Q&A: A Black Journalist Turned Community Organizer Shares the Lessons They’ve Learned on How to Make Our Coverage of Race Equitable, Not Extractive

Black Lives Matter activists march through Terra Alta, West Virginia, on July 10, 2020. Photo: Chris Jones/100 Days in Appalachia
Black Lives Matter activists march through Terra Alta, West Virginia, on July 10, 2020. Photo: Chris Jones/100 Days in Appalachia

Over the past few months, we’ve been presenting local and regional journalists with tips on how to cover a topic that at times can feel like it’s all encompassing: white supremacy. And as we’ve presented this help to journalists in undersourced newsrooms, we’ve tried to remind you that you must include the voices of affected communities in your reporting about this topic in order to tell a complete, fully contextual story about your community. 

This month, we’re taking our own advice in this series of reporting advice and speaking to someone who is often asked to be a representative of Black voices impacted by violence, whether at the hands of the far right or of police. Chelsea Fuller is the deputy director of communications from Team Blackbird – an organization that supports grassroots movements – and the former leader of the Youth Criminalization program for the Advancement Project.

Fuller spoke with 100 Days in Appalachia’s Report for America corps member Chris Jones about covering race and racism, and offered insights for handling some of the unique challenges one may face when covering these issues at the local and regional level. 

The following has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Chris Jones: I want to start by talking about the difference between extractive and equitable relationships in journalism. One approach predominantly takes from a community – taking their stories, resources through people’s time and talents, etc. as compared to one that is creating a back and forth exchange of information. So, let’s say I’m that young, white journalist in a predominantly Black community, and I’m trying to start building relationships with sources to report on where I live. What are some ways that I’m going to know whether the relationships I’m attempting to build and stories I’m trying to tell come from a place of extraction or one of equity?

Chelsea Fuller is the deputy director of communications from Team Blackbird – an organization that supports grassroots movements – and the former leader of the Youth Criminalization program for the Advancement Project. Photo: Courtesy Team Blackbird
Chelsea Fuller is the deputy director of communications from Team Blackbird – an organization that supports grassroots movements – and the former leader of the Youth Criminalization program for the Advancement Project. Photo: Courtesy Team Blackbird

Chelsea Fuller: First and foremost, this is something that most journalists do. Until you move into that space of actually being really intentional about why you’re telling a story, you have the story pretty much mapped out and you have one or two holes you need to plug with a quote from somebody. Assuming what the narrative is going to be is the first step to having an extractive relationship with somebody. You’re going into a space with impacted people and saying, “I really just need you to kind of say this one thing or answer one particular question, so I can be done,” versus going in and saying, “Hey, this is terrible. What in your opinion needs to actually be told here? What are the things that you see playing out that are not actually being shared, either locally or in the mainstream?”

The way that shows up is sometimes really subtle, right? As a communications person working between the press and these communities, what I hear a lot of times [from the media] is, “I need to talk to one of the family members. I just need to talk to somebody from the family.” Or if it’s a story about sexual violence or workplace harassment, “Can you find a victim for me to talk to?” You want me to just cherry pick anybody that’s had this experience so that you can say that you included a survivor in your story? My answer to that is going to be no, come back with a better question. If these people whose experiences are not just for public consumption are going to be shared, they need to be shared in a way that mitigates the risk for others, for them, and for the educators.

CJ: It’s important to acknowledge that, for anybody, talking to a reporter is a risk. You’re a cop before you’re a friend when you show up with a press badge. I’m curious if there’s any acute, in-the-moment advice for the person who is walking into a space for the first time? What are some just real down and dirty suggestions of how to make your acknowledgment more a part of how you interact in these spaces?

CF: Realistically what a lot of people would probably appreciate if it’s real time breaking news, there is going to be that time element there. So reaching out to people with, “Hey, I’d really like to make sure that we cover this in the best way. Is there a space or a time that I could talk to you or talk to somebody?” 

So often the outreach is abrupt, and really just disconnected from the reality of the moment. It’s, “Hey, I’m writing about this. I need to speak to somebody within the next few hours.”

CJ: It’s a demand.

