Kathy Im, Director, Journalism & Media, reflects on journalism and media organizations’ role in challenging racism, inequity, and abuse of power.

This past year was a year like no other, and MacArthur’s Journalism and Media grantees were on the front lines of everything, from the Black Lives Matter protests and the pandemic to the fight against disinformation and the right to be counted. As eyewitnesses and recorders of history, as organizers and activists, as ambassadors for truth and equality, they worked for the better future we know is possible.

During the spring and summer of 2020, as the marches and protests against police brutality and systemic racism engulfed the nation, more than 900 reporters were harassed, assaulted, or arrested for doing their jobs. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the International Women’s Media Foundation, among others, quickly sprang into action to demand the end of police attacks and arrests of journalists and to provide emergency legal, financial, and emotional support for reporters, especially reporters of color and women journalists, who were particularly targeted and threatened.

On top of the unparalleled racial reckoning and pandemic, America has been in the grips of a misinformation epidemic.

As the reality of a global pandemic set in, an already frail journalism industry contracted further, leaving public and nonprofit media to fill the void. In Chicago, community-serving outlets like The Triibe, Cicero Independiente, City Bureau, and Block Club Chicago became trusted sources for accurate and culturally competent news and information. Their singular purpose to do right by their communities led them to be among the most effective in holding local government and the business sector accountable by creating more accurate and just news and narratives about the lived experiences and realities of communities most impacted by systemic racism and COVID-19.

COVID-19 also brought about a swift and powerful resurgence of anti-Asian rhetoric and racism, responsible for 2,500 self-reported hate crimes against Asian American/Pacific Islanders in the United States, though the actual number of incidences is likely far higher. The Center for Public Integrity was among the news outlets that provided steady reporting on this aspect of the pandemic. Meanwhile, AAPI Civic Engagement Fund, 18 Million Rising, and other Asian American groups deftly used this moment to challenge Asian Americans on their anti-Black racism, inspiring many Asian American families to have intergenerational conversations about Black Lives Matter.  

On top of the unparalleled racial reckoning and pandemic, America has been in the grips of a misinformation epidemic, which jeopardized the decennial census and the November elections and undermined the nation’s ability to manage COVID-19 and slow down the growing political divide. In 2019, a new initiative designed to help “inoculate” communities most at risk for becoming the target of mis- and disinformation campaigns in the lead up to the 2020 elections was established. Called the Disinformation Defense League, MediaJustice, the Kairos Fellowship, and Color of Change, among others, led this national effort to build the resiliency of Black and Brown communities to push back against the threat of racialized disinformation. Meanwhile, the Tow Center, Data & Society, and The MarkUp maintained a steady focus on the role of the platforms and their algorithms in moving individuals toward extremism and publishing and disseminating lies. These challenges remain in 2021, often feeling more daunting than ever, yet the small but mighty set of nonprofit organizations continue to fight with an unbendable purpose.

These challenges remain in 2021, often feeling more daunting than ever, yet the small but mighty set of nonprofit organizations continue to fight with an unbendable purpose.

In a year that exposed our nation’s many uncomfortable realities, documentary filmmakers demonstrated their amazing prescience and role in helping the rest of us understand the human stories behind the headlines. In Through the Night, by Loira Limbal, we see the story of three mothers in New Rochelle, NY—one who works a night shift at the hospital, one who works three jobs, and one who runs a 24-hour home-based daycare where these women leave their children overnight. And from it, we see what it looks like when racism, gender inequity, healthcare, childcare, and economics all converge to conspire against women. We also gain a more nuanced appreciation for the genius, resilience, and perseverance of people who do essential and domestic labor. In And She Could Be Next, filmmakers Grace Lee and Marjan Safinia followed several women of color running for office in 2018, including Stacey Abrams. They also documented the strategic and methodical organizing in Georgia to confront voter suppression and support the right to representation for a new American majority comprised of people of color, women, and people under 30. Almost three years before the Georgia Senate runoff, these documentary filmmakers were following the story that would become the first major headline of 2021.

When we look back at this tumultuous and difficult year, we cannot help but see the bright moments when Journalism and Media grantees were elevating and amplifying the perspectives, contributions, and needs of those excluded by structural racism and White supremacy. And much, if not most, of this courageous work was done by Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC)-led organizations. Further, it has been the BIPOC staff at grantee organizations and throughout the journalism and media industry who have risked their careers and reputations to call out injustices within their own workplaces and demand accountability.  

In the introduction to her 1619 Project, Nikole Hannah-Jones writes, “Black Americans have also been, and continue to be, foundational to the idea of American freedom. More than any other group in this country’s history, we have served, generation after generation, in an overlooked but vital role: It is we who have been the perfecters of this democracy.” We join, support, and salute all who work tirelessly as “perfecters of this democracy.”


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