Black Journalists Are Critical to Our Democracy

April Ryan

The election of Donald Trump and the actions of his young administration have spotlighted the importance of facts. Since President Trump’s inauguration, truth and honest analysis have become rare commodities in the White House. In addition to promoting false narratives and condoning unrepentant lying, the Trump administration has also made it difficult to access government data, research, and other forms of information. His administration has directed government agencies to limit news releases, updates to agency websites, and communication with the press. This is troubling, but it isn’t the first time in our country’s history when those in positions of power, who understand that knowledge is power, have sought to limit information and curtail access to it. While President Trump’s agenda puts large swathes of the country at risk, African Americans are disproportionally affected by his harmful policies. Now, more than ever, the United States needs the strength of its free press—especially its black journalists—to push back against the administration’s lies and restriction of information. As history has shown, the dogged, journalistic pursuit of the truth has exposed even the greatest of lies.

Shining a light on the marginalized

At its inception, this country established laws that forbade enslaved black people from learning how to read and write, thus accepting the reasoning of slave owners, who feared that access to knowledge beyond what they deemed appropriate for slaves would inspire revolt. As Frederick Douglass knew, “Once you learn to read you will be forever free.” Some, such as Douglass, who could read and write used the opportunity to expose the injustice of slavery. In his North Star newspaper, Douglass demanded emancipation for all oppressed groups despite great personal risk. His paper gained widespread readership and influence both in the United States and abroad. In addition to reading and writing, other African Americans found distinct ways to tell their truth through dance, music, and storytelling. These ingenious methods of communication, which often used coded language, helped many escape bondage. For example, brave leaders such as Harriet Tubman used these methods to inform and provide strategy to slaves about the Underground Railroad.

Even after the 13th Amendment abolished slavery, this country allowed textbooks, news reports, and even scientific research to rewrite and mutilate history, painting a false picture of the so-called land of the free. In the face of this continued injustice, it was the voices of black journalists that exposed truths and influenced change. More than 100 years ago, crusader journalist Ida B. Wells wrote about racial injustice and documented the systemic lynching of blacks in the Jim Crow South. Her work informed the public about the horrors facing black communities.

At the beginning of the 20th century, The Chicago Defender played a critical role in sparking the Great Migration. The paper highlighted the brutality and deplorable conditions of the Jim Crow South and called on African Americans to move north for greater opportunity. It provided job listings, train schedules, photographs, and other critical information for African Americans living in the South. Many white newsstands refused to carry the paper because it undermined the status quo of the Jim Crow South.

During World War II, the Pittsburgh Courier, the most widely read black newspaper at the time, launched the “Double V” campaign to unite African Americans across the country around the need to liberate enslaved people at home and abroad. This campaign, as well as the critical role African American soldiers played in the war, heavily influenced President Harry Truman’s 1948 executive order that began the process of integrating the U.S. armed forces. A decade later, Jet magazine published the stark image of Emmett Till’s brutalized and distorted face for the world to see. The publication of the photograph of Emmett Till forced mainstream media outlets—that is to say, white outlets—to cover the story. The picture is credited with bringing national attention to the cruelty being perpetrated against the black community and sparking the civil rights movement. In the 1960s, civil rights leaders used television, then a new medium of communication, to inform the larger American public about the violence black people faced. Seeing water hoses and vicious dogs turned on people helped the wider public comprehend the cruelty and violence faced by black communities daily.

When mainstream media outlets fail to produce content for or inclusive of the African American community, black-owned outlets find ways to tell their stories. Created in 1970, Essence magazine was the first magazine for African American women, finally providing a platform for black female voices, issues, and topics. Similarly, Black Entertainment Television, created in 1980 in response to the lack of television programming for the African American community, filled a void in mainstream media.

As these stories illustrate, black journalists and news outlets uncover the narratives that the mainstream media does not. Without their voices and their stories, our nation will continue to live in a distorted reality. Whether by reporting on issues facing the black community directly or doing deeper investigative work, such as uncovering school textbooks that lack examples of black excellence in our nation’s history, black voices in media have strived for decades to shine a light on the marginalized.

Black media pushes America forward

Throughout American history, African American journalists and media have pushed our nation to live up to its founding ideals. Today is no different. From criminal justice to environmental justice to issues of economic opportunity, black reporters are writing the critical stories that might not otherwise be covered. In our new political reality under the Trump administration, these stories are even more important.

Evidence and data reveal that at every point in our criminal justice system, African Americans are disproportionately impacted. In spite of this data, the Trump administration continues to push outdated criminal justice policies that disproportionately affect African Americans. Following the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, The Washington Post’s Wesley Lowery traveled to Ferguson, Missouri, risking arrest or worse, to cover the protests and has continued to highlight the issue of officer-involved shootings in this country on a national level. Accurate coverage of these issues is critical.

Similarly, environmental hazards affect African American communities at higher rates. Studies show that African American children are twice as likely to have asthma than white children. Yet, according to the Atlanta Black Star, the Trump administration wants to gut the newly formed Office of Environmental Justice at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which focuses on lead, pollution, and other issues specifically targeting marginalized communities.

Additionally, while minority-owned businesses are the fastest growing businesses in this country, it is harder for minorities to access capital. According to Black Enterprise Magazine, the Trump administration wants to eliminate the Minority Business Development Agency, the only federal agency dedicated solely to helping minority businesses grow.

These are just a few examples of why it is important for black journalists and media outlets to continue investigating, reporting, and publishing stories critical to black success.

Conclusion

In this crucial moment in history, black journalists have consistently pressed the White House for the truth. Some, such as White House correspondent April Ryan, have forged ahead in the wake of personal disrespect from White House officials. Despite the treacherous terrain, black journalists remain tenacious in their pursuit of the truth. In the end, it is not just the African American community that benefits from the truth. Our very identity as a nation is built upon the notion of a free and open press. The voices and willingness of those who fight for truth and transparency are beneficial to us all.

African Americans must continue to leverage their power and create spaces for truth—especially in an era where these commodities are rare. Facts and truth are at risk today and, because of what’s at stake, all Americans are at a greater disadvantage if they don’t have access to truthful reporting. We cannot afford to give up our platforms or sacrifice our voices. We need sustained voices on these issues because, as Nelson Mandela once said, “Education is the most powerful weapon we can use to change the world.”

Danyelle Solomon is the director of Progress 2050 at the Center for American Progress.