OPED: Stories left untold after all these years

Lori S. Robinson
Tribune News Service

It's a difficult anniversary to celebrate, but one worthy of notice.

Fifty years ago, on Feb. 29, 1968, the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, established by President Lyndon Johnson, released the Kerner Commission Report, investigating racial inequality in America.

2018 is not a leap year, so there is no Feb. 29. But the report still resonates.

It declared that "The media report and write from the standpoint of a white man's world." As a result, it said, "the news media have failed to analyze and report adequately on racial problems in the United States."

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When my mom was growing up in central Arkansas, she used to pick up the Chicago Defender or the Arkansas State Press, newspapers owned and run by African Americans. She never thought the white media would report anything useful or important to her own life.

That's part of what made me want to become a journalist. I wanted to cover people whose voices were excluded, whose stories were not being told.

In 1993, I launched my career as an assistant editor at Emerge, an African American news magazine majority owned by BET, when it was a black-owned company. There I was able to unapologetically focus on black stories from a black perspective.

Years later, I became the editor of a black lifestyle magazine covering a majority-African American city in the Midwest. While the white owners of this magazine had black board members with a minority ownership stake, during my tenure board members had no involvement with the editorial process.

People of color — primarily freelancers and interns — wrote and photographed the content. A Latino art director designed the magazine. The publisher insisted on selecting the final cover design. When we were ready to close each issue, this white woman's stamp of approval on this collective work of black cultural expression, was a monthly painful indignity.

The failure of newspapers and magazines to hire reporters, editors and producers that reflect the communities being covered is a well-known travesty. While some exceptions exist, and a few efforts to diversify newsrooms are now underway, many white media gatekeepers demonstrate through their hiring choices and editorial decisions that they are satisfied with the status quo.

With the freedoms of people of color, immigrants, women, Muslims, and members of the LGBTQ community under siege, the need for factual storytelling from the perspectives of people within these communities is imperative.

Many journalists are dismissive of what's termed advocacy journalism. I prefer the term emancipatory journalism which intends "to promote reform and encourage social action," according to University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Hemant Shaw, who coined this descriptor.

The truth is that media created in support of human rights is just as necessary now as when Frederick Douglass published The North Star and when Ida B. Wells published The Memphis Free Speech.

In some ways, media has transformed dramatically since my mother's young adulthood in the mid-20th century and since I began my career at the dawn of this century. But not nearly enough has changed. I'm not optimistic about the general market media landscape soon becoming healthy for disadvantaged and marginalized populations.

Until that happens, I'm confident that people of color will create our own media that empowers and heals us, and that gives rise to societal change. We have everything we need to make media with our own explicit agendas, on our own terms.

— Lori S. Robinson is a freelance journalist who splits her time between Detroit and Washington, D.C.