Clockwise from upper left: Aloni Hill, Ph.D., assistant professor of journalism at VCU; Regina Boone, photojournalist with the Richmond Free Press; Anthony Antoine, anchor at NBC12; and Michael Paul Williams, columnist with the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Black Lives Matter has ‘dramatically shifted the paradigm’ of how mainstream media covers the news

Local journalists reflect on covering the movement and its ongoing impact on newsrooms and the way they operate.

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In the nine months since George Floyd’s killing by a Minneapolis police officer sparked nationwide protests, Black Lives Matter has led to reforms and conversations in mainstream media newsrooms that were once unimaginable, according to a panel of Black Richmond journalists who spoke Thursday at a Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture virtual event.

Michael Paul Williams, columnist at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, said newsrooms are examining with fresh eyes practices that have endured for decades and shaped the way media coverage is produced. For instance, Williams said, his paper is reconsidering the publication of mugshots in its pages – and even asking the question of if a crime beat should exist at all.

“There are discussions taking place in newsrooms now that I never would have imagined hearing five years ago,” he said. “Not just the wisdom of using mugshots, which I think ought to go and should have gone yesterday. They’re nothing but public relations vehicles for the police that incriminate potentially innocent people. And by the way, who looks innocent in a mugshot?”

“We’re not only having those discussions, we’re actually having discussions about whether we should even have a police beat or a crime beat,” he said. “And we’re talking about how historically those beats have had the potential to be weaponized against people of color.”

Black Lives Matter, he said, has had a profound impact on the media and “dramatically shifted the paradigm of how we think about doing news.”

“There are conversations that are taking place in newsrooms and there’s a level of introspection that’s happening in newsrooms that I never would have imagined,” Williams said.

The event, “Post Black Lives Matter: New Beginnings,” was part of the speaker series of the Robertson School, part of the College of Humanities and Sciences. In addition to Williams, the panel featured photojournalist Regina Boone of the Richmond Free Press and NBC12 anchor Anthony Antoine. It was moderated by Aloni Hill, Ph.D., and Vivian Medina-Messner, assistant professors of journalism in the Robertson School.

TV newsrooms and journalists, Antoine said, have also been engaging in important and sometimes uncomfortable conversations brought about by Black Lives Matter.

“As far as TV news is concerned, you try to get the overall topic and get each side of that topic and what they have to say. But a lot of the times that conversation hasn’t historically been centered around race,” he said. “What the Black Lives Matter movement is forcing people to do is to not only shed a light on systematic racism, white privilege, the discussion of what it is to really be Black in America [but also] finally having the masses listen attentively to the lived experiences of people of color who have been here for a very long time, living day-to-day and maneuvering in these spaces, and here comes the media trying to be this neutral force to really discuss something that has over 400 years of history attached to it.”

Newsrooms, he said, are confronted with questions such as: What constitutes a protest? And what factors might warrant calling a protest a riot?

“We have definitely had discussions that I don’t think newsrooms probably had in the past,” Antoine said. “When we can have that discussion and come to a general consensus about how we’re going to present the information, I think this movement has forced newsrooms to change.”

He added that many news outlets continue to lack diversity.

“I think the industry is now really catching up,” he said. “I work in a newsroom where there are a lot of Black people, and then we can share those experiences with our coworkers and then we come to an agreement, but there are some spaces where you might be the only Black person in the newsroom, and then you have to try to speak for an entire race of people. And that can be difficult for some. But I think overall there are newsrooms across the country that are engaging in conversations they probably never had to before.””

Speaker Series: VCU Robertson School of Media and Culture: "Post Black Lives Matter: New Beginnings"

Boone noted that there is not “just one media” and that Black news outlets, such as the Richmond Free Press, have not been forced to reckon with new conversations about race and white supremacy.

“We’ve been doing this all along. We’re not having these conversations that you’re talking about just all of a sudden. The Black press has been here, has been covering the Black community,” she said. “Some of us are not catching up. Some of us have been doing this. Some of us have been having these conversations. So yeah, majority white, daily newspaper newsrooms. Yes. That is what your norm is, but that’s not our norm.”

The journalists were asked how they approached documenting the protests, given that some protesters objected to having their picture taken or published without their consent.

Boone said it wasn’t much of an issue for her, given that many protesters had their faces covered anyway because of the pandemic but also because she made sure to speak with the people she was photographing.

“Most of the time when I am covering someone and I’m able to talk to them, I do go and speak to them and I get their names,” Boone said. “And I will say throughout the summer I was on the streets — we were on the streets at least 65 days in a row consistently — I didn’t have one problem with anyone not wanting to have their photograph made. When I would talk to them, they weren’t like, ‘No, no, no,’ or anything like that.”

Antoine, however, said he personally experienced a small number of protesters trying to grab his equipment or cut his cords. “It happened to me and my colleagues. So that is a dangerous situation for us,” he said. “It doesn’t speak to everyone who is out there protesting by no means, but I would be lying if I sat here and said that there wasn’t some animosity towards camera crews covering what was happening.”

“Ninety-nine percent of the time, the people we spoke to were super nice,” he added “They’re willing to talk to us about what’s happening. They are passionate. We want to capture their passion. We want to make sure they’re seen. We’re giving them a voice and amplifying the words that are coming out of their mouth because we truly are in an incredible moment.”

Looking forward, Williams said, the media’s success will rely on greater diversity in newsrooms and more equitable news coverage.

“A more equitable anything always redounds to the benefit of everyone,” he said. “And that’s the big lie in America that’s dragging this country down  that if you do something that’s beneficial to the poor, if you do something that’s beneficial to people of color, it’s a zero sum loss to the majority, which is ridiculous. That’s not true. It’s been demonstrated and quantified and documented to be false. It’s just a racist narrative or a narrative that’s meant to keep the wealthiest people wealthiest.”

“Think about the untapped audiences that you get if you do the right thing,” he added. “That will be the salvation of journalism or any business. It’s no accident that every time you turn on a television set and turn it to a commercial, you would think that every couple in America is interracial and you would think that every gathering in America is inclusive. It’s because they’ve figured out that that sells. Our audience is everyone. And so it’s a win for everyone if we can just get past our bigotry.”

The Robertson School’s next virtual Speaker Series event, “Developing a Creative Mindset,” will be held April 1 and will feature Robertson School Professor Scott Sherman and Ken Marcus, senior writer at The Martin Agency.