The Story of Us: Community Image in the News and Other Forms of Media

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The Story of Us:

Community Image in the News and other Forms of Media

A Public Narrative Report on Collected Perspectives on the Portrayal of Boys and Young Men of Color in the Media

REPORT 20 22


Co-Written by, Jennifer Kho and Victor

Jennifer Kho is the executive editor at the Chicago Sun-Times. She also serves as president of the Journalism and Women Symposium (JAWS). She notably co-authored a Membership Puzzle Project report on building healthy news communities (2021).

Victor Brand is an editor and journalist based in Brooklyn. He was deputy managing editor for standards at HuffPost. He is also the researcher and author of “In Numbers: Serial Publications By Artists Since 1955” (2009).

Editor in Chief, Jhmira Alexander, MPA

Jhmira Alexander, MPA, is the president and executive director at Public Narrative. She is also an adjunct lecturer at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Media and Integrated Marketing Communications, teaching Foundations of Interactive Journalism.

Editor, Olivia Obineme

Olivia Obineme is the director of journalism and media engagement at Public Narrative. She also serves as the VP of FOIA for the Chicago Headline Club, one of the largest chapters of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ).

Copy Edited by, Jackson A. Thomas

Jackson A. Thomas is a Chicago-based legal journalist and editor and a grammar enthusiast (often referred to as a “grammar geek” and a “word nerd”). He currently works as the deputy web editor for the American Bar Association Journal.

Report Design, Yaseen Abdus-Saboor (Cover Template Design by Tommie Collins)

Yaseen Abdus-Saboor is the education program manager and storyteller at Public Narrative. He graduated from DePaul University in 2019 with a major in Graphic Design and a minor in History of Art and Architecture.

Public Narrative, 2022

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The Story of Us: Community Image in the News and other Forms of Media report is in partnership with:



In the news, Vondale Singleton, founder and CEO at the Champs Male Mentoring Program, sees Black bodies portrayed as “inferior, negative, barbaric and ignorant.” Josh McGhee, a now former reporter at Injustice Watch, said he receives “a lot of negative perceptions about my community, people who look like me and people who remind me of me” from the news, which he considers a vital resource. The news portrays Black and brown youths as violent, said Yaseen Abdus-Saboor, a former coordinator for My Brother’s Keeper Chicago, who claims that he never sees stories about positive things happening in the communities.

When his grandfather sits and watches the news all day, Kenneth Nole, now the former MBK Chicago founding program manager, said, “He just wants to see what’s happening, but then also you see that negativity that flows through the television changes the tone in the house. It changes the tone in the neighborhood. It also gives us negative images about what’s happening with our Black and brown young men.”

When asked about portrayals of boys and young men of color compared to the reality of their lived experiences, participants in conversations with Public Narrative on behalf of MBK Chicago and Public Narrative didn’t have many good things to say.

Participants said “success stories” tend to focus on one-in-a-million examples, such as the experiences of celebrity athletes LeBron James or Anthony Davis. And even those types of stories are overwhelmed by negative stories about crime, violence and gangs. Overall, portrayals of men and boys of color in the media tend to be overly skewed toward simplified narratives: angels or devils, stars or criminals, they said.

Participants suggest that these tired narratives have a real-world impact, with fewer role models leading fewer boys and young men to see their potential. “We will see coverage over obviously the death of a young man, or [young men] being perpetrators of violence. We will see stories that cover men that are incredible athletes, and … that cover the young men who may do something really, really, really extraordinary, and those are rare,” said Adeshina Emmanuel, the now former editor-in-chief at Injustice Watch. “But we don’t see stories around the everyday humanity of boys and young men of color.”

And that’s important. “I see our young men as the assets that we need for this city, and I have seen them thrive in spaces where their humanity is celebrated,” he added. Showing other role models and paths for success, rather than only “very singular instances of Black people having success,” could help more Black boys find opportunities for themselves but could also help influence or change their communities for the better, said Matt Harvey, a writer for The TRiiBE.

More media education could bring more men of color into media and, ultimately, into leadership positions in which they can expand the narratives about their communities; or it could help others, in all professions, succeed in getting their stories told, participants said. What’s needed, they said, is more capital, more training and better mentorship to enable people of color to tell their stories and those of their community, which are currently missing from local coverage.

4 TABLE OF CONTENTS Attribution 2 Introduction ............................................................................................................... 3 Table of Contents .................................................................................................... 4 Methodology ............................................................................................................ 6 News Consumption ................................................................................... 7 A Note About Terminology ...................................................................... 7 Key Themes .............................................................................................................. 8 I. Common Depictions of Men and Boys of Color in Chicago ........ 9 II. Attitudes to News...................................................................................11 Trust 11 TV News 11 Crime Coverage 12 III. Missing Narratives ............................................................................... 13 Success Stories ............................................................................ 14 Solutions ......................................................................................... 14 Strength and Resilience ............................................................ 15 Resourcefulness .......................................................................... 15
5 Redemption 16 IV. Related Challenges ............................................................................. 17 Diversity, Equity and Inclusion .................................................. 17 Lack of Media Education ............................................................ 17 The Challenge of Building Community ................................. 18 Fundraising ................................................................................... 18 V. Recommendations ............................................................................. 20 ‘Embrace Complexity’ ............................................................... 20 Explore Root Causes ................................................................. 20 Add Context 21 Follow Up 21 Recognize Individuality and Humanity 21 Report With Empathy ................................................................. 21 Grow DEI....................................................................................... 22 Create Community Partnerships .............................................23 Ideas for MBK and Obama Foundation ............................................. 25


