Cultural   Social Change  

Dr. Rachel Grant: Narrative Justice Project and Media Coverage of Communities of Color

Dr. Rachel Grant was interviewed on July 13, 2020 by Ph.D. student Brett Ball about her research and the new Narrative Justice Project.  Below the video is an edited transcript of that interview.

Ball: Tell us about the Narrative Justice Project.

Grant: So the research project that I am working on currently is the Narrative Justice Project. It is with Vanessa Wakeman [former Visiting Professional-in-Residence at the UF College of Journalism and Communication Public Relations Department], who owns her own agency in New York, the Wakeman Agency. And right now we are in the beginning stages of having media training, where we talk about media literacy, the narratives that exist within our media format now, that kind of focus on underserved populations and communities.

The research that I’m pulling is from focus groups and interviews, and actually having conversations with these individuals who are part of this larger media narrative on social justice. We are seeing stereotypes, repetitive messages, a lot of these bad versus good, deserving vs. undeserving kind of narratives produced in our media, particularly of Black communities, but also with Brown, indigenous, and other communities of color. We’re trying to not only give voice to those individuals in those communities, but also help media understand a little bit more of the context of what they’re actually saying and how it influences public opinion and how we can really give more of a complete story of, maybe an incident of police brutality, or another form of racial injustice or discrimination, or oppressive practices.

Ball:  I know your research looks at race, gender and class in media. You also look at research on social movements, social injustice and black feminism. How has your research been affected by the current racial climate?

Grant:  When we’re thinking about the current political-social climate that we’re in right now, particularly when we’re focusing on Black Lives Matter and the racial injustices around police brutality and violence against Brown and Black bodies, I think the biggest thing that we tend to not necessarily really focus on is the historical or long-lasting legacies of slavery or the civil rights movement. Through my research, I try to contextualize some of that. I try to bring in other interdisciplinary understandings besides just the media. Media is not only the record of that historical understanding, but it generates the language and the understanding of how the public understands certain movements. And now we are seeing several companies and organizations and groups take a stand, either performatively or more actively, in terms of combating and making a pledge or commitment to injustice.

We know, historically, how social movements work. We have a rise of a movement and then there’s a counter-movement and then we begin to sees change. What we’re seeing now is just the beginning. I don’t know if what happened with George Floyd this summer will change and alter in the fall. Once we get some normalcy from the pandemic, which is a big contributor to these issues, we’re looking at it on a much longer, larger, global scale. And I think the responses from other countries globally to Black Lives Matter and the movement for black lives show that.

The implications for media are for them to be more conscious of what they’re covering and what they’re talking about. These narratives can be very uplifting and empowering to certain voices. So I think we’re in the middle of something that I can’t necessarily say exactly. I can only say, maybe from a historical standpoint, you see these cycles within the studies of social movements and the narrative tends to change, the language tends to change. I hope that political action leads to change, but we are still in the middle of this.

Ball: What recommendations do you have based on your research for media coverage of racial movements?

Grant: We see a lot of people taking a self-reflective moment right now, seeing how they contribute to these larger issues. People are more engaged this time with the movement for Black lives versus Black Lives Matter in 2014, 2012 and earlier.  We’re in a situation that has required people to really look at the media that they’re consuming. Because now you’re forced to stay inside your house, if you’re not working, or if you’re working for home and you’re having to really sit here and figure out things.

I think that’s why there’s so many books that are popular. People are actively reading and actively self-engaging. And I think as a lot of black scholars would talk about, that self-education, that self-reflection, the self-determination to look into the understandings of the racial ties to how our country works. I think we’re definitely there.

I think the media in itself has been put to a higher standard to talk about these issues in a more complex way. And I think that complexity is really what is at the narrative justice project, and even in my other research that I do, it is very much that practical activism role that journalism can play, being the watchdog, being the place where people can be uplifted, can give voice.

The fact that you have over 35 cities painting Black Lives Matter in the middle of their streets, you have a profound impact to what that means in terms of black uplift, black empowerment, black self, black pride in a sense. I think there is change. Again, I always say as a historian, it’s always interesting to see how things move and progress, but I think a lot of it has to do with what our election will be in November. I think that’ll be a big impact. Another major impact will be once college campuses and universities come back. We know that historically college students and universities are a breeding ground of larger uprisings and protests and different types of movements. A lot of politically engage students in one spot.

I think the media in itself has been put to a higher standard to talk about these issues in a more complex way. And I think that complexity is really what is at the narrative justice project, and even in my other research that I do, it is very much that practical activism role that journalism can play, being the watchdog, being the place where people can be uplifted, can give voice.

And I think we’ll see a lot of alternative media really progress and be promoted to a higher standing. I mean, definitely we know social media will keep trending and things will be very much in that cycle, in the media cycle through that as well.

Ball:  How do you think that your research on historic and national symbols and the continuation of systemic racism has a crossroad with media consumption?

Grant:  This is a  conversation that the media is really grasping on right now. I think people are really politically engaged in these conversations about how are we telling the story of the United States. And I think a lot of that does fall onto the media in terms of how do we tell these complex narratives of what these monuments mean? The fact that Mississippi is changing its flag and these conversations around what these segregationists or people who were very prominent figures in the Civil War, what did they mean in terms of legacy? What legacy are we imposing or what legacy are we stating by keeping these buildings in the names of people that we know were against racial equality?

