Please join me in a response to the crisis underway in New Orleans and the Gulf states.

The following is a pledge to recognize and use wisely the power that we have as people who influence policy and who help create the historical record.

We acknowledge the role of the United States’ news media in the crisis currently facing New Orleans and the Gulf states. Those overwhelmingly black and low-income people who have lost their family members and possessions, and the millions rushing to aid them are demanding answers from the current Bush administration. We add our voices to the current debate about how to create a country in which all people’s lives are valued equally and in which a racial and economic justice framework is at the forefront of government policymaking.

In coming years we will occupy leading positions in the field of journalism. To insure that we are worthy of holding such tremendous power, we will interrogate the media’s overwhelmingly negative portrayal of communities of color and low-income communities, both now and throughout the history of this country. We accept the responsibility that this pattern of coverage places on our shoulders and those of our colleagues, professors, mentors and employers.

We recognize that the U.S. government’s strategy of “benign neglect” towards poor communities and communities of color contributed to the tremendous loss of life and subsequent chaos in New Orleans. These policies don’t occur in a vacuum. Mainstream news outlets’ consistent portrayal of black life as a collection of pathologies helps to create public support for policies that ignore the real effects of poverty. We acknowledge the media’s overemphasis of drugs, sex and violence in stories about communities of color and poor communities. The impact of this type of coverage is exacerbated by a lack of historical or political context.

We are troubled by some media outlets’ recent labeling of black people struggling to provide for their families as “looters” while white people in the same situation are sympathetically described as “finding food” to survive. We distance ourselves from those media outlets that have crafted misleading and sensational headlines and captions alongside images of people fighting for their lives. We reject the excuse that this presentation is “market driven.” We are part of that market, and we dedicate our careers to producing more honest coverage of our communities.

By signing our names to this statement, we promise to take the following initial steps towards changing the way that news is presented in the United States. In doing so, we recognize that we are part of a long history of journalists who have refused to add their bylines to the narrative of the status quo. We will report on and write about the world as we see it, not as those in power wish it to be. Specifically, we pledge to…

Educate ourselves and our colleagues on how to bring a racial and economic justice framework into our reporting.
Stand our ground and fight for our stories when our editors encourage us to put a paternalistic, racist or classist spin on pieces about people of color and low-income people.
Support our colleagues in their efforts to tell stories that challenge racist and classist assumptions.
Speak up and refuse to be intimidated when our professors, our employers, and others leaders in the profession make racist and classist comments. We will deny them the opportunity to use their status as a shield.
Refuse to be tokenized and refuse to let our colleagues of color and colleagues from working-class backgrounds be marginalized and treated with perpetual condescension in the institutions where we work
Coordinate with journalists from Africa, the Caribbean, Latin America, Asia and the Middle East in order to bring more honest, well-researched coverage of those regions to people in the United States.

Signed,
Dani McClain, Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism ‘06