Intending to grow truer, more representative narratives about boys and young men of color in media, Public Narrative facilitated a series of three conversations (listening sessions) on behalf of MBK Chicago with the support of the National Association of Black Journalists Chicago Chapter on June 16, 2021, to understand:

1. How boys and young men of color are portrayed in Chicago media

2. How that compares to the lived experiences of those in communities of color

3. What Public Narrative and the MBK Chicago community can do to grow representations and narratives that better reflect reality

Eleven people participated in the conversations, including male journalists of color and people working to improve the lives of boys and young men of color. Transcripts of these conversations were the basis for the observations and conclusions included in this report.

Participants included:

Group 1:

Chris Goins, impact leader at MBK Chicago, now former since the publication of this report/listening session facilitator

Adeshina “Ade” Emmanuel, editorin-chief at Injustice Watch, now former since the publication of this report

Carlos Ballesteros, reporter at Injustice Watch

Matt Harvey, writer at The TRiiBE

Group 2:

Yaseen Abdus-Saboor, DePaul University graduate and MBK coordinator, now former since the publication of this report/listening session facilitator

Brandon Pope, president of the National Association of Black Journalists in Chicago, a My Brother’s Keeper Alliance’s Narrative Change Committee member; a writer for Ebony magazine and a reporter at CW26 and WCIU in Chicago, now former since the publication of this report

Judy Touzin, founder of the ExceptionAL Project and a former educator

Evan F. Moore, reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times, now former since the publication of this report

Group 3: Dr. Kenneth Nole, founding program manager at MBK Chicago, now former since the publication of this report/ listening session facilitator

Josh McGhee, reporter at Injustice Watch, now former since the publication of this report

Vondale Singleton, founder and CEO at the Champs Male Mentoring Program in the Greater Grand Crossing neighborhood in Chicago

Olivia Obineme, manager of partnerships and local content at Better Government Association, now former since the publication of this report

Bradley Johnson, director of external affairs at Build Chicago, now former since the publication of this report


It may also be useful to consider how participants get their news, as news consumers, to contextualize their perceptions of media portrayals. The most common way that participants get their news is through social media, with seven referencing social media. But participants represented a range of news consumption, including legacy (print and broadcast), new media, local, national and international outlets. Some follow much more news, while other participants say they don’t seek out the news at all.

Two participants said they intend to follow individual reporters, rather than their news organizations. Judy Touzin, founder of the ExceptionAL Project and a former educator, doesn’t follow the news, relying instead on referrals from trusted friends and family, rather than from social media.

A Note About Terminology

Participants used the word “media” in different ways throughout these conversations. Some used it to mean journalism in all mediums, while others used it more broadly to include movies, TV shows and streaming, among other platforms. Participants also used the word “news” differently, with many equating “local news” specifically with “network TV news.”

Image provided by Public Narrative


Image via UnSplash


Chicago’s local media, but also media generally, does a poor job of providing its audiences with accurate or authentic stories about men and boys of color, participants said. The general national public perception of Chicago — as a place whose principal attribute is its violence — is the same story that the media tells local audiences.

Speaking about the kinds of stories that he sees in the local news, Bradly Johnson, now former director of external affairs at Build Chicago, said he sees “violence over and over and over and over again. It’s like this fear thing: Either it’s a fear [of] Black and brown men as terrorists or victims. It’s two sides to it but never really [men of color] exerting power.” Three main topics get too much negative coverage, Singleton said “Gangs, guns, violence.”

both good and bad and sweet and mean, and there’s a lot of variation. [Those nuanced and complicated] narratives get flattened — either completely evil or completely harmless or completely good. There’s no space for true realness.”

One reason for this may be that simpler, straightforward stories are easier to tell. Often, journalists will look for a “perfect victim” to help tell the story in a simple, unassailable way, Ballesteros said. When something bad happens to a good person who did everything right but fell victim to an evil system, for example, that’s a perfect victim. “We’ve all read stories like that or seen some,” he said. “I’m guilty of doing it too. It’s a storytelling technique, and it draws readers in.” But reality is often complicated, and someone shouldn’t have to be an angel to justify a story, he said.

Participants share a common perspective about how the cycle of violence is inescapable for Black men. Latino and Black men are often portrayed as gang members, Harvey and Nole said in different conversations. Death seems to be the focal point of news coverage of men of color, McGhee said. “If the only time we see Black men in the newspaper is when they’re dead, that’s a problem,” he said. “We’re missing the human aspect if we’re [only] talking about death.”

Overall, media portrayals of Black and brown boys are “flattened,” said Carlos Ballesteros, a reporter at Injustice Watch. “In real life, I think we’re just very complicated,

Harvey agreed. “When you have an imperfect victim, it forces you to reckon with the systems that might’ve brought them to that point where they were imperfect,” he said. “It forces you to really reckon with those things, and I think we have a discomfort typically with really getting into the nitty gritty of those things. … We might ignore them, or we might not be giving the proper energy to them.”

