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Weekly reads from CJR for February 4, 2021

Alexandria Neason on atonement

“Americans have short memories,” Alexandria Neason writes. “We don’t like to be reminded of our many sins, so instead we prop up lofty narratives of progress and unity that obscure the violence enacted along the way.” Looking back, she observes how this country’s press has been inextricably linked to white supremacy. In 1898, for instance, newspapers in North Carolina were weaponized by white vigilantes to stage a coup that put to death hundreds of Black people. Today, Neason writes, journalism has a different relationship with racism, but the modern manifestations—“of language, of omission, of framing”—stem from centuries-old tactics, only papered over, smoothed out, and couched in industry norms.

Recently, Neason has watched news outlets apologize publicly for past offenses. That should only be the start, she writes: “Regret without restitution is maintaining the status quo.” Or, as the Reverend William J. Barber II tells her, “I don’t know if the language of ‘media apology’ is even sufficient.” For guidance, Neason turns to a project called Media 2070, which invites people to imagine what reparations might look like for the news industry. “Reparations are both a destination and a pathway,” Alicia Bell, one of the organizers, explains—a means of realizing “the reconciliation, the restoration, the repair that needs to happen within the media.”

Neason notes, too, that journalism’s attempts to redress structural inequities can feel “maddeningly cyclical.” Often, “conversations aiming to assess a newsroom’s performance come with an urge to self-congratulate, so as to soften the embarrassment of too-slow progress,” she writes. “After decades of attempting reform, we need to wonder how sincere we’ve been, if we have been truly reckoning with anything at all.”
––Betsy Morais, managing editor


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