It's mental health awareness month, and a new short documentary is exploring the sometimes harrowing effects of being a Black journalist in mainstream media. Elizabeth Montgomery wanted to help change the world when she joined the news team at a mainstream newspaper. It was her personal mission to shed light on positive stories in the Black community and uplift readers. While the words on the page spoke of good things, her own life was spiraling. She wasn't paid enough and the stress and unfairness of the job were swallowing her whole.
Black in the Newsroom, a short documentary from Media 2070, shares Montgomery’s story and sheds light on how so many Black women in mainstream media journalism feel used and undervalued. A nonprofit advocacy organization, Media 2070's mission is to engage in the work of transforming the media system so that Black people have control of their own stories by the year 2070. "Media 2070 has been working to highlight examples of the media system's long history of anti-Black harm as well as ideas for repair," declares Collette Watson, director of the Media 2070 project. “We saw Elizabeth bravely sharing online about her struggles…and we knew that her story was powerful and timely.”
Watson and Montgomery share more about the film and how women can demand respect in the workplace.
EBONY: Elizabeth, why did you want to be a part of this project?
Elizabeth Montgomery: Two words, Black women. After the pay study done by our union was released to the public that showed that POC journalists made $25K less than that of non-POC journalists in our newsroom, I was denied a raise and then given a company t-shirt with an Ida B. Wells quote on the front. Out of hurt and frustration, and in the name of Ms. Wells, I posted about it on social media. Black women journalists began inboxing me to share their stories of getting passed up for promotions, being denied raises and ultimately, leaving news outlets. They were hurt and suffered in silence until the next opportunity came. When this film came about, I wanted to speak up and share what was happening. As a journalist, I've always wanted to tell the truth and make a difference.
Collette, what are some of the struggles Elizabeth endured that are featured in the film?
Collette Watson: Elizabeth shares how demoralizing it was to discover that she was being paid $20,000 less than a white colleague who had ten years less experience. She also shares about the harsh treatment she received from management, including repeatedly being told that she wasn't a good writer despite her stories routinely showing up on the paper's front page and ranking among their website's most-read articles. The criticism made her question not only her place in the newsroom but her will to live. And this is something that many Black journalists can relate to. Black journalists are often among the lowest paid in their newsrooms, constantly subjected to racialized criticism and meanwhile receiving little or no support as they report on traumatizing stories. These toxic environments are why Black journalists made up only 5.6 percent of all newsroom staffers working at daily publications in 2017, according to the annual study of the American Society of News Editors (ASNE). In white-owned newsrooms that do have higher diversity numbers, Black journalists are more likely to leave at the mid-career point because of mistreatment and pay disparities, as indicated by Carla Murphy's 2020 survey The Leavers.
Elizabeth, what's the hardest thing you struggled with while working at your newspaper?
I started my journalism career while homeless, living in my car in Atlanta in 2007. I said journalism saved me. But with this job, my self-esteem plummeted. I was told my writing wasn't up to the standard for the newsroom, but at the same time, I wrote stories that ran on the paper's front page. I felt like I wasn't valued on top of struggling to pay the rent I split with roommates.
What are you doing now, and is it better for your mental health?
Leaving that newsroom was the best thing I could have done for my mental health. Journalism is important and I still write stories daily, which is why I loved the industry, to begin with. I hope newsrooms can care, value and listen to their journalists of color, especially when the newsroom is not as diverse as the community they cover. Journalists of color are valuable and should be seen, heard, paid equitably, retained and promoted, and make a liveable wage.
How can Black journalists demand what they are worth in such a competitive market?
Watson: If there's going to be any hope for newsroom justice, Black journalists have to build collective power by joining forces with fellow Black colleagues and allies in the community. That means joining unionization efforts like those of the NewsGuild, forming Black caucuses inside individual news organizations and going public with demands for change. This was demonstrated by the courageous workers at The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times in 2020. They were able to successfully change conditions inside their news organizations, and that work is continuing. When journalists join forces with one another, they can not only demand what they are worth but also demand more editorial power and community partnership that is critical to repairing long histories of harmful coverage of Black communities.
What message do you hope this documentary imparts to viewers, Black and white?
Watson: Our message is simple: it's time for media organizations to engage in real care for Black journalists and communities. This is the first step toward repairing a long history of anti-Black harm in the media system, going all the way back to the ways that early colonial newspapers profited from the sale of enslaved Africans by publishing ads and brokering transactions. We know that the media system is rooted in anti-Blackness, and that's why diversity and inclusion efforts have failed to eradicate the toxicity that continues inside newsrooms and media organizations. Representation alone is not enough. We have to redistribute power and resources, and that starts with centering care.
Black In the Newsroom is available on YouTube.