Meanwhile, Latinos and Asians are often still regarded as newcomers in Chicago, and many people fear immigrants, Ballesteros said. “Latinos and Asians have been here for 100 years or more, but there’s still this kind of foreignness [in the perception of our communities], just regarding them as not truly Chicagoans, as not real Americans or whatever. It’s constantly having to prove that we belong.” When news organizations focus primarily on immigration when covering the Latino community, it doesn’t help combat those misperceptions, he added. “Immigration takes up so much of the news

“We’re the shooter or we’re the one being shot,”
Singleton added.

when it comes to the Latino community. It’s a big issue, but it’s not the only issue. Latinos also struggle with a lot of other stuff. But you wouldn’t know it if you watched the nightly news,” Ballesteros said.

Chicago Latinos are also missing from movies and shows, Ballesteros said, as Latino movies are usually based in California or Texas, and stories from the Latino community in Chicago are less represented. “There is no clear sense of how the community looks like here and what the stories are coming out of the community here in Chicago,” he said.

McGhee noted that part of the problem is not that editors and reporters are unaware of the stereotypes or even that they are unwilling to cover positive stories. The problem, as he puts it, is that “they’re bad at covering it.” The media’s preferred positive alternatives to the stereotype of the “violent criminal” are typically just as reductive: the exceptional athletic talent and the “one wonderful Black man that’s changing Chicago for the better,” as Harvey described

it. McGhee captured this dichotomy in the media very succinctly: “You either make it as the basketball star, or you end up dead at 18, and there’s no in-between.”

This polarization of Black men into the stereotypes of angel or devil has several consequences. One is the erasure of their humanity, reducing the subjects of such stories to a supernaturally unique talent or a mug shot and a crime statistic. These stories also ignore the systems and social pressures that lead these young men into their circumstances and feed into the limitations on what audiences and communities envision as potential outcomes for the Black men in their communities.

“Latinos also struggle with a lot of other stuff [besides immigration]. But you wouldn’t know it if you watched the nightly news,” Ballesteros said.
Image provided by Public Narrative



Trust and authority increased as participants were more specific about their sources. So most participants expressed mistrust for “the media” generally (which was not meaningfully differentiated from “the news” or “social media”) and characterized “the media’s” content as often “sensationalized” and prone to including misinformation.

When participants named specific media outlets, they spotlighted hyperlocal online outlets, such as Block Club Chicago or the South Side Weekly, rather than more established print or radio institutions. Brandon Pope, who is the National Association of Black Journalists president and an MBK committee member, summed up his rubric for how he evaluates news: “Trust, reliability, impact.”

As mentioned in the introduction of this report, two participants said they follow individual reporters they trust, rather than news organizations. Harvey prefers reporters who explain the nuances beneath

the surface of a story and include the voices of the people affected. Beyond reporters, Ballesteros also follows other people who keep tabs on issues that he cares about to stay informed. He explained that “the importance of following journalists, specifically, is because our industry is so tumultuous, and it’s so prone to layoffs or people switching jobs.”

TV News

The consensus among participants was that TV journalism was singularly bad. “TV as a medium for news in this country is bullshit,” was one particular assessment. Some cited the brief length of news segments in a halfhour local newscast as being structurally insufficient for adequate, nuanced coverage. Some, speaking of national news channels, cited partisan bias and “bickering” as a turnoff for news consumers. Others said local broadcasts are not meeting audience needs, particularly given local news’ superficiality and its tendency to feed into the stereotypes noted in previous sections

via UnSplash

of this report. (Consider in this context the fact that Pew reported in 2019 that roughly 60% of Black Americans prefer to get their news from TV.) As Harvey explains, in the case of how the few success stories local broadcasts feature get told, “we aren’t really telling this young man’s story most of the time. We’re not talking about the actual story; we’re talking about whatever he’s done that’s been digestible to the world at large.”

There are, of course, exceptions. “There are great TV reporters. They’re definitely out there,” Ballesteros said. “Here in Chicago, we have a few for sure that I really appreciate their work.”

The problem isn’t the medium but limitations in the way that network TV news works specifically in the United States, he said, in which local news programming is so timeconstrained that each news segment gets only a few minutes.

Crime Coverage

Many participants raised the heavy concentration of crime news in Chicago as sensationalized and over-covered, compared to the good news about their communities. “Certain media, they view Chicago as ‘Chi-raq,’ which everybody who lives in Chicago hates that term,” AbdusSaboor said, “because we know what’s actually going on in the city and all the systemic issues.”

Touzin, based in New York, only hears about Chicago in the context of crime. “You always hear about the gun violence,” she said, especially how poor, broken and violent the South Side is. “It’s like Chicago is often followed by tragedy whenever I hear about the city.”

Within that crime coverage, participants thought that Black and brown crimes are treated differently. One example of bias

is the term “Black-on-Black crime,” said Evan F. Moore, a reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times. “We know that crimes are really only committed due to proximity, not race. We don’t say that about someone in Appalachia or anywhere else. It’s weird how intercommunity violence is labeled that way.”

Another example is the focus on culture — when and how Black and brown children end up on the wrong side of the law, he said. “With Black and brown children, the thing we hear more is, ‘Oh, where were the parents? What music did they listen to?’ Or the community they’re from, their culture and everything else. We didn’t say that about any of those folks that stormed the Capitol building. We didn’t look into the music they listen to, their culture or their families. Why is it only put on Black and brown families? … There are plenty of people out there who grew up in two-parent households and still made decisions and did dumb things.”

