Community members gathered at the National Civil Rights Museum for an activist training on June 4, 2020. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50

For weeks now, my inbox has been full of messages from journalists who want to do better. Their concerns reflect the times: They want to cover Black-led protests fairly, to challenge racism in newsrooms, to reduce harm or potential harm to the people they write about, and to build community and become more responsive to racial justice movements in their work.

These concerns also reflect a pervasive toxicity in the culture of journalism. For too long, the status quo in journalism has been white-run newsrooms covering communities of color, condescending and inaccurate coverage of protests led by oppressed people, and messy, imbalanced relationships to the most vulnerable people and movements. That’s not to mention endless well-documented instances of racism even in newsrooms that claim they are trying to do better.

These reporters are reaching out to me because I co-direct an organization, Press On, dedicated to movement journalism. Movement journalism, a loose term for journalism that is grounded in movements for racial and social justice and liberation, is a resource and a reframe for journalists seeking to bend their practices toward justice in these times.

We believe that in these times of racial reckoning and ongoing uprisings, the legacy and current practices of movement journalism holds the answers many are seeking about ethical reporting. Journalists seeking to engage in racial justice work can follow in the footsteps of movement journalists — mostly women of color, often southern — who have always engaged in racial justice through their work.

“Racism, extraction, and exploitation are not just building blocks of the industry; they are baked into the field,” wrote North Carolina-based reporter Tina Vasquez in a recent column for Culture Pulse. “I see movement journalism as both the antidote and a threat to the status quo.”

Mia Henry and Lewis Raven Wallace lead a training for movement journalists in Memphis in October 2019. MLK50 co-hosted the event. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50

While some journalists are just waking up to the realities of being targeted by violence and implicated in resistance, many movement journalists have already been awake by necessity. MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, for example, is guided by the revolutionary views of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

And many of the leading movement journalists in the country are women of color and southerners — Scalawag Magazine, another Black-women run organization based in the South, openly works to challenge white supremacy and cover southern movements led by people of color.

“We’re here to reject “objectivity” when it comes to liberation and love our people through storytelling and through solidarity. We’re not here to peddle poverty-shaming agendas or pass along media narratives that whitewash the South,” says Scalawag’s membership page.

All of this assumes that racism in media coverage cannot be corrected with a Band-Aid or simply more diversity: Movement journalism requires a thorough reframing of what we are doing, why and how.

Not all journalists share this pursuit. Some are still dangerously ensconced in the journalistic norm of “objectivity,” which dictates not just an impartial approach to storytelling, but a personal ethic of distance and remove.

Journalists in this model often describe themselves in the third person in articles rather than risk the appearance that they were physically present or involved in an interaction. They also adhere to strict notions of journalistic entitlement, such as the right to photograph or film anyone in a public place — the story takes priority over potential harm or disrespect to the people depicted in the story.

Take, for example, the authors of this Daily Memphian piece, who describe a scene in which multiple people involved in protests at Shelby Farms requested not to be photographed or not to have their conversations listened in on by Daily Memphian reporters (who did not name themselves individually in the article).

Rather than respect these requests (and recognize the power dynamic inherent in eavesdropping on or photographing Black residents of Memphis on the street), the journalists described several altercations between The Daily Memphian and demonstrators. One protester made multiple requests not to be photographed; the article’s implication seemed to be that the protesters, not the journalists, were off-base.

In the era of doxing, and a persistent rise in both racialized violence and attacks on demonstrators for racial justice, such a standpoint is inexcusable. Recording or photographing a Black Lives Matter activist or an undocumented immigrant runs the risk of causing real material harm, and is not the same act as recording a public official or police officer, even if they all appear in public places.

Another example of unethical coverage of Black-led protest is reporters’ use of the passive voice to avoid implicating police in street violence. Listening to my local public radio station in Durham, North Carolina, I have heard countless reports that begin with “violence erupted” or “arrests were made” — referring to police tear gassing and arresting protesters who were demanding racial justice in the state’s capital.

In response to coverage that refused again and again to implicate police even as they instigated violence across the country, Press On published a brief guide to ethical reporting on Black-led resistance and police violence. Because movement journalism is unabashed in its allegiance to racial justice and liberation, movement journalists are often able to describe these protests more accurately than journalism that attempts to appear balanced at the expense of the facts on the ground.

Journalists who want the trust of marginalized people should be concerned with relationship building and harm reduction, as movement journalist Cynthia Greenlee suggested in a recent article for The Nation.

“Most interviewees don’t know that they can negotiate what part of their information a journalist can share. And most journalists don’t tell their sources they have more choice and power in when and how they appear in media than they think,” wrote Greenlee. Intentionality about harm is one way in which movement journalism distinguishes itself from traditional journalism, and Greenlee, a Black southern woman, has been approaching her work this way for many years.

We at Press On are collaboratively developing a model ethical code as movement journalists — not out of a desire to gatekeep, but out of a desire to spread the gospel of movement journalism as far as it can go.

We know that liberation work is necessarily messy and complex. Resisting systems that aim to divide and conquer can’t mean adherence to rigid codes — our resistance must respond to changing conditions. The work of building a liberatory journalism practice means confronting the structures that exist in society, in our organizations, in ourselves.

For me as a white journalist, my ethical journalism must include fighting racism. There’s no clean absolution or set of rules I can follow, and that’s a part of the unsatisfying answer I must give to the many well-intentioned white people who email me.

In a system that’s harmful to all people, we must work to reduce harm as we simultaneously fight to transform that system. This is not the work of a “moment” but the work of a lifetime.

Lewis Raven Wallace is the author and creator of “The View from Somewhere,” a book and podcast about the myth of “objectivity” in journalism. He is a co-founder and co-director of Press On, a southern movement journalism collective. He is white and transgender, and lives in Durham, North Carolina.

This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit newsroom focused on poverty, power and policy in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by these generous donors.

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