The year journalism starts paying reparations

“Reparative journalism is explicit in its commitment to doing the work of racial justice, and by extension — without apology — social justice.”

This is not a prediction about 2021 as much as it is a call for what must come in the “after” we’ve all been waiting for — some of us longer than others.

After 45. After the pandemic. After the uprisings.

Now that this consequential year has definitively denuded the unsustainability of American institutions as we know them, the work of reparations can begin. Specifically, the work of reparative journalism.

Reparative journalism1 is the term I use to describe a specific approach to newsmaking that centers structural vulnerability as its core value. It is the framework I envision for the news media to redeem itself by reconstructing our shared reality through radically inclusive editorial choices.

Reparative journalism is explicit in its commitment to doing the work of racial justice, and by extension — without apology — social justice. It positions Black women’s social, economic, and political vulnerabilities as its locus for development, and acknowledges how intersections of race, gender identity, class, physical and mental (dis)ability, and enfranchisement are at play in making the news.

As a process, it accepts that the ways we understand people to “be” wholly influences our editorial choices, including our decisions about who, what, where, when, why and how are reported and distributed in order for news media to meet its social responsibility as a public good. If there’s any American institution that must pay reparations, it is journalism.

Why is reparative journalism built around Black women?

In studying Black Twitter for the past 10 years, after nearly a decade working in journalism, I’ve accepted that, much like our country, our profession will never fulfill its potential if we don’t take a deliberate approach to address the broken foundation on which both were built.

Journalism’s core norms and values haven’t changed much since the University of Missouri took steps to professionalize the practice with the founding of its journalism school in 1908. The seemingly uncomplicated basic news values, and the more nuanced cultural news values identified by Herbert Gans, were shaped within Jim Crow’s life cycle. Mizzou’s journalism school admitted — and then rescinded admission from — its first Black matriculant, Lucille Bluford, in the late 1930s. All told, the university would not admit its first Black student until 1950.

The approaches to news media coverage honed during Jim Crow continue to inform our approach to journalism today, in spite of dramatic technological and demographic evolutions. The methods and mores of journalistic “objectivity” are finally being openly and collectively challenged. We cling to the premise of journalism as an institution of truth-telling without addressing the broken foundation on which it was built. But how can journalism as an institution developed through the perspectives of a few adequately address the news and information needs of the many?

It can’t. And had news media elites been actually listening to Black women instead of parroting the phrase as a cute virtue signal, they would have acted on that reality years ago, potentially sparing us from the systematic amplification of violent, conspiratorial, and inflammatory messages that are the signature of the outgoing administration’s deft talent for manipulating mainstream news media’s commercial infrastructure.

Like peace journalism and social journalism before it, reparative journalism troubles the assumptions of the dominant culture. It is a tool for rupture, severing our reliance on an inflexible binary of winners and losers for understanding our world.

It begins with placing the most vulnerable among us at the center of reshaping our norms and practices, which is why I start with Black women. Black women are also disabled women. We are gender non-conforming people. We are also immigrant women. And we are trans women. To paraphrase Patricia Hill Collins, the sociologist whose works so many Black women activists and academics have echoed, when life improves for Black women, it will improve for everyone.

What does a reparative journalism approach look like?

Reparative journalism must be visionary, rather than reactionary. This summer’s “racial reckoning” in news media was the latest episode in a decades-long campaign for journalism to address its inherent racialized biases.

The Associated Press’ decision to (finally) standardize Black with a capital B, as well as the admission that racism is a thing that can and should be explicitly addressed are useful corrective measures but they only mark the first steps of pursuing holistic reparations.

But the core value of initiatives like The New York Times’ 1619 project must be normalized. Pulitzer Prize winner Nikole Hannah Jones’ editorial aim to make the connections between chattel slavery and our quotidian reality is an example of the kind of perspective that reparative journalism requires. In order to make sense of our present, we must research, connect with, and identify the throughlines of power from our past.

Reparative journalism must be grounded in the history of the ignored. A reparative journalism approach requires institutions of all types — schools, publishers, and platforms, to name a few — to examine their histories and relationships, first to Indigenous and Black communities in the United States, and further to all minoritized and subjugated peoples, and to identify the value systems and practices that have evolved from them for evidence of structural oppression.