One example of bias is the term “Blackon-Black crime.” “We know that crimes are really only committed due to proximity, not race. We don’t say that about someone in Appalachia or anywhere else.” said Evan F. Moore.


One frustrating misperception is the idea that Black kids in Chicago don’t march or protest gun violence in their communities, or they only do so after police shootings, Pope said. “The reality is Chicagoans all the time are protesting gun violence and working with intervention groups on the ground to prevent gun violence,” he said. “A lot of Chicago kids are leading the way with that. … So the outside perception — and even the headlines that you see on local TV stations in Chicago — doesn’t reflect that reality because the reality is these kids are doing some amazing work. They’re passionate about their community.”

Half of the participants gave examples of organizations and work that they think have been left uncovered. Abdus-Saboor pointed to a group called GoodKidsMadCity-Englewood that works to stop violence while promoting mental health, wellness and restorative justice. Organizations fighting gun violence or trying to make steps toward change don’t get covered, Abdus-Saboor said. Another example is Moms Against Senseless Killings, a group that keeps watch daily to prevent shootings, McGhee said. The everyday work to stop violence deserves coverage because it’s working, he added, but national news outlets only cover shootings, not their absence.

Overall, participants want to see more positive stories about their communities. Singleton would specifically like to see more coverage of the work that community nonprofits are doing. “I think sometimes it gets overlooked and taken for granted, and as a result, we have to fight for the little resources that are provided throughout our city,” he said. In the desire to avoid promotion and advocacy, which is often seen as antithetical to journalism and a bad news bias that affects journalists and audiences, news organizations could be missing good stories worth covering.

Image via UnSplash

Success Stories

Several participants said people have to see and hear more accessible success stories about boys and young men of color beyond the football star, basketball star or musician. “There are 900,000 stories that need to be told that isn’t entertainer or athlete,” Singleton said, such as “the young men getting the scholarships, being the first ones [in their families] to graduate from college.” Nole also said he would love to see more coverage of Black businesses and real estate.

Participants did not suggest that the media should focus exclusively on “feelgood” narratives and ignore stories about gun violence and the like. Rather, they highlighted the need for empathy and contextualization. Participants expressed a desire for greater representation in response to the dominant stereotypes about Black men and the absence of nuance or context from news coverage. Black men do not see themselves or their experiences depicted with humanity and authenticity in the media; what they see offered up as worthy of their community’s attention is either depraved or unattainable. These depictions also help shape the expectations of the communities in which they must live and operate.


Several participants also said they want information about solutions and for the media to hold up stories of people and groups who are addressing problems. As media consumers, they want to understand the true needs of their communities and where people can go to find (or contribute) resources. This information is missing in the community, Johnson said. “You could have all the great programs — I work at programs, so I know about so much stuff happening

but your average person has no idea. You have to bring them resources, so the communication can reach people because they’re not reading the newspapers and they’re not getting the flyers.”

And in the case of successes or more negative stories, we also need more stories about “how we got there,” Johnson continued. Honest reporting about what’s working and what isn’t can help the community make progress, he said. We need people to tell “the truth about what it’s going to take so that we don’t have to keep having these stories. There’s some real truth and there’s some real solutions, but it takes a certain level of bravery and courageousness to really upend this system to make a real change,” he said.

Participants said they want to see the model behind the success stories of young men of color so that others in the community can see a path to similar successes. Harvey explained that this means “just telling the stories about community. It’s us getting an understanding of who our neighbor is. It’s getting an understanding of how these systems that affect us affect the next person and how we can change them or how somebody else is already working on change and how we could support that.”

“I believe the narrative that boys and young men of color are brave, courageous, beautiful and gifted,” Singleton said.

Other important narratives that participants said are missing from media portrayals include:

Strength and Resilience

“I believe the narrative that boys and young men of color are brave, courageous, beautiful and gifted,” Singleton said. “I use a motto in Champs that we say we’re born to win in every situation in life.” Singleton shared that his grandfather came to Chicago from Mississippi in 1921, and — according to the census — nobody in his household could read or write. “He came here looking for opportunities, and he didn’t find many opportunities,” he said. “The power is if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere. I’m a product of greatness; I’m a product of strength, and I like to believe that narrative versus what I tend to see in mainstream media.”

McGhee described hearing many stories of extraordinary resilience amid a “constant barrage of pain.”

“I’ve talked to a lot of people, a lot of parents of people when things have happened, a tragedy has happened to their child, and you hear just kind of how they were a survivor for so long,” he said. “It kind of constantly builds up, and you see that all the people who have made it in Chicago, it takes strength. It takes a lot more than just having some income behind you. It takes a lot to survive.”

Last year, Singleton, who was a youth pastor at the New Beginnings Church of Chicago, said he reached out to someone he had known as a kid who was now 20 years old. Singleton found out that the man had been shot right in front of the church and was in the hospital. He moved to the suburbs with his mom, and then a few months later, Singleton got a call from the mom after her son was shot eight times off an expressway.

