Power Movement. It was created to provide programs, services and advocacy for Black journalists across various news platforms. San Diego Association of Black Journalists is the local chapter of this national organization.

Keith Bryant is an NBC 7 news producer, meteorologist and was recently appointed president of the SDABJ. He said the current crisis has not been modernizing reporting and sticking to the traditional style of journalism.

“Sticking with the status quo,” he said. “That has been the crisis, [journalism] has been reluctant to change.”

Recent progress has been made, the Crown Act was passed in California in 2019, to ensure protection against discrimination against race-based hairstyles. But there is still work to be done. He likens the crisis to the caricature of Will Ferrell’s Anchorman. It is a stereotype that presents old-school white male-dominated journalism as the norm and centers stories around white wealth and communities.

Almost a year after the Black Lives Matter movement erupted, the news industry experienced a rejuvenated effort to diversify newsrooms across the country. Modern journalism has been shifting away from tokenism. Journalists of color are no longer there for optics but to use their backgrounds and experiences as an asset in the newsroom.

Dana Littlefield is the public safety editor at the San Diego Union-Tribune and has spent over 20 years there, holding various positions. She said journalists of color bring their own experiences and perspectives to the table as they do their work, this is not the same as bias.

“It absolutely can inform the information we get, the access we get to communities, the stories we tell and the voices we amplify,” she said.

Jerry McCormick is a long-time journalist, editor and educator, he highlighted the importance of having people of color in the field who reflect the community. He said if a white reporter goes into a predominantly Black community, there is a sense of reluctance.

“If another Black person shows up, they’re more likely to talk to the Black person than [a white reporter],” he said. “There is a level of trust Black people [have] with other Black people.”

This has been proven time and time again. Ida B. Wells was able to report on the horrors of state-sanctioned Jim Crow and white mob violence. Earl Caldwell reported on the rise of the Black Power movement, something white journalists, who had used the Civil Rights Movement to make a name for themselves, were incapable of doing.

Black reporters have never waited for the white majority to report on our stories, there are Black news publications in every state across the country.

We must recognize that we write history as journalists. As reporters, we set the standard for who records our community history and how we record that history. With journalism being the historical record, Littlefield believes that reporting on the Black community needs to be done better and differently.

“It is imperative that we acknowledge that certain communities have long been ignored,” she said. “This is certainly true of Black people in this country.”

Bryant encourages journalists to diversify their pool of sources, getting the perspective of marginalized groups. It is more than just having a diverse team of reporters, there are other aspects of reporting that need to be diversified. We need to tell different stories with a variety of perspectives.

Their collective message is to encourage aspiring journalists to continue the work of prior generations. Dubois, Wells and Caldwell were revolutionaries of their time, now it is our turn to carry on the torch.

McCormick describes this as the new frontier of journalism, where young journalists of color will represent the new demographic shift of America. Journalism needs to truly be reflective of the diverse groups of people that make up this country.

“Journalism is ruled by old white men and it has been ruled by old white men for the longest time, but the dominoes are falling now,” he said.

Littlefield said as much as we can complain about the lack of color in a newsroom, it should not be a deterrent for young journalists pursuing a professional career. This is no easy task but it is up to us to change the narrative.

“If you’re upset about the lack of diversity in newsrooms, you go in there and you diversify it,” she said.

McCormick agreed. Either you are part of the existing problem or you can be part of the solution. As members of SDABJ, they are focused on helping the next generation of Black journalists get scholarships, opportunities and jobs.

Young journalists of color will play a major role in the evolving modern age of journalism. By 2045 white Americans will be the minority in this country for the first time in United States history. Millennials and Gen Zs of color will be changing the centuries-long dynamic of predominantly white newsrooms.

“America’s changed, it’s not what it was years ago,” Bryant said.

Reflecting on Black History Month, we want to acknowledge the contributions Black journalists have made throughout American history and how continuing that legacy in the newsroom is far from over. Journalism is considered the light that illuminates American democracy and Black reporting has always been one of the brightest lights.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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