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Public Editor: Black History Month demands respectful reporting

As Black History Month comes to a close, I look at how The Varsity can do better by the Black community for years to come
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As Black History Month wraps up, The Varsity highlighting the importance of ethical reporting that shows consideration and respect. It’s also a time to reflect on inclusion within the pages of our newspapers and within the walls of journalism, as a way of compensating for underrepresentation in newsrooms.

The Varsity worked hard to put out stories that hopefully resonate with the Black community and accurately represent many who at times feel voiceless. However, The Varsity does not have a Black member on its masthead — aside from myself, and I’m not a management member or a section editor. My occupation is to ensure that The Varsity is upholding its due diligence toward the U of T community. Black History Month can pose difficult editorial decisions. Insight, respect, and tact are crucial to delivering news where culture is authentically represented.

Managing Editor at The Varsity, Ibnul Chowdhury, alongside Josie Kao, its Editor-in-Chief, decided that “coverage on underrepresented and equity-seeking communities” deserved attention and labour.

“Sustained coverage throughout the month, and not just during the Black History Month issue for the last week, was crucial,” Chowdhury wrote.

According to Chowdhury, he wrote many stories that demonstrated nuance and plurality within the Black community, including coverage on Black lawyers, Black Muslims, Black graduate students, and Caribbean students.

Admittedly, he wrote that The Varsity faced a “clear limitation,” since section editors did not have many Black writers in their writer base.  Still, Chowdhury believed that doing the work could still promote Black voices on campus and help encourage Black writers to join The Varsity by showing them that their voices matter and are needed year-round.

“I hope that establishing such relationships will continue to help build trust and expand our equity coverage in the years to come.”

The Varsity did well in avoiding sensationalizing the Black community, and instead opted for storytelling that put a spotlight on individuals without pushing the boundaries. Instead of dramatizing realities, reporters allowed Black students to share their own truths, in some cases, discussing Black mental health awareness, community building, and the importance of supporting Black youth in educational spaces.

In addition, the front-page cover of Issue 18 chosen for Black History Month, depicts a smiling Black woman adorned in shimmery gold, with the pan-African flag colours behind her. The artist, Makena Mwenda, explained in a letter that the flag represents “the bloodshed of Africans who died in the fight for liberation, the colour of their skin, and the fertility of their land.” Giving creative control to someone who understands Black history and African values, and who can pay homage to culture was a vital step in ensuring authenticity during the month.

In honour of Black History Month, I’ve compiled a list of dos and don’ts for journalists. My hope is newsrooms take this into account for Februaries to come, other periods of cultural celebration, and just in general.

DOS AND DON’TS

Don’t be performative during Black History Month. Avoid showcasing Black people and their culture in a way that sensationalizes their ethnicity. Do share experiences about racial realities in a candid and honest way. Take responsibility for all headlines and photos used and ask yourself: “Am I portraying an exaggeration?”

Don’t reach out to Black people exclusively in February. Trust me, they notice. Every February, like clockwork, publications suddenly phone up every Black community member to feature in a story. It’s uncomfortable for everyone involved, even if the intentions are well-placed. Do work together year-round — that’s the real goal. Use February to look into the history and other contexts of the Black experience. From what I gather, The Varsity has acknowledged how this type of behaviour can come off as uncomfortable for all parties involved, and is actively working to change this to better serve the Black community and tell their stories year-round. Many news organizations should take additional steps to also  ensure that the Black community does not feel used.

Don’t forget you’re a guest in someone else’s home. Black History Month is an invitation to learn about Black culture, history, and experience. People are passionate about different aspects, so let them express what Black History Month means to them personally. Do seek to learn the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation. Avoid taking what you need for a story and running away with it. Take off your metaphorical shoes and get comfortable; accept knowledge you can share with readers.

Don’t be ignorant of microaggressions: indirect, subtle, often unintentional discrimination. Be mindful of your questions: think twice about asking a biracial individual “what are you?” or asking a Black person “where are you really from?” Microaggressions are often mistakes, but they can offend people and damage rapport. Do inquire respectfully and without assumptions. Lots of people enjoy talking about themself if you create an environment free of tension and judgement.

Don’t continuously reiterate that it’s Black History Month. It becomes repetitive and perpetuates the idea that these stories are a forced chore that are only important this time of year. Remember these tips and show the community you care about them day in and day out. Develop a better and more inclusive representation of the community for readers, and a more inclusive environment for marginalized students and staff.

As your public editor, I’d like to know where you stand on this. With helpful input from readers, my mission is to ensure that The Varsity remains a safe environment for all. What did you think of this year’s reporting and artwork for Black History Month? Email me your thoughts and opinions and how The Varsity can improve from here.

My biggest passion is ethical reporting. It’s something I have a responsibility to uphold to the highest standard. Let’s help shape our knowledge of ethics and continuously improve The Varsity’s decision-making framework for years to come.

Osobe Waberi is The Varsity’s Public Editor and can be reached at [email protected].