Singleton spoke with the young man on the phone from the hospital room and remained in close touch. “He’s still alive. He’s gone through so much trauma, and the best thing I can do for him now is to get him to a counselor,” Singleton said. “This is the stuff we’re dealing with on a daily basis with young men we’re working with.”


Johnson, who worked in a juvenile detention center in Chicago for 12 years, said, “The story written about [young men of color] is not their story.” “What you see is not who they are,” he said. “Even though they appear tough and hard, man, they are gentle and sweet and kind and intelligent and vibrant and funny and smart. … They know how to take lemons and make lemonade out of any situation.” He described resourcefulness, creativity and a penchant for engineering and rigging things together. “Those are the stories that I think are really important.”

Johnson also told a story of a young man he met at the juvenile detention facility who became, as he put it, his “paradigm shift.” Johnson told the young men that all he had to do was go to school, and he didn’t have to sell drugs. “He stopped me in my tracks and said, ‘What would you do?’ He told me his story about his mother and father [being] incarcerated. … His mother was an addict. They lived in vacant buildings.” At 9 years old, men on his block started paying him to be a lookout. “With that money, he paid rent and got a place for them to stay and clothed his little sister and put food on the table. He said, ‘What would you do?’ That made me stop and think about every judgment and everything that I had even thought before.” People’s paths and where they end up don’t define who they are, Johnson said.

When he was a high school teacher, Nole said a student brought a gun to the


classroom. He discovered that the student was selling the gun because he wanted to put food on the table. While it’s harmful to have any type of weapon in school, Nole said, “these are boys and young men of color that are literally trying to survive in the inner city of Chicago.”


Olivia Obineme, the now former manager of partnerships and local content at the Better Government Association, said it’s OK to tell stories that show that Black men are also flawed and deserve second chances. “We see that rehabilitation happens in the public eye for our other racial counterparts, and we get to see what redemption looks like and what hope looks like, what future looks like for someone who is non-Black and nonmale, … and we don’t get to see that a lot when it comes to Black males. The empathy for Black men isn’t there because, in terms of media, we don’t show a lot of that transformation.”

More on respondents’ suggestions for improvements and changes to the media’s approach is detailed in Section V of this report.

via UnSplash

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

Most newsrooms still don’t reflect the communities that they cover, and participants draw a straight line between that lack of representation in the newsrooms and in the coverage. “That’s a lot of what limits us — just that we aren’t there; we aren’t in the room to make the decision,” Harvey said.

Newsrooms without a cultural knowledge base make mistakes, Pope said. The industry needs more Black and brown people making decisions about what’s going to make the front page, what headline is going to be used if a mug shot’s going to be used. “We see it all the time — white guy shoots up a club, and they show a glittering picture of his family and his kids. Black kid shoplifts: ‘Oh, let’s put his mug shot up,’” Pope said.

Several participants, including Harvey and Obineme, spoke about the need for people of color in leadership and decision-making roles. While representation can be symbolic, in general, having more people of color in newsrooms and positions of power offers a certain comfort or license to tell stories fully and truthfully, Harvey said. Without that critical mass and psychological safety in the newsroom, “very often, this work is discouraged,” he said. “It’s an uphill battle for folks in newsrooms trying to get stories about Black and brown young men told in a very honest and creative way.”

Most of the reporters he’s met at the Chicago Tribune or WGN live in the suburbs, Harvey said. “They don’t know what it’s like living in Chicago. They don’t know what the average Chicago teen goes through,” he said. “They don’t know what the average Chicago mother or father goes through when it comes to making sure their kid is safe out on the street.” Harvey said he

doesn’t expect people who don’t have that lived experience to be able to tell the deeper stories of folks who experience the “harshest conditions of Chicago.”

Another factor might be that, as newsroom staffs have shrunk, more reporting is now done by freelancers, who have less say in broader editorial decisions. “When you’re a freelancer, you get a pitch here and there, [but] you might not ever get to see the light of day for a lot of ideas that you might have,” Harvey said. “These people that you interviewed who had these important stories might never get heard by the masses.”

The issue of diversity and who is telling the stories extends beyond news, of course. Touzin points to the work of filmmaker Ava DuVernay. “She’s like, ‘I can’t trust you all to do it. You haven’t done it. I’m going to do it,’” she said. “I think it really has to be just a shift in terms of who are we trusting to do the work and are they then being held accountable to doing the work. I think it has to come from the community.”

Beyond newsroom diversity, diversity of sourcing is also important, Moore said. “If you write a story about sexual assault on college campuses and not include any women, that’s no good,” he said.

Lack of Media Education

Another factor for why media portrayals don’t reflect the realities that people in the communities see may be a lack of media education and literacy. “There’s a huge dearth of media education in Black and brown communities,” Harvey said. “You could be at a high position in education, a great job in law or even in the medical field and have no idea how media works,” he said, such as the editorial process, what an editor does or the difference between a commentator and a reporter.


“These types of things are very basic information about media that people never get introduced to, but they’re important because these are people who are shaping the stories of the world around us. … It ultimately tells us how to look at the world. And when we have these one-dimensional displays in the media that are often crafted by folks who have no experience in what they are talking about, they don’t know anybody who has experience in what they are talking about, then you’re going to get these misconstrued perceptions,” Harvey added.