And so I think when we think about legacy, I think that’s also where we have to talk about citizenship. So who are we talking about in terms of who are citizens? And it’s a larger conversation, not just in terms of black and white, but also in terms of immigration and LGBT communities and gender rights, and, thinking about on a larger scale, because if we’re talking about honoring those individuals, are we honoring them in a way that still promotes who we truly are and where we are now?

I think that’s the biggest thing. Are we to a point where we can explain what this individual was or what this individual did and still make it historically accurate to the period of time that people were in. I think that’s the part about the Confederate statues. You can say that’s part of history, but do you have anything on the same side that promotes civil rights or that’s a memorial for people who might have endured slavery or discrimination, racial oppression? I think it has to be well-crafted and well discussed in both ways.

Ball:  What recommendations do you on how to communicate this historical understanding?

Grant:  As communicators, we have to be able to communicate across difference. And so what does that mean in terms of how we present a story? One thing we continually see is this conversation about rioters versus looters versus protestors, and that in itself has a connotation in terms of who those individuals are. If we call them looters, we’re talking about people who are criminalized. We’re talking about dehumanized individuals who are committing some type of criminal activity. We are not engaging in the understanding that part of protesting is disrupting the normal. And I think that is what we tend to not focus on.

When we talk about the destroying of underserved communities in terms of gentrification, we we don’t use the same term of demolishing or destroying. There’s a certain language that we have to employ. I think we also have to recognize that there are voices that are being erased, largely the voices of women of color, black women, particularly in the terms of Black Lives Matter and the movement for black lives. We see erasure of women and women who have been victimized or been subjects of violence. So like the Breonna Taylor story, we don’t see the same type of coverage focused on Breonna Taylor that we see maybe of George Floyd, but what does that mean in terms of who we value or how we talk about differences?

When we think about larger stories in terms of immigration, we’ve had migrants and people who also have been killed in police custody or violence has been committed against them. And in our political structure, do we talk about those? Do we talk about the aspect of people being detained and dying in governmental facilities? Do we talk about prison populations? So there’s lots of people who are not a part of this narrative. I think as journalists and as communicators, we have to tell the story on multiple platforms, multiple frames, otherwise we’re not truly getting to the heart of the larger issue. We just keep on repeating the same narrative. Then we’re only going to humanize individuals that we want to be humanized and the other individuals are not, therefore even understood or even created some type of visibility.

So I guess when I say in terms of talking across differences, it’s a mixture of not only including the work of black scholars and black intellectuals and intellectuals of color who have explored this on a larger scale, who’ve talked about the difference between intersectionality, between race, gender and class, but also talking about it in terms of really getting to the root of the narrative of the individual and saying that individual’s experiences are different.

Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd were very different experiences, but we don’t see that complexity in the stories, we just know that one was killed by two white men, one was killed by the police. And the fact is that now we’re just focusing on the brutality of police and not just the existence of living in a brown body and being terrorized by non-police or governmental or state sanctioned violence.

And so there’s complexity within this larger span or what we’re looking at. And I think journalists are a bit more reactive and communicators, especially I would say people in advertising and public relations, are very reactive. I think that’s what we’re seeing now is this need to have a statement or have a video about what’s going on in the larger scheme versus having that representation throughout your company or your nonprofit or your advertising campaign.

One thing I will be very clear on in terms of research and doing this work, it’s heavy and it’s ongoing, but I think that’s why there’s a passion to do. That’s why you see the outreach and the work of black women behind the scenes organizing and doing this work because it’s not so much that this is my research trajectory, but this is actually for most people who are living this, this is their life, this is their daily existence. And I think that’s what can inspire hope and change.

Definitely there’s this racial fatigue, there’s fatigue in terms of doing this. A lot of what’s happening now takes me back to when I was a Ph.D. student in 2015, being on the campus of the University of Missouri and seeing all this go on and see all this unfold again, kind of again reignites some of that drive to do the work, and not just do the work because it’s my job, but really to do it because I know there’s a larger goal, there’s a larger hope of change and justice. And I think that’s where we as journalists really can succeed.

I think if we can truly understand that this isn’t just a moment, that the death of George Floyd is not just a moment. The death of Ahmaud Arbery, the death of Breonna Taylor, the numerous trans, black trans and queer individuals who are being killed as well, the black women that are being killed through this situation, it’s disheartening, but it’s also in a way of letting people know that this is not just one occurrence that this happens and it happens daily. Year after year, we see loss and need journalists to understand what that means in terms of discrimination and oppression.

There’s a profound difference between being a black individual and being a black and brown individual and being a person who is not. And how do we give space for those individuals to not only express their story or again, honor the lives that were lost, but really make some type of change. And so I like to, again, think about it in a hopeful way that individuals who are covering these stories, who are engaging in these narratives, who are reading these stories, can take what they learn and empower themselves to do more on a localized level.

I always say that everybody has a different call to social justice. I don’t believe that it is the burden or the call for intellectuals or activists, but on a daily basis we interact and we can change one person’s life by just acknowledging who they are and giving them the space to exist and to exist in a world where they don’t have to live in fear of being oppressed or discriminated and giving that space to those individuals. So, that’s what I’ll say. That’s my hopeful note.

Posted: August 14, 2020
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