Teaching journalism in the wake of George Floyd

For many journalism educators and their students, the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin in May 2020 launched a year of reckoning, intensifying classrooms discussions focused on race and the media.  

Brandy Monk-Payton, an assistant professor In the department of communication and media studies at Fordham University, said when she returned to the classroom this spring to teach TV, Race and Civil Rights, which she had not taught since 2018, she found students starting from a different point of engagement.

Protestors march in support of racial justice in Philadelphia in the summer of 2020. Photo by Jenny Spinner

“The degree of the shifts of the student consciousness around these issues was like night and day,” Monk-Payton said. “I really attribute it to summer 2020, which galvanized a lot of students wanting to figure out how to be allies, how to be in the struggle.”

Monk-Payton said students drew parallels between the images she showed them of Rodney King, an unarmed Black man who was beaten by Los Angeles police officers during an arrest in 1991, and those of Floyd’s arrest and murder.

“Some things have changed, a lot has not changed, so the history is really important for those students to know, to see the cause and effects,” Monk-Payton said.  

Monk-Payton also introduced her students to the findings of the 1968 Kerner Commission report, which found white racism to be a major factor in the turmoil that embroiled the U.S. in 1967. 

“That was a report that was really detailed in its recommendations about why protests were happening, and what news media, in part, could do to shine a light on the causes of particular uprisings and questions around civil rights and anti-Black violence,” Monk-Payton said. “Those recommendations were not heeded. That’s why we find ourselves in a situation we are in today. Fifteen years ago, they were already saying we need more Black reporters. We need more people in these spaces to tell these stories.”

Discussions like the ones in Monk-Payton’s classes come at a time when state legislatures across the country are considering or have passed legislation banning critical race theory within public institutions, including schools. Critical race theory is a 40-year-old academic framework that uses the lens of race to understand U.S. history and legal systems. The Journalist’s Resource released guidelines on June 22 for journalists covering critical race theory.  

Kathleen McElroy, director of the School of Journalism and Media at the University of Texas at Austin, said discussions about race have often been “ghettoized.”

“I don’t mean that with a lack of irony,” McElroy said. “It’s something that you don’t talk about, so people are forced to try to figure this out, especially in terms of white students who are trying to navigate a world that should be different. Too often the word “mainstream” and “default” and all that was white patriarchy. So, you could live in a world in which no one ever talked about whiteness. When we’re talking about race, we’re not just talking about quote unquote people of color, but the fact that race permeates every institution we have.”

That resonates with Jessica Brown, senior professional in residence in the School of Communication at Loyola University Chicago, who said she found herself stepping around conversations about race this past year.

“I’m a Black woman, and there’s only two of us in my department,” Brown said. “They don’t teach us how to be the only person of color in our classroom.”

Brown used backlash against Loyola’s student newspaper, The Phoenix, over its coverage of student protesters who were arrested on Aug. 29, 2020, near the school’s campus, to talk to her students about the responsibilities of journalists.  

“We talked about controlling the narrative and not turning your back on journalists,” Brown said. “We’re in the age of the internet, so people can control the narrative better than they used to be able to because they have other avenues for disseminating information, but you don’t want someone else to tell your version of a story because you’re mad at them. You have to get beyond that and hold them accountable to how they tell your story, not to ice them out entirely, especially your student paper, who could cover things that no one else cares about.”

Brown said the events this past year seemed to add importance to the work students did.

“We did FOIA requests. We always do FOIA requests, but just understanding what they have the right to know and how to get it, it makes them more aware of their place in a democratic society,” Brown said. “At least that’s my hope.”

At Morgan State University, a historically black college in Baltimore, journalism faculty and students have always discussed race, out of necessity, said Jackie Jones, assistant dean for programs and chair of the department of multimedia journalism. 

“A lot of what white institutions are grappling with for the first time are old hat to us,” Jones said, “like the whole conversation about having the talk. Most of our kids have had that they already, how do you behave when the police approach you, what do you do or say, what don’t you do or say, how do you identify yourself.”