The bar for media literacy is so low that it’s in the ground, Moore said. Friends and family often ask him whether something is true or not because they don’t know how to find out on their own, he said, adding that he’s in favor of more critical thinking. People often share stories that fit in with their beliefs, he said. “If you think Chicago is Iraq, and everybody’s shooting each other as soon as you get off the airport, you’re going to share those stories, and you’re going to see those stories on the timelines of your friends.”

The Challenge of Building Community

Obineme is quoted later in this report as observing that the Black community in Chicago is not homogenous, including native Black Chicagoans and firstgeneration Black immigrants. Johnson noted that church membership is declining and skews overwhelmingly older.

Black churches are no longer the meeting place for a cross-section of every segment of the Black community that they were, Johnson said. “We can’t continue to look at church.” In addition, the whole concept of community has changed, as families no longer live in the same house forever but

tend to move around more, he said. “We have to rethink what community looks like. We have to think outside the box,” he said. “All the politicians, a lot of people, go right to the church to try to solve the problems in the community, [but] the problems have not been solved.”

Block Club Chicago, as one example, organizes its coverage by neighborhood. All these represent different lines along which to organize a community. Part of the challenge is determining which communities are an outlet’s target audience and then building the relationships that allow it to integrate with that community or communities.

News outlets also face a challenge in creating awareness of their brand and differentiating it from other outlets that may already be in the space. To the extent that audiences are aware that a news outlet exists, the news outlet must regularly demonstrate and sustain the value of its coverage to its audiences. Its product must be relevant and authentic and timely to its audiences. For example, if an outlet is only publishing one or two stories per week, then audiences have to see the impact of those stories in proportion to the time that went into their production.


But, of course, one of the biggest challenges is funding. Pope explained that “the big hurdle is gaining capital, having money and having those resources. We got to do what we can to access those. Part of that’s going to be people in positions of power working to unlock that and help train people how to unlock that, right? Part of that is showing pathways for young people, that they can do storytelling, they can be the change-makers [and] they can have a way to combat these narratives.”


Ballesteros was skeptical that private capital has the will or the resources. He argued that “philanthropy will not fix this. Rich people will not care enough to fix this, at least to the point where it needs to be. I really do think that there is no other alternative: There has to be government funding.” Both participants are correct that funding is essential, as the money buys time, and time is the foundation of good journalism: To be done well, reporting very often takes a significant investment of time for individual reporters and for outlets; cementing a relationship of trust with an audience is a slow burn (but can be squandered quickly); and marketplace conditions make quick profits unlikely.

Likewise, building a movement to drive narrative change will also take a sustained and prolonged effort, which requires significant investment. Such a movement should consider multiple avenues that could include:

• Educating audiences to make them more media literate and more aware of media tropes to put them in a position to demand a change from existing media outlets

• Creating incentives for existing media companies to accelerate diversity in hiring to put more empathetic journalists in positions of authority within newsrooms

• Providing seed investment to establish hyper-local media outlets to provide service- and communityoriented coverage

Image provided by Public Narrative

As noted, depictions of young Black men in local media coverage help to shape what the community — and the young men themselves — see as possible. Reporters and editors have to resist easy reductions and stereotypes when covering these stories. (Among other things, this means examining what an outlet’s coverage looks like in the aggregate: If the story “writes itself” or the story Tuesday is indistinguishable from the lead story Friday, then there is a problem.) The remedy is to embrace nuance and context and to expand the scope of the coverage at the level of individual stories and organizational approaches.

‘Embrace Complexity’

Ballesteros spoke at length about the need for the media to “embrace complexity”: “I just think we’re very complicated, and I don’t think we should shy away from those complications because ... they reveal very intense and historical roots as to why things are the way they are.”

Embracing complexity also entails speaking to audiences and including them in coverage. Obineme pointed out that “Black people aren’t a monolith; we are a whole diaspora. And Chicago is filled with concentrations of African immigrants, and we don’t see a lot of coverage on folks [who are] either directly from the continent or [who are] first-gen that have made generations here in Chicago.” Reporters and editors have to reconsider and shift their thinking on what qualifies as “newsworthy”

by focusing instead on “stories around the everyday humanity of boys and young men of color.”

News subjects can also embody complexity. As mentioned earlier, crime stories seldom have “the perfect victim” (whose victimhood may be minimized or dismissed in some quarters via the “no angel” trope), while imperfect victims can force reporters to dig deeper into the systems that led to their circumstances.

“There’s a lot of people doing bad things in bad places all over the country, all over the globe, and that doesn’t reflect the reality of who they are,” Touzin said. From her experience as an elementary school teacher and from her work with boys at the ExceptionAL Project, she knows that a person can shoot someone and still be a remarkable human being, she said. “Doing a terrible thing does not deny the fact that you are a worthy human being.”

The fact that a certain number of people were shot over a weekend, for instance, can be “real and true, and it is a part of the story. It’s not the story in and of itself,” Touzin said. She wants to know: “What were all the things that weren’t in place? What were all the messages and images and stories and supports that weren’t in place that allowed you to land in the position that you were and — worst yet — had you believing that was where you were destined to end up?”

Explore Root Causes

McGhee also wants media outlets to explore the underlying issues behind the stories and to ask more fundamental questions about “the systems that cause the problems that we usually see in the news.” He normally sees a “quick hit” about, say, a mass shooting that happened this week but not an exploration of what’s been taken away

Media coverage of young men of color has to take a more expansive view of who young Black men are, what roles they can play in society, and the contexts in which they are being brought up.

from the community or what’s happened over time to create the situations behind it.