As an iterative, multi-generational approach, reparative journalism requires these organizations to listen to and work directly with the communities they have harmed to actively develop and embed values, norms, and practices to address past harms, prevent new ones, and produce multiperspectival journalism from the position of the oppressed in U.S. and global society.

Apologies from publications such as National Geographic, which had has a legacy of exploiting the Other, and acknowledgements from outlets like my hometown paper, the Lexington Herald-Leader, for its failure to cover the civil rights movement, are examples of the effort we will have to mount in 2021 and beyond if we are to refuse to repeat the archival amnesty of the past.

If the struggles to address the illogical enrishinement of Confederate traitors as icons of American history are any indication, this may be our most difficult task. Rather than engaging in revision, reparative journalism learns from a critical analysis of history to immediately iterate and implement different reporting practices.

Reparative journalism must be critically intentional. It means allocating time, money, and people power to identify and track the baseless deviant framing of Black people and Black families at local and national levels, and making a concerted effort to go beyond “mainstreaming” us into coverage. The same is true for communities where the marginalized are Indigenous, Asian, Hispanic/Latino, Middle Eastern and North African, including queer and disabled folks.

The approach requires that stories, sections, and editions be dedicated to this effort for months or more realistically, years in order to help retrain the American imaginary to see us as we are, instead of as the constructions professional gatekeepers have fabricated and re-issued over the years. In 2021, the same news workers who called their organizations to task will be the ones who we look to as leaders of this transition. It will be insufficient to simply plug-and-play people from underrepresented backgrounds into these critical roles.

Reparative journalism must be comprehensive. It demands that our approach to journalism education be rebuilt wherein coverage by, for, and about the systematically oppressed is not relegated to a single course or a module or two within a course. Reparative journalism places figures like Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Anna Julia Cooper, and more contemporary names such as Alice Dunnigan, alongside news workers like Woodward and Bernstein whose names are part of our core curriculum. Academia is a prime space for cultivating such a massive cultural shift, and journalism programs among historically Black colleges and minority-serving institutions must be the sites of significant, ongoing investment as part of a reparative effort to correct for the systematic exclusion of journalists of color.

Reparative journalism requires alternative funding and production models. Not only are the ad-backed, subscriber-focused models irretrievably broken, they too suffer from the limited growth potential of racial capitalism that values and reifies white dominance through the metrics that drive editorial decision making and inform newsroom culture. These efforts must also go beyond the principles of human-centered design that extract insight from people who have long been over-studied and consulted (and uncompensated) for the benefit of corporate profits.

Reparative journalism requires the redistribution of power — a phrase that often causes white folks — who, not coincidentally, make up more than 70 percent of the U.S. news industry’s workforce — to blanch when it’s uttered in the service of racial justice and liberation. But if we’re going to get free, power will have to concede access and offer up opportunity as well as the resources of time, money, and structural support. While strategic diversity initiatives, such as the ASNE Newsroom Diversity Survey and the pipeline programs it inspired, have their utility, such interventions are limited in time, scope, and impact. As one interviewee in my research on newsroom diversity told me in 2018: “Managers have to be willing to make political decisions in hiring.”

Reparative journalism will require an unfathomable commitment of time — more than any of us may have in this life. We must acknowledge that we are but contributors to the ongoing effort to address the historical wrongs that have brought us to this moment. In the face of the country’s refusal to accommodate the plurality of voices that folks from underrepresented communities are quizzically asked to assimilate into, we recognize that the powerful prefer that we “do it slow” as we insist on changes that are long overdue. Knowing this, we must condition ourselves to continue to work while we endure. We may not live long enough to see the fruits of our labor, but we must take solace in knowing that labor will not be in vain.

The development and adoption of reparative journalism is, like the work of all anti-racist practice, part of the ever-present struggle for the immediacy of justice in the interest humanity’s future.

It is the work of generations.

Meredith D. Clark is an assistant professor in the media studies department at the University of Virginia.

