Journalists have incredible power to shape our perceptions of reality, risk, and safety, and with that power comes responsibility. Especially regarding how we report crime and the lives it affects. In this three-part series titled, Rethinking Crime Reporting, Prism’s Crime, Reform & Abolition reporter Tamar Sarai does a deep dive into how people and their communities are continually impacted by anti-Blackness in crime reporting and the media’s uncritical acceptance of the information provided by law enforcement. This series also covers the growing movement within newsrooms and among media advocates to cultivate an active awareness of how our coverage can further entrench racist narratives and provide the public with reporting rooted in context and humanity as much as factual accuracy. This is part three of the series, you can find the complete series here.
It is said that journalism is the first rough draft of history, but journalists also shape present-day realities. At its best and most accurate, reporting empowers people with information they can use to make decisions that shape their lives and the lives of others. At its worst, the media industry and news stories can create new and further harm, disseminating lies that compromise the safety and livelihoods of individuals and entire communities.
This is never more true than in crime reporting, where deeply ingrained industry practices privilege the police, turn personal details into salacious headlines that live on the internet in perpetuity, and create and reinforce misperceptions about race and criminality. Newsrooms are beginning to interrogate these standards by moving away from the ideology of “if it bleeds, it leads” in favor of tangible initiatives, like right to be forgotten policies and more comprehensive, humanizing reporting that explores the roots of violence and its impact. Even more transformational shifts are on the horizon. Calls to abolish the police and prisons entirely are now being joined by complementary demands to “defund the crime beat” by dramatically investing in journalism spearheaded by communities of color and reconfiguring media to rethink public safety.
Among the most influential of these voices has been Media 2070, a project from the media advocacy organization Free Press. In 2020, Media 2070 launched as a research essay detailing the history of U.S. media and its participation in—and reliance upon—anti-Black racism and harm. Most importantly, the essay outlines the need for media reparations. This specific form of reparations seeks economic and political redress from media institutions and policymakers for the harms their coverage has wrought on Black communities.
The power of this call to action is its ability to see the entirety of the media landscape and the multitude of actors who deserve redress—from the communities that have been harmed by coverage to underpaid and underappreciated Black journalists who have been stifled by their newsrooms. Prism sat down with Alicia Bell, co-creator and founding director of Media 2070, and Venneikia Williams, Media 2070’s campaign manager, to discuss their work and their vision for the future.
This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Tamar Sarai: Media 2070 launched against the backdrop of a global pandemic and a nationwide uprising in the wake of the police murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. I’d love to learn more about the conversations you all were having within Free Press that served as the origins for the project and the essay.
Alicia Bell: Free Press organizes around various media issues [such as] journalism, technology, and social media, and there [have been] different whispers and curiosities around reparations. I worked with community members organizing around local news and ensuring that folks were a unified block. Folks—specifically Black folks—had a really robust and clear vision for news, journalism, information, and having their stories lifted up. But at the same time, when I asked folks what kind of relationship they had with journalists, it was, at best, “I send people things, and maybe they write about it.” For the most part, though, there was no relationship. That’s how it came up in my work, but it was different for folks who are part of the Black Caucus at Free Press. That’s what led us to explore what media reparations could look like.
Initially, we thought we were going to put out a 750-word op-ed that was just kind of exploratory, but the more conversations we had and the more questions that got asked, the more writing was done–and that’s how it transformed from an op-ed to an essay.
Sarai: Venneikia, in 2021, you penned an essay where you mentioned the cycle by which reparative action must occur. The cycle moves from “reckoning” to “acknowledgment” to “accountability” and then finally, “redress.” In my view, we’ve seemed stuck in the “reckoning” phase since 2020. What would it require of newsrooms and their funders to move on?
Venneikia Williams: Liberation Ventures put together that reparations cycle, so I want to credit them. But past the newsroom and newspaper apologies that we’ve seen just gloss over things, we haven’t really gotten to true solutions. Maybe people lose their jobs, and they transition someone else into the role who isn’t necessarily any different from the person who was there before, so it’s not a meaningful transfer of power. So when we talk about how to get to the redress, there’s no risk that we really see being taken.
There are organizers within these newsrooms who have been pushing for these things but once the performative act of apology is done, we never really get to solutions of supporting and paying journalists. Money isn’t the only thing that’s required—it is one of the things that we recognize is important as people need to be paid and their material needs need to be met—but then the conditions they’re working within have to be changed. You can’t just change the surface and not change the practices. We often talk about building a reparative culture within a space and what it looks like to actually infuse care into the work, but capitalistic structures and the forces that be don’t necessarily prioritize that.
Sarai: In the Media 2070 essay, you all write, “Racism’s been good for too many big media companies for too long. This is why media reparations are critical.” How do we incentivize newsrooms to make these shifts towards repair when business as usual has been so lucrative?
Bell: I think there are folks who go into journalism because of their values of wanting to tell stories, wanting to be curious and explore questions, [which] is very different from the reason why hedge funds, for example, acquire multiple newsrooms or why conglomerates like IHeartRadio have consolidated various kinds of media. So I think that incentivizing folks to shift the newsroom culture is a little bit easier because there is alignment between the desire to shift culture and the reason why we go into journalism as opposed to [the motives of] corporate executives.
I think it’s going to take folks organizing–whether that’s stakeholder activism for corporations or organizing for policy change–to make those changes happen because in the same ways that there is a potential to benefit from purchasing these newsrooms, they also benefit from the failure of these organizations. Oftentimes, they’re going to get some sort of bailout. They’re going to be okay. They’re going to have something else to fall back on. If they think they will benefit no matter what and keep wealth in the hands of a few people [by] maintaining a journalism that allows for that, then they win. I think that’s why it requires organizing, mobilizing, building relationships, and having a million conversations with a variety of different people to make change happen.