Add Context

Journalists have to make the effort to include historical, political and sociological expertise in their coverage — by educating themselves and putting experts on the record — to help audiences understand the forces shaping their lives and the ways to influence and improve them.

Follow Up

Obineme noted that local coverage often doesn’t stick with a story beyond the drama of its beginnings: “We also need to address the aftermath of certain situations, whether it’s gun violence or a health epidemic — even with COVID — understanding that it doesn’t stop at the incident.” Simple things such as circling back to a neighborhood to see how a mom is doing after a shooting can make a big difference but often doesn’t happen, McGhee added.

Such a shift requires newsrooms to move away from coverage that resembles the traditional tabloid staple or crime blotter and toward a selective but in-depth approach to individual stories. In some cases, a shift requires dedicating a reporter to a beat. Both approaches take time and resources to look at context, to develop and talk to multiple sources (not just the police), and to commit to following a developing story through to a conclusion that may not be as neatly delineated as a corresponding court case.

Recognize Individuality and Humanity

Johnson suggests setting the bar in the context of the personal and the communal: “For one young person graduated from high

school is an achievement, but for another, him getting a job is an achievement.” Reporters must make an effort to engage with different communities to understand the unique challenges and concerns that face sometimes drastically different but overlapping constituencies.

Johnson would also like to see more stories that portray the humanity of the Black person. “I would love for news and journalism and media to depict people living life … people who get up every morning to go to work, they stop and get their coffee, they drop off their kids, they go to work, they labor through a lot, they have to fight — all types of stuff that normal people do. As opposed to just this narrative of fear and violence and all this other stuff — the other side of the life that we’re actually living.”

Report with Empathy

All these situations and approaches should be informed by and can be improved through empathy and a desire on journalists’ part to report every story with compassion and authenticity. (That this hasn’t since been the result in the existing industry is because of the current state of local news coverage and the demographics of newsrooms across the country.)

As Harvey said, “When we have these one-dimensional displays in the media that are often crafted by folks who have no experience in what they’re talking about [and] they don’t know anybody who has an experience on what they’re talking about, then you’re going to get these misconstrued perceptions of Black folks.” Part of the solution, then, is working to support local news organizations working to improve representation, as well as newer organizations that explicitly serve Black and brown communities.


Grow DEI

Harvey laid out the benefits and challenges of producing nuanced, empathetic journalism while working as a person of color in a newsroom: “There’s a comfort of knowing that you are sitting next to another Black person and another Black person — and when your boss is Black — so that if you write this story and tell it truthfully and fully, and maybe that requires you calling out the mayor, maybe that requires you calling out the superintendent of police, you feel that you at least have somebody who’s going to back you on it. There’s somebody who’s going to be behind you, who’s going to encourage this work. Very often, this work is discouraged. It’s an uphill battle for folks in newsrooms trying to get stories about Black and brown young men told in a very honest and creative way on this.”

So hiring people of color and developing them into newsroom leaders is key. “Who is in position in these stations and companies and newsrooms to make these decisions?” Pope said. “Bottom line: [We’ve] got to get more Black and brown people in the industry. And not just in the industry but in positions of power within the industry.”

The Associated Press reported in October, last year, that researchers looking for insights into the current state of journalism were disappointed in the response rate to a survey that looks at representation in newsrooms. And as University of Southern California professor Robert Hernandez noted in that article, “There is no pipeline problem. … We are producing diverse students. The reality is they’re not being hired, they’re not being retained, they’re not being promoted.” (NiemanLab reported on the ultimate results from the report and the “crushing resistance” that researchers met from some quarters.)

One thing that community organizations could potentially do to encourage diversity in newsrooms is to follow and support the reporters and the publications doing it. Many of these organizations are underresourced, Ballesteros said. For example, Injustice Watch is “10 people doing the work of 50,” he said. “That’s the case in so many of these small nonprofit orgs that are trying to fill this gap but are playing with one hand tied behind their back, and they don’t have enough money for copy editors, for all these other positions that make a newsroom function.” (It is important to note that the Robert R. McCormick Foundation awarded Injustice Watch $1.5 million over the next three years to grow its editorial, audience and revenue efforts. Block Club Chicago, Capitol News Illinois and Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications are also among the receipients of the foundation’s $7.5 million investment announced before the publication of this report.)

We have to develop a new generation of media professionals who are committed to telling the complex narrative of what it means to be Black and male in America, Touzin said. “And it’ll be nuanced because it’s not all positive — it’s just nuanced, and humanity is complex and complicated.”

“I often think: What would it take to have more Ava DuVernays?” she said. “What would it take for, no matter where you look, the likelihood of seeing at least four different narratives instead of the single kind of narrative that continues to be projected?”

The key to getting more Ava DuVernays — people committed to telling powerful stories about their communities and supporting other projects that do the same — is more capital, training and role models to show young people these paths exist, Pope said.


He named Tyler Perry, Oprah, Ryan Kugler and Issa Rae as other examples of positive momentum. “We can get more of those, more people to lift others up. We can flood the market. We can make sure that these stories are told, these uplifting, positive representations of us are out there.”