  1. Some disambiguation: A 2012 CJR article uses the term “reparative journalism” as a headline; it makes a reference to a journalist’s experience with so-called gay conversion therapy. ↩︎

This is not a prediction about 2021 as much as it is a call for what must come in the “after” we’ve all been waiting for — some of us longer than others.

After 45. After the pandemic. After the uprisings.

Now that this consequential year has definitively denuded the unsustainability of American institutions as we know them, the work of reparations can begin. Specifically, the work of reparative journalism.

Reparative journalism1 is the term I use to describe a specific approach to newsmaking that centers structural vulnerability as its core value. It is the framework I envision for the news media to redeem itself by reconstructing our shared reality through radically inclusive editorial choices.

Reparative journalism is explicit in its commitment to doing the work of racial justice, and by extension — without apology — social justice. It positions Black women’s social, economic, and political vulnerabilities as its locus for development, and acknowledges how intersections of race, gender identity, class, physical and mental (dis)ability, and enfranchisement are at play in making the news.

As a process, it accepts that the ways we understand people to “be” wholly influences our editorial choices, including our decisions about who, what, where, when, why and how are reported and distributed in order for news media to meet its social responsibility as a public good. If there’s any American institution that must pay reparations, it is journalism.

Why is reparative journalism built around Black women?

In studying Black Twitter for the past 10 years, after nearly a decade working in journalism, I’ve accepted that, much like our country, our profession will never fulfill its potential if we don’t take a deliberate approach to address the broken foundation on which both were built.

Journalism’s core norms and values haven’t changed much since the University of Missouri took steps to professionalize the practice with the founding of its journalism school in 1908. The seemingly uncomplicated basic news values, and the more nuanced cultural news values identified by Herbert Gans, were shaped within Jim Crow’s life cycle. Mizzou’s journalism school admitted — and then rescinded admission from — its first Black matriculant, Lucille Bluford, in the late 1930s. All told, the university would not admit its first Black student until 1950.

The approaches to news media coverage honed during Jim Crow continue to inform our approach to journalism today, in spite of dramatic technological and demographic evolutions. The methods and mores of journalistic “objectivity” are finally being openly and collectively challenged. We cling to the premise of journalism as an institution of truth-telling without addressing the broken foundation on which it was built. But how can journalism as an institution developed through the perspectives of a few adequately address the news and information needs of the many?

It can’t. And had news media elites been actually listening to Black women instead of parroting the phrase as a cute virtue signal, they would have acted on that reality years ago, potentially sparing us from the systematic amplification of violent, conspiratorial, and inflammatory messages that are the signature of the outgoing administration’s deft talent for manipulating mainstream news media’s commercial infrastructure.

Like peace journalism and social journalism before it, reparative journalism troubles the assumptions of the dominant culture. It is a tool for rupture, severing our reliance on an inflexible binary of winners and losers for understanding our world.

It begins with placing the most vulnerable among us at the center of reshaping our norms and practices, which is why I start with Black women. Black women are also disabled women. We are gender non-conforming people. We are also immigrant women. And we are trans women. To paraphrase Patricia Hill Collins, the sociologist whose works so many Black women activists and academics have echoed, when life improves for Black women, it will improve for everyone.

What does a reparative journalism approach look like?

Reparative journalism must be visionary, rather than reactionary. This summer’s “racial reckoning” in news media was the latest episode in a decades-long campaign for journalism to address its inherent racialized biases.

The Associated Press’ decision to (finally) standardize Black with a capital B, as well as the admission that racism is a thing that can and should be explicitly addressed are useful corrective measures but they only mark the first steps of pursuing holistic reparations.

But the core value of initiatives like The New York Times’ 1619 project must be normalized. Pulitzer Prize winner Nikole Hannah Jones’ editorial aim to make the connections between chattel slavery and our quotidian reality is an example of the kind of perspective that reparative journalism requires. In order to make sense of our present, we must research, connect with, and identify the throughlines of power from our past.

Reparative journalism must be grounded in the history of the ignored. A reparative journalism approach requires institutions of all types — schools, publishers, and platforms, to name a few — to examine their histories and relationships, first to Indigenous and Black communities in the United States, and further to all minoritized and subjugated peoples, and to identify the value systems and practices that have evolved from them for evidence of structural oppression.

