MTV News’ Jamil Smith on What’s Wrong (and Right) With the Media

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Jamil Smith.

How would you describe your beat?
I would say national politics, I would say identity politics. It encompasses race, gender — all forms of identity, frankly. It’s the beat I established for myself while I was at The New Republic.

How do you feel, for better and worse, the internet has changed the shape of journalism?
What you see with the internet is an opportunity for organizations to tell stories in a way they never quite imagined before. And I don’t understand how that could possibly be a negative thing. Now, I understand that there’s some reticence from a number of folks in the professional media about people who are coming in with a lack of journalistic training. That can lead to either more mistakes or more invective that doesn’t offer anything productive or constructive. That said, the online spaces really help to not just democratize how opinions are shared and circulated, but also really help people who do not have access to traditional media make their voice heard. The Internet removes some of the power from white, traditional media and gives a little bit of that power base to communities of color that seek to make sure their stories and their truths are reflected. Think about how few African-Americans and other people of color there are in today’s traditional print newsrooms. There’s a demand there from black readerships and other readerships of color saying, “Hey! We need our stories reflected, not just through white reporters. We need them reflected through our lenses too. We need our perspectives, our lives reflected as they truly are. And we need people who are skilled at doing that.” I like to think that that is one of my roles. I want to be a vessel for that … When you think about blogs like PostBourgie and Racialicious and Colorlines, that really set the bar for — they weren’t exclusive spaces by any means; there are white people who wrote for PostBourgie — but they were spaces that were made available to us. Even if you were working for traditional media, you didn’t have the opportunity to offer your perspective, to tell the unvarnished version of the truth that you see every day. And that’s an inherent value of the internet and the stories told on the internet. As many misgivings as people might have about the internet, we need to remember that it’s still very young. So I think people need to understand that, being that it’s young, understand the benefits that come with it and not throw those away for the sake of going back to something that makes them more comfortable. Because often when it makes them more comfortable, in the process it makes a lot of other people more uncomfortable. When you think about PostBourgie and Colorlines and all these other sites, it really hearkens back to the tradition of the black press. Like, say, the Call & Post here in Cleveland — which I grew up reading — or the Chicago Defender, or the New York Amsterdam News: I still, whenever I go to a city, I make it my business to get a copy of that city’s African-American newspaper. Because they have insights, they have contacts, that bigger papers may not. And while they may not have the resources to cover stories in the same way, they cover them in ways that make their readers feel like they’re being heard, and I think that is an understated value. Even as the internet grows and there are more and more sites. You feel like there’s a site for everything — you feel like there’s a site for African-American train collectors from Utah. But just because you have that degree of specialization, it does not absolve the larger publications from making sure they diversify.

 When has the experience of being black given you a perspective that white reporters didn’t have?
I can’t say for certain, but one example is the Tamir Rice case. I was once a 12-year-old black boy in Cleveland, playing in parks, probably doing things I shouldn’t have been doing. And I didn’t get the death penalty for it. So when you see that video — when you see the park that looks a lot like the parks you played in when you were a kid, when you see a big husky black boy who looks a lot like you did when you were 12 years old — it has an effect on you. And I think there’s a certain empathy gap that gets closed when you have a variety of reporters who have a variety of life experiences. And that doesn’t mean they have to write every single story about that life experience, but it means that as a collaborative team, your newsroom can draw upon the experiences of your staff and say, “Hey, what do you think is the right way to go on this story? Who do you think are the right people to talk to, and how should I approach them?” And when you see how the internet is growing, I think it gives more opportunity for more media professionals. There are just more jobs out here. There’s more opportunity for you to interact with people who you don’t necessarily relate to. The reasons people give for being reticent about newsroom diversity, it just strikes me as antithetical to what journalism is. We’re basically being paid for our curiosity. We’re being paid for our diligence in research and our ability to translate all of that into an effective story. So I think, when you talk about the internet being a bad thing, it’s inherently a strike against media diversity. It’s inherently a strike, I think, against the purpose of journalism in the modern era. So if people have such a problem with the Internet, I suggest they get used to it and learn how to adjust. Because it’s not going anywhere.

The Transcripts: A Master Class in What’s Wrong (and Right) With the Media by Those In the Know