Jones remembered student coverage of Freddie Gray, a Black man from Baltimore who died in 2016 after sustaining life-threatening injuries while in police custody. During the summer and fall protests following Floyd’s murder in 2020, Jones said faculty returned to protocols established during the Gray protests. Student journalists were not allowed to go out on their own. They had to be familiar with their surroundings and have a place in mind where they could escape if needed. There was always a professor, or another contact person, they could call. 

But faculty also returned to reminding students about the importance of their work as journalists, particularly journalists of color, Jones said.

“If we don’t tell those stories, who does,” Jones said. 

Safety was an important issue for Regina McCombs, too. McCombs is senior fellow for visual communication/photojournalism at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, where Floyd was murdered. The spring 2020 semester had already concluded at the time of Floyd’s murder, but when the fall semester began, protests continued, and McCombs, who teaches multimedia storytelling, visual and photojournalism, hesitated about sending students out to cover the protests, in part because of COVID-19 but also because of uncertainties regarding their safety.

“Given how destructive it got right after the death of George Floyd, I think there was always that sense it could go bad,” McCombs said. “There was never any confidence that this was going to be just a peaceful march, no matter how much organizers said this is a peaceful march because it wasn’t necessarily that main group of protesters that did all the damage. You just never knew if it could go so far wrong again.”

McCombs said her students were particularly interested in the National Press Photographers Association Photo Bill of Rights

“One of the things they talked about was not showing protesters’ faces, and my students just bought into that,” McCombs said. “We had to have a lot of discussion about how you make that decision in the field, whose face you can and cannot show, or will or won’t show. I would show them some of the counter-protesters, these white men marching with Confederate flags, and I said, ‘So do you apply the same standard to these guys?’ We talked about how important it is to talk to people, to find out their story and not to make assumptions about them, including whether they want their face shown or not.”

McCombs said she also relied on Diversity Fellows in the journalism school to help foster discussions about race in her classes.

“Most of my classes had a working journalist of color who was associated with the class,” McCombs said. “I haven’t ever been in the field as a journalist of color. I can talk about it as a woman, what it’s like to be out there, but all of them, at one point, I asked to address that in some way or another and that was great.”

Jeremy Littau, associate professor of journalism and communication at Lehigh University, said his department sent out a message to its majors following Floyd’s murder. 

“We specifically said Black lives matter, and then we said, we want you to understand that the methods, the practice of journalism, is actually a potential solution to these problems,” Littau recalled. “If you want to do something with how you’re feeling and what you’re thinking about right now, journalism provides a pathway to solve these problems. We can tell the stories about people who are being targeted by police, who feel oppressed by police. We can tell meaningful stories about the criminal justice system and white privilege.”

McElroy sent notes to faculty and students, too, not only after Floyd’s murder but also after the murders of eight people, including six women of Asian descent, during a March 16 shooting spree in the Atlanta area. She said her notes to majors were meant to “mourn with them,” but the classroom discussions that faculty were having with students were sites of even more important conversations.

“The classroom is a sacred place,” McElroy said. “It’s our space. I like to call this a conversation among cousins. You need to be as supportive for everybody in here because these are all your cousins. I like that phrase because that’s not pretending we’re sisters or brothers or anything like that, but cousin hits that right. We’re all in this together.”

Monk-Payton said the discussions in her classes show students primed to be changemakers.

“They are now at the point where they understand the machinations of structural racism,” Monk-Payton said. “I think they’re really yearning to change practices and trying to figure out how to do that from where they sit. For me it’s about trying to position them to find the spaces where they can collaborate and be able to talk across different kinds of constituencies and create from that space.”

Jenny Spinner is a professor of English at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia where she teaches journalism and writing and serves as a contributing faculty adviser to The Hawk student newspaper. Her latest book is Of Women and the Essay (U of Georgia P, 2018).  

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