CF: Yeah, it’s a demand. It’s not a request that comes with some compassion and intentionality. Ask them if there’s a good time. And if they say no, “Okay, that’s fine. Are you okay with me talking to somebody else, then?” If the answer is still, “No, I don’t have time, I don’t know anybody else,” then let them know, “Okay, well, we are going to cover it, we’ll do the best that we can. When you do have time or when you do feel comfortable or when you figure out who else to talk to, please let us know.” That already lets them know that there’s some level of respect. 

For the people who are down to talk, do it in a way that allows them to find some level of comfort before you whip out the recorder. Ask them if they need to be on background first. Would they mind if you talked off the record for 30 minutes and in the last 30 minutes got some actual on-the-record statements from them? Figure out a way to just let people understand that the story is actually not the most important thing, being able to share what’s happening to them or what’s happening to their community in the most honest way possible is actually the most important thing. If you’re not doing that, then the story is bad anyway. Rushing people or forcing people into a level of comfort, you’re not going to get good content anyway.

CJ: In your newsroom, if you are on a beat, what are some of the ways that you can incorporate something as prolific as racism into other areas of news coverage? If you’re a housing reporter, for example, or a health reporter, how would you recommend exploring the intersections of race with those beats without just checking the boxes of acknowledgement?

CF: I do think that it helps people reporting on systemic race issues to understand how people in their own newsrooms are covering issues that intersect with the issue you’re covering. So if you are covering race, I would talk to the crime reporter, I would talk to the person covering housing development, or I would talk to the person who’s covering business – anybody that you can talk to in the newsroom to figure out what the coverage not only kind of looks like across the board, but to find opportunities for collaboration where possible. There might be some people in your newsroom who never thought about collaboration. Try one story together about housing and race across a collaborative storytelling endeavor and see how that plays out.

As a young journalist, I was the one in the newsroom that was like, “I don’t care what you say, I want to talk about people of color. I’m going to report on people of color.” And my editor said, “I’m gonna let you do that, 100 percent, but you’re also going to cover everything else.” So I literally had to cover every single beat as an intern and then as a staff reporter [while covering race]. I’m so grateful for that because it helped me to understand intersectional reporting at a really young age. Even if I had to go and cover a local high school baseball game, I was able to see future stories just from talking to people about one particular game. Being in the space helped me understand the inequity that was or was not there.

If you are someone who wants to be the go-to race person in your newsroom or want to be the go-to gender person in your newsroom, cover something completely different. And if you are reporting in a particular way and you see a trend [that your stories have felt the same or] they’ve included the same voices, then be self-reflective and self-aware enough to see that there’s opportunities to go a little deeper if you step outside of the box.

CJ: I’d like to get into this idea of really thinking about the outlet you work for, and  the legacy and impact that it has had historically in your community. Why is understanding the position of your media outlet in its community so important to doing this job well?

CF: I think sometimes, especially for younger folks who are trying to carve out a career for themselves, thinking about their first jobs or thinking about the outlet that they feel like is the next step [is at the forefront]. So many times folks are looking at the name [of the publication], they’re looking at the market and making decisions [about their careers], but they’re not actually thinking about the legacy that that organization has had. But when we’re making decisions about where we work, we’re also making moral and ethical decisions.

So, I always tell young folks and journalists who are trying to think about things differently to do some research. Figure out how your organization has played into some of the dynamics, not just in your local community if it’s a local paper, but also nationally. Too often we are making decisions about coverage without actually understanding anything other than what the byline means.

I’ve had some hard conversations with older journalists who are now trying to cover intersections of race or economics. As well intentioned as it might be, if you haven’t delved into the issue and how your organization has covered that issue, it’s not going to do what you intend for it to do.

So, I tell people all the time it doesn’t really matter what you’re writing about, know the history of the place you’re working at as much as possible, understand the different communities that have been covered or what that coverage of those communities has looked like before you jump into trying to build relationships and carve out new storytelling opportunities for yourself. A lot of times the resistance that impacted communities feel [to reporters] is not because they’ve actually just had one or two bad interactions with a reporter, it’s because they’ve watched over time how a particular outlet or outlets collectively in a particular region have told stories about them.

