September 27, 2023

Reparations Movement Profiles: Media Reparations and Narrative Change

“Like all other systems in the United States, the creation of the media system was never intended to include or serve Black people. And it certainly wasn’t meant to help or support Black people in creating self-determined communities and futures. … We need structural change to truly move forward. And that means envisioning, creating, and practicing a new media system.”
Media 2070

Both local and national press and the media system have long histories as tools to harm and oppress Black people.

When the first group of enslaved Africans reached Virginia in 1619, early newspaper publishers profited from the slave trade with the publication of thousands of “slave ads” and, at times, even acted as brokers between buyers and sellers. Such advertisements “improved the profitability and flexibility of the slave trade while integrating it into the readers’ daily lives,” writes historian Jordan E. Taylor. During the Jim Crow era, spurious news coverage of Black people directly resulted in countless lynchings, imprisonments, and massacres.

In the case of Wilmington, North Carolina, it was Josephus Daniels, the powerful newspaper publisher of The News and Observer newspaper, who helped lead the deadly overthrow of the local government in 1898 because Black people held power. Contemporary media portrayals of Black people are often rife with narratives that promote Black inferiority and Black people as threats to society. For instance, the “superpredator” media myth—a false narrative spread in the 1990s that warned of an epidemic of teenage killers that never happened—helped demonize an entire generation of Black youth. Today, social media algorithms amplify the voices of white supremacists across online media platforms.

Media reparations provides a useful lens to acknowledge and repair the media’s systemic anti-Black harms. Media 2070, a growing national consortium of journalists, writers, storytellers, narrative-change activists, and media-makers is leading the charge for media reparations as a way to transform who has the capital to tell their own stories by 2070. In 2020, the cohort published a 100-page essay tracing the genealogy of the US media system’s role in perpetuating anti-Black harm from the beginning of enslavement to the present day. In unearthing this history, this work moves us toward a future in which the media is held accountable and anti-Black narratives are an aberration rather than the norm.

Media reparations are “what is needed to create a new media system that can be grounded in historical truth, lived experience, and care for Black communities, as opposed to upholding the myth of Black inferiority, which is what media has functioned to do since the very beginning,” says Collette Watson, Media 2070 project director and vice president of cultural strategy at Free Press.

The media system is critical in the fight to advance equity and justice because the language used to talk about an issue frames everyone’s understanding of it—as well as their imagination of what is possible. Therefore, narrative work is a critical focus of the reparations movement even though movement leaders highlighted to us that it is an area often overlooked by funders. That it is an area often overlooked by funders.

For example, the Say the Word campaign, launched by the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice and its partners, uses various media formats, such as explanatory videos, to create a better understanding of the word reparations. Color Farm Media, an emergent media platform, is building an ecosystem that fosters greater equity, inclusion, and diversity in media that empowers and elevates voices who are underrepresented, overlooked, and undervalued.

Color Farm’s 2023 documentary, The Big Payback, highlights the work of Robin Rue Simmons, a former alderman of Evanston, Illinois, and founder of FirstRepair, as it tells the story of how Evanston became home to the nation’s first tax-funded reparations program for Black Americans. The documentary helped to further fuel other local reparations efforts across the country and piqued the interest and support of funders. Color Farm hopes to scale its mission of improving access and inclusion to mass media and entertainment storytelling platforms.

In August 2022, Liberation Ventures launched its first narrative-change program, the Reparations Narrative Lab, which is a hub that supports organizers, artists, and strategists to understand the current narrative landscape, create and test messages, understand audiences, design experiments, and analyze the impact of their strategies. The first phase of the Lab brought together a cohort of 13 movement leaders from across the reparations and racial justice ecosystem for nine months. The result of that work when published will serve as a tool the movement can use for organizing and storytelling.  

Collectively, these efforts help build narrative power, or the ability to shape public discourse, debate, and imagery about reparations and Blackness.

There have been some moments in history that offer alternatives for a better future. For instance, the nation’s first Black-owned radio station, WERD in Atlanta, was in the same building as Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In the early 1950s, King would tap on the ceiling of his office with a broomstick to get the attention of the WERD DJs upstairs when he wanted to make an announcement on the radio. With that in mind, advocates for media reparations are hoping for the widespread realization that “corporate and philanthropic leaders have the power, and the historical obligation, to invest in a media future with justice as its guiding principle.”

Organizations imagining new narratives for racial repair (this list is not exhaustive, nor have the organizations been independently vetted by the authors):

Color Farm Media | BLD PWR | Inspire Justice | Color of Change| The Emancipator | Black Thought Project | Media Justice| Black Wall Street Times | M4BL

More on Reparations and Building a Culture of Racial Repair

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