Panelists debate media’s role in social justice movements at #TUjday16 event

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From left to right, Kwame Rose, Mike Puente, Kenneth Burns and Jared Ball (Photo by Kristin Helf / TU student)

On April 18, the first anniversary of the initial Baltimore protests resulting from the death of Freddie Gray, opposing ideas emerged from #TUjday16 panelists on the role of the media in covering social justice movements. A fiery debate broke out during the forum after the event’s moderator brought up two fundamental questions: Did the media distort the events of last April? And what ramifications does media coverage have on social justice movements?

Students had gathered in Towson University’s Chesapeake II ballroom for the mass communications department’s fifth annual J Day event. “Reporting Unrest: Journalism’s Role in Social Justice Movements” featured a panel of four journalist professionals who spoke about their experiences reporting on the uprising.

One of the panelists, social activist writer and Baltimore native Kwame Rose, mentioned the necessity of minorities telling their own stories.

“Our stories [aren’t] going to be told unless we get to tell them,” Rose said.

Mark Puente, an investigative reporter for the Baltimore Sun, decried the media’s diminishing role in society. When Rose suggested that the Sun might pander to a white, middle-class audience, Puente insisted that the Sun, along with other mainstream sources that covered last year’s protests, simply reported what they saw while keeping bias out.

Rose and Puente sat alongside WYPR reporter Kenneth Burns and Morgan State University professor Jared Ball. When prompted on the subject of media bias, Burns said that the presence of bias depends on who is doing the reporting and editing and that the story being told depends on the individual reporter.

To Ball, regardless of the individual, the dominant and elite press define the norms of society, justify inequality and demonize the efforts of minority groups to challenge the status quo. The most powerful social justice movements should acknowledge colonialism and Western supremacy, he said.

Rose agreed. Directed towards Puente, the social activist mentioned the Sun’s history of racism and that while the population of Baltimore is about 65% black, most of the Sun’s reporters are white.

Through his experience on the streets of Baltimore during the protests, Rose learned the injustices of white reporters exclusively covering the stories of minorities.

“[It] wasn’t normal…There was a lot of white people in black spaces with cameras,” Rose said.

Students walked away from the J Day event with one particular oft-repeated message in mind: when minorities tell their own stories instead of the mainstream media, they control their own narrative in a society that has historically done it for them.

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