Against a backdrop of inflamed tensions between police and communities of color, Montclair State’s School of Communication and Media hosted its second Symposium on Racial Justice and Media to tackle the role of media professionals in documenting racial justice activism.
“Before we begin, I want to acknowledge that this conversation is taking place during the moment when we’ve lost yet another Black American,” said Assistant Professor of Transmedia Storytelling Tara Conley as she opened the event on April 15.
Conley was referring to Daunte Wright, shot and killed by police during a traffic stop in Minnesota, but reported that she had also just learned of the release of video showing the fatal shooting of 13-year-old Adam Toledo by police in Chicago.
Conley noted the erosion of support among white Americans for the Black Lives Matter movement in the months since George Floyd’s murder: “What should be the role of media professionals in documenting racial justice activism and the movement for Black lives that also accounts for what Dr. Glaude calls the ‘value gap’?”
Eddie S. Glaude Jr., who is the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor and chair of the Department of African American Studies at Princeton University, as well as an MSNBC contributor and Time Magazine columnist, responded that the media need to “shift the center of gravity” and “disrupt assumptions.”
“Think about, for example, the way in which we talk about or report about defunding police and the way we allow, at least in mainstream media, the narrative of law and order, being tough on crime or weak on crime, to define how we understand that phrase,” said Glaude, “as opposed to thinking about what does it mean for municipalities to spend 60% to 70% of their budgets on policing and incarceration, as opposed to mental health services, employment, and the like. … Can we bring someone else into view and a different angle on the issue?”
Anthony Smith, senior producer of Cause Initiatives for the National Football League and director and producer of the documentary Game Changer, highlighting Black quarterbacks in the NFL, said the first role of media is “to be honest.”
“In regards to sports media, we look at the history of progress and movements and we know that sports have led the way.” He referenced luminaries such as Jackie Robinson, Jim Brown and Muhammad Ali. Noting the pressure in the past decade for athletes to “shut up and dribble,” Smith said, “Athletes should do what they have always done: Speak up and show the way.”
Smith also addressed the “history of exploiting Black pain for entertainment purposes.” Calling out the media as “complicit” in trafficking in “familiar tropes” about poverty, drugs, adversity and “the hood.”
Vickie Burns, a news executive and media strategist whose leadership positions have included NBC, Tribune Media and Scripps, agreed with another point that Smith made that “storytellers matter.”
“There’s not enough,” said Burns in terms of representation in newsrooms. “People like me, Black women who lead newsrooms, it’s less than 3%.” Burns said that the focus has been on providing diversity on camera “but the decision makers are not the people on screen. We need to nurture and, dare I say, protect them on the way up.” She noted, “Newsroom cultures are very tough. They are not welcoming.” She applauded the fact that interns are now paid, opening up opportunities for “kids who are diverse [who] can’t afford to” intern without compensation.
Ultimately, said Glaude, “I want media to function like the fourth estate ought to function in a vibrant and healthy democracy. … My hope is that we can imagine a media landscape that doesn’t deform the attention of the citizen, but deepens the attention of the citizen, because the media has been complicit in trafficking stereotypes, has been complicit in reproducing a whole host of assumptions that feed this idea that America must remain a white nation in the vein of old Europe.
“So if we’re going to really step into this different way of being, together as a country, I pray that the fourth estate understands its role in maintaining and securing a vibrant and healthy democracy, but more importantly, for our sakes, a vibrant and healthy multiracial democracy, because if it fails, our fate is sealed it seems to me. That’s my hope and prayer.”
“Amen,” said Conley. “Amen.”
Story by Staff Writer Mary Barr Mann
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