Williams: When you first asked the question and said it was lucrative, my first thought was: lucrative for who? Alicia laid out very beautifully that there are the haves and the have-nots in this situation; there are the workers and the owners. Organizing, mobilizing, [having] those relationship-building conversations, and reclaiming what truly belongs to the people is what it’ll take to see something that’s truly beneficial for all.
Sarai: I’ve been thinking a lot about the role that social media plays in our news ecosystem—our reliance upon it is something that you all touch upon in your documentary ‘Black in the Newsroom.’ We know that social media can help fill in the gaps in many people’s media diets, but do you fear that in serving as an alternative news source, these platforms can also undermine calls for reparations that are aimed at traditional media organizations?
Bell: Our work is focused on what’s considered more traditional journalism right now because it tends to be the model for other kinds of media. So when you consider the various call-in radio shows where people are in conversation with each other, that’s a model on which platforms like Twitter are built. Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace are built on the model set by newspaper classifieds. And in terms of harm, you can say the same thing. [Just like] when stations were syndicating radio shows from white supremacists and white citizen councils, you see the same kind of platforming happening now on social media. When newsrooms fail to pay Black journalists equitably, you can see the same thing when it comes to TikTok influencers.
So for us working in the realm of traditional journalism, it’s a bit of practice because if we can iterate, learn, build, and organize in this space, then we can use similar processes and tactics when it comes to social media or tech infrastructure. So even though we’ve been anchored in conversation with many traditional journalism people, we still work in coalition with folks who are doing work around tech reparations. Safiya Noble, for example, is building out what tech reparations would look like, so it’s been really important for us to follow her work and be in conversation with her. I always generally worry about what’s going to happen next with social media, but also there is hope because none of these strategies are new.
Williams: With social media, I think it’s scary to a generation that’s used to black ink on white paper and who says that is the only credible way to get news. But there are so many consumers getting news via these online platforms and sometimes it is true news, so how do we use these new technologies to our benefit? I think that’s the question that we have to ask instead of being fearful of how they might be weaponized.
Sarai: What role has the media played historically in shaping our ideas about public safety and the criminal legal system? What new narratives about crime have you seen emerge?
Williams: Public safety has been seen as the presence of police and the absence of Black people. So the narratives we tell often support that, and it’s not just a narrative that the dominant culture believes. When you talk to some Black people, they say they need more police to feel safe because of the things they experience within their neighborhoods. It’s a narrative that runs deep, but we know that police protect profit and property, not people.
Bell: When I think about crime and criminality coverage in the U.S., it is also one of the things that is not new; it just looks different. In the little bit of excavation we did around some of the ads that newspapers would run for capturing folks who escaped chattel slavery, the language was very similar around people being dishonest or being tricky. Those narratives continue to exist and just change shape depending on what the current moment is. The magic—because magic can be good or bad— of narrative is that it can counteract your lived experience. That’s such a wild thing to me because, for example, the narrative of policing never correlates to the neighborhoods they name. So people’s lived experience is that if you see more police, then the neighborhood would be deemed unsafe. If there are less police, the neighborhood is really safe. But then for some reason, the narrative holds that the police keep us safe.
Sarai: How can we think about reparations for not just entire communities impacted by these overarching narratives, but also people whose lives have been impacted by specific stories? Some media organizations are implementing initiatives like Right to be Forgotten policies, but how else can newsrooms be held accountable to people who continue to deal with the ramifications of this kind of coverage?
Bell: A few years ago, we were looking at the Knight Foundation’s endowment. At that point, their wealth was $2.4 billion. We did an envisioning exercise where we asked folks what they would do with $1 billion, and one of the first things that folks said was that newsrooms could pay for the bonds of those who have been wrongfully convicted by false reports in local papers. They can also mobilize deeds or land to cover the impact of the economic hardship that has been caused because of these narratives.
There also were folks encouraging these newsrooms to divest all or a part of their money into an endowment for local Black-run community papers–and I think those kinds of things are possible. Even if newsrooms created pooled funds to cover bonds or pay for bail, that could be really impactful.
For folks who don’t have friends or family members who are or who have been incarcerated, the understanding of incarceration is so different than what it’s really like. There is so much room [for newsrooms] to do really basic information sharing, like [about] how folks inside get phone calls. Newsrooms can even consider how they can be in conversation with incarcerated or formerly incarcerated folks and ask directly: What can we do to repair harm, and what can we do to support you moving forward?
Sarai: That’s so true and I think it also underscores the importance of having journalists who understand the system. Last year, you delivered a petition to 3,000 newsrooms outlining eight specific actions that newsrooms could commit to. I’m curious about the response that you received. And what happens next?
Williams: From last year, we had about 40 newsrooms sign on to do a cohort that focuses primarily on care and well-being for Black journalists, for their newsrooms, and the community. So this year, we’ll be launching a three-month cohort that goes through the individual, institutional, systemic dynamics of care, and what that means so they can infuse that [understanding] into their work whether as [part of] leadership, a worker, or a partaker of news.
I would say there’s already a good response, but what we’re hoping is that it wasn’t just a moment and that folks really want to lean into and delve into the principles that we talked about and those eight things that they can do. It will be a check-in of, “Have you actually been doing this?” And if not, is there more that can be done, and here’s how we take it a step further.