The legacy of Central Florida’s black press 

The voice of the voiceless

Page 6 of 7

But does the black press truly play a vital role in the media landscape? Some say it's outlived its usefulness. In his 2014 book, Whither the Black Press?: Glorious Past, Uncertain Future, author Clint C. Wilson II argues that a lack of resources and other factors have caused the influence of black newspapers to wane.

Unlike when the first African-American newspapers were founded to counter the skewed perspectives of all-white newsrooms, these days black reporters are part of the mainstream media, which has begun to focus on issues important to black Americans. In the last two years, for instance, the criminal justice department's treatment of African-Americans has been front and center as major media outlets follow the cases of Bland, Mike Brown, Tamir Rice and more recently, Laquan McDonald.

"In the wake of the election of the first Black President of the United States it is possible the black press won the war for social equality it waged for more than 185 years," Wilson writes.

While most journalism students get angry comments or letters when they upset readers, Rhetta Peoples remembers when she worked for Florida A&M University's radio station WAMF 90.5 in the early '90s, people claiming to be with the Ku Klux Klan or other white supremacist groups would call the station and threaten to come by.

"We knew when our dean would get those calls because he would come in to the station, and you could see the fear on his face," she says. "He would always tell us to never leave the station alone if it was after 5 p.m."

But even after stints working in the mainstream press, Peoples kept coming back to black media. Currently she writes weekly opinion pieces and the occasional article for the Florida Sun Review. She also runs the blog "Being Black in Orlando" on hypeorlando.com, an online publishing platform created by the Orlando Sentinel.

"I kept jumping back toward the black press because there's such a need there," she says. "So much that happens in American politics is never covered from a person of color's eyes. The mainstream media doesn't have enough black reporters to cover it from an inside perspective."

More journalists of color are employed in newsrooms today than they ever have been before – 13.34 percent of newsroom employees were of a race other than white in 2014, compared to 3.95 percent in 1978, according to the American Society of News Editors census – but that's still not representative of the fact that 37.4 percent of people in the United States are people of color.

LaFontaine Oliver, president of WMFE 90.7 FM and the Central Florida Association of Black Journalists, says black journalists bring the collective African-American experience to the forefront – a perspective that's usually missing in most publications.

"It's news that comes from a slightly different lens," he says. "Part of what was talked about in the 1968 Kerner Report [a commission established to investigate the race riots that swept the United States in 1967] is that a lot of the views in the media came from a dominantly white male perspective. Whether it's the black press or a columnist like Darryl Owens at the Sentinel, as a black journalist you bring that history that allows others to identify in a different way."

Even when traditional outlets do hire black reporters or report on issues that are important to African-Americans, Sen. Thompson says, nothing can replace the role of stories published by outlets devoted solely to the black experience.

"I think a person working at an African-American publication can probably relate to African-Americans in a different way, more sympathetic than the mainstream media," she says. "You saw what happened with Hurricane Katrina. The images the mainstream media projected were of people looting and engaging in illegal activities when in fact things were very different. Those projections endanger young African-American men, because they're portrayed as anti-social, dangerous and threatening, and some law enforcement, and the George Zimmermans of the world, react based on that."

That doesn't mean it's easy. Just like mainstream media outlets, members of the black press are faced with the challenge of competing with the Internet for audience share. Millennials, for instance, are seeking a lot of their news from online sources like Twitter, which helps propel stories about black lives into the public consciousness.

Chambliss says the use of social media, like so-called "Black Twitter," to narrate the black experience helps paint a larger picture of what is happening nationally.

"You have serious, dedicated people narrating their experiences to other concerned people across the country," he says. "Local experiences are recognized as part of the national oppression. They're trying to give you a sense of the race. You can watch the news on TV and nothing is happening, but if you go on Twitter, you can see people protesting or reporting that police are shooting at them."

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