CJ: Undoubtedly, somebody who’s going to read this article is going to be in a position where they work at a news outlet that is part of a legacy that hurts communities. These legacies can go back a hundred years. 

Are there any examples, any resources, any suggestions you have for that younger journalist who suddenly realizes the institution that they’re a part of has a reputation that goes far beyond their individual byline? What’s the starting point to work to to repair that damage or at least position themselves to not not further that harm?

CF: There’s always clues. There’s keys to unlocking some of the truths that have been left out or ignored or erased. If you’re covering race or a beat that has anything to do with race and you’re covering it in this really very pivotal moment, go back to the last moment that we had. If you don’t have the time to do a 100 year retrospective deep dive, okay. The last time we were in this kind of moment was 2014. How did your organization cover this type of moment in 2014?

Having a conversation about shifting culture in your newsroom might not be a thing you can do as an actual journalist or a copy desk editor, but you can say, “Okay, the last time we did this, here are the five things that we didn’t do that we easily could have done.” It’s about setting realistic goals and being able to manage people’s expectations around those goals. So you can go into a community and tell people, “Listen, I know the last time we covered a moment like this, here are the main things that as a journalist I think that we did poorly, or that we did not include, and I really want to give you all the space and opportunity to help us tell the right story this time.”

Even if the goal is to give one badass story, or a series of stories, and you are able to achieve that and you’re able to present something to a community that they don’t have to 100 percent love, but can look at and say at least this is better, that’s one step closer to being in a deeper relationship. 

Start where you are, look at what you have access to and set a reasonable goal.

CJ: Can you talk about this constant dissonance between local news and national level narratives that are very A versus B, these us and them narratives that get established very quickly in our news cycles? They very rarely actually reflect the reality of our local communities and yet are relied upon, especially by national media outlets, to tell stories. What are some ways a journalist can be constructive and also acknowledge that the narratives that outlets like CNN or Fox News are attempting to establish don’t apply or are not true for our local community?

CF: I think there’s probably two parts to this response, the first thing is to sit inside of the discomfort that comes with the realization that fair and balanced news is not a thing, right? If you’re thinking about fair and balanced news as the barometer or the baseline for how you’re going to tell a particular story, then you are more prone to follow suit with some of the false narratives that are more harmful about a particular community in your reporting. That’s just the truth. 

If you see that the majority of mainstream news are saying, “the movement for Black Lives are the ones inciting the violence,” we’ve seen CNN report similar things. If you’re like, “Okay, well, if this many of my colleagues are saying that it must be true,” and defaulting to that, then you’re already off to the wrong start. What are people at the heart of the story saying? What are Black people who are actually out fighting for their own lives – the lives of their community – saying?

This idea that you can create a truthful narrative because you are including some information from one side and some from the other is not accurate. It’s actually the opposite of equitable and balanced journalism, because these are communities of people that are not on the same footing, they do not have the same little level of access. Regardless of what Anderson Cooper calls the riot in Minneapolis, if the people on the ground are saying one thing, that has to hold more weight in the way you approach that type of work.

It’s really easy even on our side to do. This idea that all Trump supporters are white supremacists, that’s a really easy narrative for progressive people and reporters covering systemic violence to lean into. We have a responsibility to understand that people of all races are not monolithic all the time. There’s too much nuance inside of all of our communities to lean into these narratives. 

There are some things that are just categorically false. And there are some things that are just true. Facts do exist. Racism is a real thing. It’s not an opinion, and it’s not just some people’s opinion. So going into your reporting, understand and be willing to be uncomfortable with certain things that are just true and that are just not true. Antifa is not real. That is a proven fact. White supremacy is not a made up feeling or a cry and call to action from Black people. White supremacy is a real thing – there is enough information, there’s enough evidence. There is textual documented information about it as a system that has led to the existence of this country. There’s enough lived experience to confirm that is a real thing. 

You have to be okay with the fact that some of the big things, the core conversations, the core arguments, the core issues and theories that people are grappling with right now, some of them are true, and some of them are not true. The reporting has to reflect that. We have room for any type of gray area there without feeding into something that’s harmful.

