Following API’s work in Pittsburgh with the Inclusion Index cohort, we connected with others in the DEIB space in media whose work aligns with our goals, as we can’t advocate for change alone. One of those conversations was with Danielle K. Brown, PhD, project lead of the LIFT Project.
Brown is the John and Elizabeth Bates Cowles Professor of Journalism, Diversity and Equity in the Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. As an award-winning political communications researcher, her frustrations with how we communicate with each other sparked her interest in the research she conducts today investigating the intersection of media, marginalized communities and social justice. She has spent a decade studying the news representation of protests and social movements, almost exclusively around the Black Lives Matter movement. Alongside her comparative work, she found that the media egregiously misrepresents protests in their coverage — and it needs to be fixed.
Brown has advocated for changes that go against the grain of the routines within newsrooms, challenging them to change the way they think about adhering to objectivity and reporting time constraints, for example. Her findings have revealed patterns that newsrooms have yet to shake, and the slow progress to rectify these patterns can be discouraging.
“I haven’t lost faith,” Brown said, “I’ve just found that maybe I’m not the right voice to continue to yell because it’s getting old and I’m getting tired. I think that the LIFT Project stemmed from that experience of what one does when they find the same patterns and the intervention isn’t working.”
In an excerpt of our conversation below, Brown shares more about the research process and goals around growing the LIFT Project model.
This conversation was edited and condensed for clarity and length.
In the opening statement you gave at the Knight Foundation conference, you mentioned that “the racial reckoning of 2020 is not an equivalent to a reconciliation,” and that there was indeed no reconciliation of the media’s coverage of the protests happening at that time. We also witnessed companies across industries, including the media, make promises to take steps to address diversity disparities. What’s your take on that, three years after these promises were made?
The point that I was trying to make is that yes, there are some tangible things we can see that were put in place. One of the things that I wrote about in CJR is about the DEI managers that have been created — we have some of these in the Twin Cities. It’s not like they’re not doing anything — they’re doing hard work and it’s incredibly slow.
We also see the news industry continuing to change. Gannett laid off a whole bunch of people [at the time of this interview]. And we don’t know what that looks like because newsrooms still aren’t reporting their diversity statistics to the News Leaders Association. It’s hard to see what progress is when people won’t give us the data unless they put it out in a nice and pretty report that’s written by somebody who’s not from their city to tell them how great their news organization is for putting policies or practices in place.
What I mean by “reconciliation” is that full turnover. I’m not trying to ignore the things in place, but overall, with protest coverage, the patterns continue. Overall, we still see people talking about the same things; frustrated about the same things. I did a study with Northwestern and in that study, we see that journalists of color are the most concerned about what DEI means for them. They’re the most unhappy in our newsrooms. The problems haven’t been reconciled and things haven’t been made better — statements have been made and initiatives have been put into place. But to say that things are fixed now would be inaccurate.
That’s really the piece I wanted to drive home. It makes it hard for a lot of people to want to continue to engage in DEI work, but I think it also speaks to the need and the urgency of it. Change is slow, and that’s how racism can kill you — with slowness. To say that we can still see the same patterns three years from now is a way to also say that we maybe need to do something more revolutionary than we did before.
Give us an overview of the work you and your colleagues are doing at the LIFT Project.
The LIFT Project seeks to throw away the model of centering the legacy of journalism — where you’ll walk into a newsroom and say, “This is bad, let’s find ways to fix it,” and instead, center communities and think about the solutions they would want. We really take a “meet you where you’re at” approach.
We survey community members here in Minneapolis-St. Paul about how much they like the news, how much they watch it, why they do or don’t watch the news, and who they trust to give them the news. These were questions that were based on my own experience and some previous research, but some people go to the barbershop on Saturdays, or the beauty salon, where you’re sitting there for six hours getting your hair braided, or the preachers in the area, or they tap the huge network of activists in the Twin Cities to find out information.
What are you hoping to accomplish with these surveys?
We want to figure out who the gatekeepers are and what they want. We had them name the people that they got their news from, and then we decided to go in and talk to those trusted sources about what kind of news they give, how they get the information, how accurate the information is, and what their experiences are with the media and what it’s been like. Do they have an opportunity to have a voice? If not, what can we do to fix it?
The idea is not to network trusted messengers with the whole newsroom, because we can’t fix that legacy, but to network them with the change agents that I know for sure are doing the work in our newsrooms that is hard and grueling. Most papers tend to be the ones that people criticize the most, but having been in those newsrooms, I can identify some of the people who knew what wasn’t right and what needed to change long before 2020. We’re figuring out how to connect these Black journalists with the communities they’re reporting on so they can also help bring in new sourcing narratives for their broader newsroom.
How do you foresee the expansion of this model in other communities across the U.S.?
It would be shortsighted to say that I could just scale this and it would be perfect in another city, because another city defines their problems differently, the way they’ve been segregated are different, and all these other institutions are shaped differently. What I hope is that we are able to expand into other spaces with this model of “meet them where they’re at” and gather information in a safe way to identify whose voices are missing. The idea of LIFT was “lift your voice,” right? And if those voices were there, people might be more willing to engage with the news.
When I was thinking of solutions, I was thinking about my own family — what would make my grandma in Texas pick up the paper? And the only thing that will make her do that is if there was a picture of me. She’d go get it, cut it out, and put it on the fridge. And so for me, the idea is to give these community members a constant reason to have a new picture on the fridge. It’s not a perfect model, but I think that it’s at least an anti-racist model that says, “We’ve done harm in your community as a news organization, so we’re going to let your community have more space, and more opportunities for a voice that you didn’t have before.”