When The Emancipator was first published in 1820, it was created with an intention that was radical at the time: to abolish slavery in the United States.
More than 200 years later, Boston University’s Center for Antiracist Research and The Boston Globe are planning a project by the same name. Their objective is just as bold.
“Our goal is to end racism now,” Amber Payne, The Emancipator co-editor-in-chief, told VOA. “It may feel very pie in the sky and very idealistic, but it really shouldn’t feel that way, and it shouldn’t be that way.”
Deborah D. Douglas, fellow co-editor in chief, said that the COVID-19 pandemic revealed inequalities in the U.S., especially for those historically marginalized.
Additionally, widespread protests following police killings of Black Americans, including George Floyd in May 2020, have sparked conversations about race and inequality.
The Emancipator seeks to provide context for those issues and more, Douglas said.
The official launch is tentatively planned for June 2022. But they hope to begin releasing a weekly newsletter, Reframe, as early as February.
The Boston-based team plans to reach audiences in the U.S. and worldwide with reporting on issues such as voter suppression and inequality in health care or the criminal justice system, and features on art, television and movies.
The Emancipator will be about “meeting the moment” and unpacking systemic issues related to current events, Douglas said.
“We’re really at a tipping point right now,” Douglas told VOA. “And there’s not just one place that talks about antiracism. There’s nothing that really unpacks structure, and how that impacts all of us, and how it implicates all of us in the negative impacts of white supremacy. The Emancipator can do that.”
Their approach reflects a change in how people think about journalism, media ethics experts say.
Traditionally, news outlets provide objective, neutral coverage, but journalists do not need to maintain neutrality on every issue, said Kelly McBride, chair of the Craig Newmark Center for Ethics and Leadership at the Poynter Institute.
“I think it’s an easy decision for a news organization to say we are not going to be neutral on those issues — we are for equality, we are against racism, and we are in favor of creating a news product that helps our community understand these issues better and recognize, as a news consumer, what your role is in in making the community better,” McBride told VOA.
Both Douglas and Payne stress that The Emancipator will not only address issues related to racism, but also offer solutions.
“We’re really thinking very, very deeply about knowledge and solutions, and helping people to take on real life issues,” said Payne. “That could be arming people to be better voters or be better equipped to have that uncomfortable conversation with a neighbor, or raise their hand at the school board meeting and present an idea very confidently and feel self-assured and researched about it.”
The Emancipator will help people “go beyond hashtag activism and black-square activism and create the pathway to change their life, their world and their community,” Payne said, referring to social media campaigns where users post a black square to show solidarity with groups calling for racial justice.
To that end, The Emancipator will be based in what is known as “solutions journalism” — reporting that explains events and offers information about how communities are successfully responding to those issues.
The ‘whole story’
“We call it the whole story,” said David Bornstein, co-founder and chief executive of the Solutions Journalism Network. “It’s rounding out the narrative so that you have all the information you need in order to respond to the problems and hopefully build a better community and a better society.”
When the media focus solely on challenges faced by certain communities, it influences public perception of people who live in those areas, Bornstein said.
Perception in turn shapes policies and also influences everyday “micro decisions” such as checking a person’s purse in a department store or whether to stop for someone at a taxi stand, he added.
In other words, focusing exclusively on challenges creates more exclusion, more stereotyping and more division.
“Narrative determines identity, it determines our behavior, it determines our beliefs,” Bornstein told VOA. “If you take the metro daily newspaper of any large city in the United States, and you look at the communities that have been historically excluded, whether it’s poverty or communities of color, you will find that the majority of stories about those communities are about problems and challenges.”
Key to changing that is a technique called asset framing — a concept coined by Trabian Shorters, board member of the Solutions Journalism Network and founder of BMe, an organization that leads training on ending racial stigma.
Shorters explained the concept to VOA, saying, “If we first define people by their aspirations and their contributions before we talk about the challenges, that’s a fuller narrative and a more accurate depiction of who we are.”
Both Bornstein and Shorters are careful to note that solutions journalism and asset framing do not mean focusing only on the positive. They are about leading with humanity, what motivates people to get out of bed in the morning, Shorters said.
“If we’re going to end racism, news media absolutely has to lean in and journalists have to learn how to tell stories in ways that don’t stigmatize people. They have to learn how to tell stories that actually lead to solutions and solutions-oriented thinking,” Shorters added.
McBride at Poynter said that “solutions-oriented journalism gives people a pathway to make the news relevant” because it not only informs readers about issues, it provides steps for those who seek change.
Even though the terms solutions journalism and asset framing were not around when the original Emancipator was published, Shorters said the paper was still based on these principles.
“When The Emancipator was created originally, I promise you it was to fulfill Black people’s aspirations to live free,” Shorters said. “It was not focused on just what’s broken and what’s damaged and what’s wrong.”
Although the new version will be taking on weighty issues, The Emancipator’s editors, Payne and Douglas, plan to do so in a way that is encouraging and engaging.
“We’re hoping that with the power of journalism, of stories, of perspective, of solutions journalism, that’s how you shift culture. That’s how you shift narrative. And that’s how you make community change,” Payne said.