As part of a weekend of programming around the newly-released HBO documentary Baltimore Rising, the Reginald F. Lewis museum hosted a panel discussion titled “Reclaiming the Future of Black News Media” on Nov. 17. Makayla Gilliam-Price, an activist who is featured in the documentary, moderated the panel.
The speakers were Sean Yoes, the editor of The Baltimore Afro-American (AFRO), a newspaper published by and for the African American community, and E.R. Shipp, a professor of journalism at Morgan State University. Yoes and Shipp discussed the history of black media publications and the issues black journalists face today.
Gilliam-Price said that she was inspired to host the panel by watching the filming of people’s stories in Baltimore Rising and that Baltimore citizens should work to share their own narratives as well.
“We should be creating sustainable ways and sustainable institutions to do that work ourselves so we don’t have to wait for… that larger entity or organization [to] pick up a camera to report on our stories,” she said.
Gilliam-Price is the founder of Assata’s Syllabus, an independent media organization that seeks to engage audiences in conversations about current events in Baltimore.
First, the panelists talked about the goals of black media. Shipp discussed the first ever black-owned publication in the U.S., Freedom’s Journal, which was founded in 1827. She explained that it was formed by a group of free blacks in response to the mostly negative depictions of black people in mainstream media.
“What they said in their first issue of Freedom’s Journal remains kind of the mission statement today of black media,” Shipp said. “And that mission statement was we wish to plead our own cause. For too long others have spoken for us.”
Shipp elaborated that black publications continue to be mechanisms for members of the black community to communicate with each other.
“In some cases perhaps the voices were not as strong as they once were, not as united as they were,” she said. “But they’re there, and they’re trying to find a way to connect with your generation.”
Shipp expanded on the difficulties black publications have encountered. Freedom’s Journal lasted only two years, partly due to lack of subscriptions.
“In those days it was aimed at the free black population along the eastern seaboard,” Shipp said. “As you can imagine, there were not that many free blacks and not that many literate blacks.”
According to Shipp, black media experienced a transition period in 1955 when Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black boy, was murdered by two white men.
“That was the first time that mainstream — meaning white — media decided to really focus… on what the black press had been focusing on all along,” Shipp said. “That was the first time that black reporters and white reporters had worked together in the same space on the same story.”
However, even when white reporters began focusing on issues within the black community, black media still faced challenges. Shipp explained how black publications, some of which only had enough resources to publish every week, often could not keep up with television news and mainstream daily publications.
Shipp also brought up the Kerner Commission, established by President Lyndon Johnson in 1967, which outlined the sharp divide between whites and blacks in the U.S.
“They pointed to the media as being a major contributor to the problem… and basically challenged mainstream media to get its act together,” Shipp said. “So they started hiring black people. And guess who they took those people from? Black media.”
This caused even greater problems for black publications, Shipp explained, which struggled to retain their staff. Yoes elaborated that although the black press advocated hard for integration in the U.S., it was ultimately integration that took away many black journalists from black publications.
Shipp recounted her own experience of choosing to start her career at The New York Times rather than at a black publication.
“My heart was with black media, but mainstream media could guarantee more of an income, more visibility,” she said. “And that became one of the rifts among a number of blacks who were going into the communications field. Do you go with black media, do you go with mainstream media?”
Yoes talked about the history of The AFRO and shared his personal experiences with black media.
“It has been a titanic struggle first of all to stay afloat, stay open, stay relevant, because the journalism business model has shifted so dramatically over the last 20 years or so,” he said. “We’re constantly having to evolve and find new ways to reach audiences.”
Despite the challenges of being a journalist for a black publication, Yoes has enjoyed opportunity to observe the evolution of Baltimore over the course of his tenure at The AFRO.
“The more immersed that I’ve gotten into [journalism], the more connected I’ve gotten to the people who are trying to make change in our city,” he said.
Yoes also explained how one of the main goals of black media is to advocate for poor, oppressed black people. He believes that there is a stigma against so-called advocacy media.
“The perception is that somehow if you’re an advocacy journalist you’re not as legitimate as the mainstream press, which is a lie,” he said. “I take my job as seriously as anybody who works at The New York Times.”
Shipp highlighted the differences between black and mainstream media, describing African-American journalists who joined mainstream news sources and those who wrote for the “black press” as being pitted against each other.
“We didn’t always recognize we were on the same side,” she said.
Both panelists agreed that journalism has changed significantly since the first black publications were founded. Shipp believes that the digital age is reshaping the ethics and standards of journalism.
She first described the rise of the “citizen journalist,” or somebody who uses social media to spread information on developments in their communities.
“With everybody being potentially a journalist, everybody is working their own standards of whether you’re being objective or whether you’re going to be clearly advocating a cause,” she said.
Shipp added that there is no such thing as truly objective journalism and that even news sources that do not explicitly take stances play a role in advocacy.
“Opinion is going to creep in there,” she said. “Even when you’re trying to say I’m not telling you what I believe, I’m using my expertise to tell you what’s going on.”
She urged the audience to pay more attention to a diverse range of news sources and mediums, including websites, television and radio. Shipp also recommended that Baltimore residents pay attention to local news sources, such as The Baltimore Sun, The AFRO and the recently launched The Baltimore Beat.
“I’m not sure if people are doing enough,” Shipp said. “I keep finding people who don’t know that things are going on.”
Yoes agreed that people need to look to a wider variety of news sources.
“The truth is not always in plain sight,” he said. “Us who care about the plight of our city, we have to endeavor to dig a little deeper.”
Yoes criticized journalists from outside of Baltimore for consistently misrepresenting the City and focusing disproportionately on violence, riots and poverty. As a West Baltimore native, he said that he takes these depictions personally.
He demanded that journalists shift away from this trend and be more careful about the way they report on Baltimore.
“We are in a crisis moment, a tipping point in our city,” Yoes said. “We need as many warriors as we can telling our stories authentically and accurately.”
He encouraged readers to be proactive in reaching out and pitching stories to The Afro and other news sources.
“I look for the input of the community to open my eyes to certain things,” Yoes said.
Audience member Aaron Brown, an African-American student at Howard University and friend of Gilliam-Price, agreed that the media was misleading in its depiction of Baltimore.
Brown, who is from Indianapolis, said that he knew little of Baltimore before coming for an internship. Since then, he has developed a strong attachment to the City.
“I knew about The Wire,” he said. “You see all this action and drug dealing and danger. But there’s so much more to Baltimore than just that one facade.”
Another audience member, Mark Jean, shared the panelists’ concerns about the lack of funding for black publications. He believes the black community needs to unite to solve the problem.
“I think that’s something we definitely have to get around,” he said. “I think we need somebody like Oprah or other people with a whole bunch of money to come together and form our own corporation.”
Gilliam-Price’s mother, Zelda Gilliam, also attended the event. She believes the mainstream media can often be very unfair in its depictions of the black community. She shared a story of how several years ago, she was fighting for the life of a family member who was ultimately awarded the death penalty.
“Back then we didn’t have social media, so the mainstream media was the only thing we had, so that’s the only thing the public heard,” she said. “I couldn’t get on Facebook and dispute what [The Baltimore Sun] was saying. People took it for what it was worth.”
Gilliam said that independent media organizations like Assata’s Syllabus will address some problems with mainstream media.
“I think youth bringing a voice to journalism and to media in a lot of ways is, I think, going to make it more authentic, make it more grassroots, make it more transparent,” she said.