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Deborah Douglas

423. Covering Black communities with nuance and purpose

There’s a difference between covering a community from a perspective of highlighting their assets compared with their deficits. 

“Deficit framing defines people by the worst possible thing that ever happened to them, and that happens a lot with Black communities,” says Deborah Douglas, a distinguished visiting professor at DePauw University, editorial strategist, and author of the upcoming book, U.S. Civil Rights Trail. “You focus on a negative thing as opposed to, these are full people with full lives and aspirations.  I try to balance that with asset framing, which is who they are, their aspirations. … There are positive stories. Where you have Black pain, you have Black joy.” 

In a recent article for Nieman Reports, “Meet the New Black Press,” Douglas was invited to contribute a piece in which she looks at how traditional press outlets aren’t always able to connect with Black audiences for a number of reasons — not the least of which is a lack of Black and Brown voices and perspectives in newsrooms. 

She highlights a few outlets in particular, including The TRiiBE, TheGrio and Coronavirus News for Black Folks as examples of organizations and individuals doing the hard work of going into Black communities, speaking with people there and getting into the heart of their real lives, priorities, victories and struggles. 

Coronavirus News for Black Folks, written by Patrice Peck, is the direct result of a journalist wanting to do better by her community and fix a disconnect that was directly jeopardizing public health. 

“She got fed up working in traditional media,” says Douglas. “Her ideas, when they were pegged to the Black community, were viewed with circumspection. She used the opportunity to use everything at her disposal — her intellect, her education and her computer — to start a newsletter to educate people about the disparate impact coronavirus has on Black communities. She has a very powerful voice that’s approachable and has a way of cutting right through whatever the issue of the day is and speaking to you in a way that you feel respected, elevated and deeply understood.” 

TheGrio is more video-centric, because, as Douglas says, “People, especially this audience, really engage with visuals. To be able to bear witness and share that experience of how people and businesses were actually working to survive the pandemic were something they could do that legacy outlets couldn’t do with the level of nuance theGrio could.” 

Douglas wants to be clear that taking an asset-framing approach to covering Black communities “doesn’t mean you’re a cheerleader for the community. It’s that you pull back the layers and really cover those communities with nuance. There is a role for traditional media here, if it would just get its house in order. We need the resources and we need the deep bench to cover communities with the level of complexities they deserve. We could get this done right if we did it with purpose. There hasn’t been a commitment to get it right.” 

Douglas points to her former employer, the Chicago Sun Times, which laid her off some time ago. She held on to her job longer than other members of the newsroom, and longer than other Black and Brown writers in particular. “There was no factor of ‘what if we lose this Black voice, what if we lose this Brown voice and what is that going to do to the quality of product?”

This week, It’s All Journalism host Michael O’Connell talks to Deborah Douglas, a distinguished visiting professor at DePauw University and author of a recent Nieman Reports article on the new Black press.

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