CJ: One thing I found myself doing this year, as I was linking out to a New York Times article or a CNN article or anyone else, I started paying closer attention to what other articles I was going to put in front of my reader. It really made me have to get away from the practice of just linking out to any major news outlet because of the falsehoods even they were presenting in an effort to be “balanced” or to get clicks. For example,  I was writing an article on why Antifa just isn’t the organized group acting across the country as the previous administration had described, and I look at the sidebar on the CNN website, and it’s three articles about “Antifa is here to do X.” I realized linking to their website would potentially cause more harm.

But it’s a bit daunting for that young, early career journalist where we’re basically saying the institutions that you idolized are going to cover your community poorly, and your job is to say, “Yes, they’re wrong.” Do you have any personal experience with or any advice for how you handled those moments of very explicitly pushing back on how things were being described by major news outlets?

CF: I think it really does come down to understanding that there are levels to this. Depending on where you are on the spectrum, are you getting ready to call something out that actually could rock the reputation of the organization? If you’re in a smaller publication, or somewhere less visible, are you getting ready to call out something that could really shake your reputation to the point where funders, other stakeholders and your community are going to have to respond? Are you okay with being a part of that?

Assessing the scale of severity and being able to map out the ramifications or the potential effects based on what you’re getting ready to say [is important]. People need to be really clear on the goals – why are you calling this out? What are the actual steps that you could take to address the issue that move towards the result that you want? If it’s a low level thing, I think being aware of your role, your privilege, being self reflective, knowing who you are, and how you fill up in the space, then going in with some solutions. Like, “Hey, I see that the past five stories that we’ve written about Black Lives Matter, BLM organizers have reached out to say it’s causing problems, here’s my suggestion on how we could potentially, from the copy desk or just in terms of our reporting guide, be more mindful of that and make sure that we don’t lose those folks as sources.” By going in with the actual solution, or at least a suggestion, is one [way to address the problem]. 

CJ: For journalists who are covering race as a beat or stories that intersect with race relations, you have recommended two resources. One is Wesley Lowery’s book, “They Can’t Kill Us All,” and also the 1619 Project from the New York Times. What is it about these two texts that make them such good starting points to explore covering racism?

CF: The 1619 Project is one of the most comprehensive recordings of our American legacy of chattel slavery that I have that I have ever seen. It’s done from the perspective of a relatively young journalist who has covered inequity from education to racial justice. So versus some of the books that our predecessors use, it feels more relatable, and it feels more easily digestible considering it is literally walking us through almost 500 years of a particular history that is really at the core of 90 percent of the inequity in the country. 

Slavery plays into our class and economic caste system, race, gender, all of the things that now folks are paying attention to, there’s some tangible connection there to chattel slavery and understanding the system and the history would help you cover anything.

[Lowery] helps people that are trying to figure out the best way to grapple with covering this particular moment in this country as one of the reporters most people identified with the Ferguson uprising. His book not only walks you through the realities of being Black and covering a moment like that, and the real ways that race and racism impacts not just telling the stories, but those that are connected to it in different ways. The youth organizer, a faith leader, or family of someone who’s been killed, he really draws those connections in a way that I think helps us understand the full breadth of the story. It’s the story of this past decade, really, of unrest. 

From a journalistic perspective he gives really helpful tools. Reading his first-hand account of being dragged out of a McDonald’s when he was pulled up to his computer trying to cover what was happening [in Ferguson] gives journalists an opportunity to say, “Okay, if I want to do this, and I want to do it well, not only do I have to be mindful of the threat of potential harm to those who are trusting me to tell their story or experience, this is the harm that I might experience.” I don’t know if you can ever really prepare for some of this, but it’s helpful to understand that you’re putting yourself in the story [in a certain way]. Whether you want to or not, we’re making a decision to go out and cover a protest. The reality is that you could become a part of the story, right? And you have to move through that in a particular way.

Chris Jones is a Report for America corps member covering domestic extremism for 100 Days in Appalachia. Click here to help support his investigative reporting through the Ground Truth Project.

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