But doing that will take building an army of kids who want to tell the stories in their communities, one person at a time. “We’ve got to find a way to reach young people, educate them and equip them with the tools [they need],” Pope said.

Community organizations and foundations can play a role in:

• Fostering media literacy in students and audiences of all ages

• Giving community members the tools that they need to understand, control their news consumption and to participate in the storytelling process — including joining or starting newsrooms

• Supporting journalists and news organizations that are doing it right with capital and other resources

Create Community Partnerships

Several participants proposed community partnerships to start or sustain school newspapers. As noted in the “Related Challenges” section, one cannot overlook the need to foster media literacy in audiences, particularly in communities of color.

Equipping young men and women of color with critical thinking skills and related online tools is essential to help them navigate and assess not only “the media” in its more traditional forms but also social media communities and platforms. A key example is the 2016 election cycle, when, as the Washington Post reported, Russian disinformation networks targeted Black Americans on social media platforms. As Harvey suggests, “giving people that inspiration does come from things like helping fund a school newspaper, helping inspire schools to add ... media to their curriculum as a requirement. Honestly, I truly believe that that should be a requirement for ... graduation.”

A media literacy curriculum can do more than provide the first step to becoming a journalist. It also provides the opportunity to create young citizens who are equipped to inform and educate themselves into adulthood. It can also shape what news consumers expect from their chosen media outlets, educate them on how to identify misinformation, to engage with reporters and journalists, and show them how to use the press to benefit their communities.

Even when news organizations want to cover positive stories, for instance, community organizations may not be equipped to pitch stories effectively. “Understanding how to frame these pitches and to frame the coverage that you want is essential, especially if you’re sliding into someone’s inbox who has 30 pitches and tips a day,” McGhee said.

But any partnership should not lose sight of the full spectrum of what is encompassed by the concept of “media” in contemporary society. Community partnerships should consider how to encourage young men of color to express themselves across a range of media, including graphic arts, social


media and in video formats — because journalism increasingly relies on novel, multiplatform storytelling and because such skills are relevant to contexts and professions outside journalism. This means ensuring that students have models and mentors to show them how to use various tools, to help students use their media skills to tailor a message to various audiences, to encourage experimentation, and to guide them in best practices for building and retaining a community’s trust.

Lastly, it is incumbent on administrators and educators to help participants understand the ultimate goals of the curriculum, emphasizing the values of embracing complexity, empathy and community service. Individual participants may or may not eventually decide to pursue journalism or another form of narrative storytelling as a career, but that decision should not be the measure of the program’s value. AbdusSaboor warned that society “shouldn’t actually put the onus on the community because not everybody in the community is savvy enough to be like, ‘Let me tell my story.’ Not everybody is inspired enough to do that. ... Journalists and media outlets should have more awareness of that, that they should be operating from a place of ... honesty.” But the program can assess its impact by helping all its participants to a more sophisticated understanding of how media ecosystems operate, what the roles and outcomes are and can be, and how to find their own place in it.

Image via Olivia Obineme

Ideas for MBK and Obama Foundation

Participants were asked to share what MBK Chicago, in connection with the Obama Foundation and Public Narrative, can do to grow narratives and portrayals that are missing when it comes to boys and young men of color.

One of the most popular ideas was about growing media literacy, as discussed above. A lack of media education could be keeping more boys of color from being aware of the many jobs in media — not only journalism but in all media, including producers, web developers and more. “Unless a Black kid happens to see another Black person doing it and they take a liking to it, they often won’t ever be introduced to it,” Harvey said.

“There’s a lot of opportunity, I think, with media to change the world we live in,” he added. “That’s … one of the biggest driving factors for why I do this work, why I love doing this work.”

Ballesteros also said helping more young men of color tell their stories would be an important and powerful contribution. “The ability to tell your own story or to at least tell part of your community’s story, through journalism or other means, is … a crazy power to have,” he said.

Other ideas included:

• Leveraging the power of celebrity and influence associated with the Obama Foundation to raise awareness and publicity for nonprofits doing important work. “You don’t get much media, but if we had some of these notable people showing up at our stuff, then here comes the media, here comes the hashtags,” Johnson said.

• Unlocking more resources and capital to enable more people of color to do this important work, including foundational support; scholarships; fellowships; incubators for Black, Indigenous and people of color-led media organizations; and supplemental incomes for teachers, journalists and/or community groups involved in narrative change.

• Training more young people of color to get involved and enter media professions, including school newspapers, adding media to educational curricula or graduation requirements, and mentorships from other people of color.

• Branding the movement — in the way that the rainbow represents the LGBTQIA+ community — and coordinating an awareness day (such as Black Excellence Day) similar to Red Nose Day, in cities across the nation, could also help raise funds to support the work. This could also include awarding prizes or badging/labeling for media outlets and practitioners successfully reflecting the fuller narratives of our communities in their storytelling.

• Creating a style guide with practical guidelines that media outlets can use to help tell truer narratives. (It might be worth partnering with The Diversity Style Guide to help expand and amplify it, which has done a lot of great thinking on this already.)


Public Narrative is a Chicago-based nonprofit that offers training, programming and resources focused on cultivating media literacy, uplifting community voices in media, and shifting narratives around public health, public safety, and public education. For more information, visit

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