- Americans need to understand the history of marginalized groups to create equity and understand current events.
- News organizations have a responsibility to report on these historical stories even when they don’t fit neatly into the “breaking news” cycle.
- Lynn Brown is a writer, professor, digital storyteller and traveler whose work centers on issues of race, place, culture and history.
- This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
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In the wake of the widespread protests against racial injustice in the US last summer, many media organizations began the – in some cases long overdue – process of looking inward for ways to create racial equity in their organizations. Public diversity statements became the norm, and many organizations started or buffed up their DEI efforts and made high-profile hires of people of color into key leadership positions.
All of this is wonderful. In fact, this internal work is necessary for all organizations committed to creating equity; however, media companies have an extra responsibility that is often overlooked. News organizations have the responsibility to understand and inform the public of the context in which a lot of this change is taking place. Because of how traditional journalism privileges things that are happening right now or in the future, the public misses a major part of the story about racial injustice, which has become a major stumbling block to moving forward.
With racial justice issues, it is often in the past where the real heart of the story lies. Without a solid understanding of what has gone on before with regards to systemic racism and injustice, it can be hard to really get a grasp on the true gravity of the situation, the deep feelings behind this most recent push for racial justice, or the intricacies of the systems that need to be dismantled in order to truly make change.
The trouble with traditional models
The Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests last summer are a great example. Understanding the fervor with which BLM protestors pushed back against police violence requires that the reader, and thus the reporter, understand just how long-standing the tension between police and the Black community is. Not just in terms of the last few years, but also in terms of the last few decades and even centuries. Rather than starting, as many such articles do, with Rodney King – one of the first videotaped instances of police violence against a Black man – it’s more accurate to do an in-depth report on the countless unnamed people who were victims of similar violence in the decades before video evidence was available. Protests like those we saw last summer are the culmination of all of the stories that went untold in the past, not just those that are breaking in the present. However, if those stories of the past remain untold, there will always be a gap in understanding.
Traditionally, any historical context a reporter feels the reader might need in order to understand a story is added in as succinctly as possible. Usually a line or two, maybe a paragraph, describing the background is included at the end of a story. This is part of the “inverted pyramid” style of writing we often learn in journalism school. However, this practice assumes that the story’s background is common knowledge and all a reader really needs is just enough information to jog their memory or inspire them to look into the subject further on their own.
In the context of racial justice, however, this just isn’t the case. There is often no memory there to jog because so many of these historical instances of injustice went unreported in mainstream media outlets when they happened, and were then relegated to the halls of academia, where only those studying subjects like history, ethnic studies, or critical race theory had easy access to them.
Part of the problem is that up until very recently news outlets were highly segregated. Breaking news about violence and injustice enacted on communities of color were relegated to news outlets run by often wildly underfunded news organizations within the communities themselves, and were rarely reported on in the mainstream news outlets. Thus, the work that these local organizations did, as well as the work they didn’t get to report on, never became common knowledge. Instead, these stories were relegated to history with little to no reliable way of making it to mainstream consciousness.
Filling the gaps
Currently the most reliable way that these overlooked stories are being told seems to be via fictional media. For example, media interest in the 1921 Tulsa Massacre only resurfaced after its depiction in the HBO show “Watchmen”. The problem here is that TV and movies can only do so much. It’s not really the job of TV writers to inform the public, and fictionalizing these important stories shouldn’t be the only way to bring them to the public consciousness. In fact, having fictionalized versions be the first, and sometimes only, way these stories reach the mainstream media can be detrimental. Fictionalized versions of historical events can create an inaccurate understanding of the issue at hand, and cause the facts of a story to seem open to interpretation.
It is not the job of the fiction writer to educate the public and tell the facts of important stories, it’s the job of the journalist. If journalists didn’t do it adequately enough the first time, isn’t it our responsibility to go back and remedy that now?
Tell the history
Some reporters, most often reporters of color, have managed to bridge this gap in historical context with their work. Most notably journalists like Nikole Hannah-Jones, who spearheaded the award-winning 1619 Project for The New York Times, or Ta-Nehisi Coates whose 2014 Atlantic piece “A Case for Reparations” sparked a national conversation that went all the way to the floor of Congress. But there are so many more important historical stories to be told, many of which don’t fit neatly into the breaking news cycle, making it difficult for journalists eager to tell these stories to find homes for them.
If news organizations are truly committed to the cause of truth telling and racial justice, it is necessary to break with tradition and find ways to tell more of the stories from the past that are so vital to creating the future we want to see.
Lynn Brown is a writer, professor, digital storyteller and traveler whose work centers on issues of race, place, culture and history. She’s an adjunct associate professor at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism and the New School and her work can be found in GQ, Sierra Magazine, Ebony, Vice, and others. Find her on Twitter at @lrdbrown79.