Malkia Cyril

The Moment newsletter

Published — August 27, 2020

What role does media play in writing on race?

Malkia Devich-Cyril (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)


Welcome to The Moment. I’m Susan Smith Richardson, CEO of the Center for Public Integrity.

Before I jump into this week’s The Moment headliner, take note I’ll be hosting a discussion on voter suppression with a great panel soon. See details at the end of this newsletter.

As the child of Black Panther Party members, Malkia Devich-Cyril grew up with an understanding of the importance of community agency and an appreciation for how changing culture can be a prerequisite to changing politics. Devich-Cyril, who uses the pronoun they, gravitated toward media analysis and the role of media in social change as a community organizer. Later, they became founding director of MediaJustice, which focuses on media and digital rights. Devich-Cyril is now a senior fellow there.

The national reckoning about race and representation in journalism is overdue, Devich-Cyril says. Journalists of color and other journalists are challenging the norms of the news industry — for example, objectivity and who is considered a reliable source. Devich-Cyril calls for a “structural analysis of media and where things need to change at the institutional and structural level to achieve narrative change.” Our interview was weeks before the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin. But Devich-Cyril’s interview is timely in the context of the coverage of the unrest following the shooting.

And now a moment with Malkia Devich-Cyril…

*This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.

What role does media play in changing the narrative about race?  

The media system that exists in the United States is a white-led system. It’s not only dominated by white people, but by white-centered ideas and approaches, just in its basic structures, in the simple fact of its demographics. The institutions are run by white people for the most part, not entirely, but for the most part. And then you have the ownership issues. You have six companies that own all the media, and over the last 20 years, you have to look at the way media ownership has become consolidated. Those companies are owned by some of the wealthiest people in the world. In spite of what they say, they have an agenda — to stay rich. So, there’s the profit motive behind the narrowing of content and starving out journalism to make it harder and harder for local journalism to survive. 

The earlier newspapers in this country were dedicated to and justified the genocide of Native Americans and the enslavement of Africans. Newspapers and other forms of storytelling were dedicated to making those things make sense, to making something unjustifiable recognizable and reasonable, and I don’t think the mission has changed much in 500 years. In stories about people of color, about Black people, in particular, the coverage ends up being episodic versus thematic. History and context are lost in these stories. Talk about the riots, for example. We frame them as riots, not uprisings. We talk about how these Black people are looting and destroying their own communities, but where is the story about the number of times their communities have been destroyed by gentrification? … The news, we have agreed as society, is the official story. So, when the news is biased it creates an underlying sense that white people are supposed to dominate and that white voices set the standard for the norm.

How do you begin to change those norms of reporting? What is a new vision for journalism? 

You correct those norms in a few ways. We must return resources to investigative journalism, and we have to restructure how we report on crime. We need to start thinking about how we bring in context and history to crime stories. It could even be a line or two. It’s journalism no longer accepting police reports as the truth, but you have to verify [what they say]. It’s expanding the voices and who we consider credible sources.

On the opposite side of that, the Kerner Commission Report talked about the failure of a white-dominated media to report on Black people in an everyday kind of way, beyond uprisings and crime. I think that still holds true. [Journalists need to be] able to report on Black people, immigrants of color and Native Americans from a frame that isn’t always about the problems, or the problems we face are put in a broader context.

There’s a lot of conversation right now about the practice of journalism. Who can be a journalist?

The heart of it lives in the question of truth. Are you able to tell the truth? I know that that sounds like an oversimplified way of talking about it … Under a white supremacist nation, journalism will always be biased. Individual journalists can’t fix it. You have to give up on the idea that the individual journalist can make the whole difference. But are there processes between communities and [news] outlets that let that process be interrogated? Do outlets do regular audits of its content? There are ways to tell if you are reporting the truth. 

Are you saying that the structure of newsrooms limits the scope of the reporting?

I’m saying that individual actions alone are insufficient to change a system. Journalists have had a problem participating in social movements because they often see themselves as separate because they have to report on those movements. Anti-racist journalists have a duty, a job that is about transforming journalism and that requires that they see themselves as part of a struggle. Those are things that are often at odds because journalists of color too often have almost bought into the version of what journalism is supposed to be — that it’s separate from everybody.

Since George Floyd’s death, you’ve had movements in newsrooms to change norms – from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette to the Los Angeles Times.

I think that understanding of objectivity is changing, and journalists of color are becoming part of a broader movement. I don’t think this is the first time. [It happened] during the civil rights movement, but the number of Black journalists was different. The question didn’t become a question until the ‘70s when more integration of [news] outlets was happening. Today, journalists of color and anti-racist journalists are being targeted on the street [at protests.] There’s no distinction between them and other people on the street. That’s waking journalists up to the fact that you can’t tell the story from the side.

Malkia’s must reads:

News for All the People: The Epic Story of Race and the American Media” by Juan Gonzalez and Joseph Torres – This sweeping narrative of American media looks at how government policies, ownership and race shaped the news and who gets to define it.

Pleasure Activism” and “Emergent Strategies,” by adrienne maree brown – These two books by the Detroit-based feminist argue that political activism can be personally healing and joyful.

Join me on Sept. 9 for a conversation about voter suppression with a panel you don’t want to miss — LaTosha Brown, co-founder of Black Voters Matter; Judy Richardson, a producer of the award-winning series on the civil rights movement “Eyes on the Prize”; and Sonia Jarvis, a professor whose work focuses on race, politics and media. Our virtual panel discussion kicks off at 5:30 p.m. on Crowdcast. To stay up to date on this, sign up for updates here.

Thanks for reading The Moment. What questions do you want to explore? Send them to me at Until next time.

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