As an iterative, multi-generational approach, reparative journalism requires these organizations to listen to and work directly with the communities they have harmed to actively develop and embed values, norms, and practices to address past harms, prevent new ones, and produce multiperspectival journalism from the position of the oppressed in U.S. and global society.

Apologies from publications such as National Geographic, which had has a legacy of exploiting the Other, and acknowledgements from outlets like my hometown paper, the Lexington Herald-Leader, for its failure to cover the civil rights movement, are examples of the effort we will have to mount in 2021 and beyond if we are to refuse to repeat the archival amnesty of the past.

If the struggles to address the illogical enrishinement of Confederate traitors as icons of American history are any indication, this may be our most difficult task. Rather than engaging in revision, reparative journalism learns from a critical analysis of history to immediately iterate and implement different reporting practices.

Reparative journalism must be critically intentional. It means allocating time, money, and people power to identify and track the baseless deviant framing of Black people and Black families at local and national levels, and making a concerted effort to go beyond “mainstreaming” us into coverage. The same is true for communities where the marginalized are Indigenous, Asian, Hispanic/Latino, Middle Eastern and North African, including queer and disabled folks.

The approach requires that stories, sections, and editions be dedicated to this effort for months or more realistically, years in order to help retrain the American imaginary to see us as we are, instead of as the constructions professional gatekeepers have fabricated and re-issued over the years. In 2021, the same news workers who called their organizations to task will be the ones who we look to as leaders of this transition. It will be insufficient to simply plug-and-play people from underrepresented backgrounds into these critical roles.

Reparative journalism must be comprehensive. It demands that our approach to journalism education be rebuilt wherein coverage by, for, and about the systematically oppressed is not relegated to a single course or a module or two within a course. Reparative journalism places figures like Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Anna Julia Cooper, and more contemporary names such as Alice Dunnigan, alongside news workers like Woodward and Bernstein whose names are part of our core curriculum. Academia is a prime space for cultivating such a massive cultural shift, and journalism programs among historically Black colleges and minority-serving institutions must be the sites of significant, ongoing investment as part of a reparative effort to correct for the systematic exclusion of journalists of color.

Reparative journalism requires alternative funding and production models. Not only are the ad-backed, subscriber-focused models irretrievably broken, they too suffer from the limited growth potential of racial capitalism that values and reifies white dominance through the metrics that drive editorial decision making and inform newsroom culture. These efforts must also go beyond the principles of human-centered design that extract insight from people who have long been over-studied and consulted (and uncompensated) for the benefit of corporate profits.

Reparative journalism requires the redistribution of power — a phrase that often causes white folks — who, not coincidentally, make up more than 70 percent of the U.S. news industry’s workforce — to blanch when it’s uttered in the service of racial justice and liberation. But if we’re going to get free, power will have to concede access and offer up opportunity as well as the resources of time, money, and structural support. While strategic diversity initiatives, such as the ASNE Newsroom Diversity Survey and the pipeline programs it inspired, have their utility, such interventions are limited in time, scope, and impact. As one interviewee in my research on newsroom diversity told me in 2018: “Managers have to be willing to make political decisions in hiring.”

Reparative journalism will require an unfathomable commitment of time — more than any of us may have in this life. We must acknowledge that we are but contributors to the ongoing effort to address the historical wrongs that have brought us to this moment. In the face of the country’s refusal to accommodate the plurality of voices that folks from underrepresented communities are quizzically asked to assimilate into, we recognize that the powerful prefer that we “do it slow” as we insist on changes that are long overdue. Knowing this, we must condition ourselves to continue to work while we endure. We may not live long enough to see the fruits of our labor, but we must take solace in knowing that labor will not be in vain.

The development and adoption of reparative journalism is, like the work of all anti-racist practice, part of the ever-present struggle for the immediacy of justice in the interest humanity’s future.

It is the work of generations.

Meredith D. Clark is an assistant professor in the media studies department at the University of Virginia.

  1. Some disambiguation: A 2012 CJR article uses the term “reparative journalism” as a headline; it makes a reference to a journalist’s experience with so-called gay conversion therapy. ↩︎

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