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Black female journalists face dire situation in US – Prof Thomas

…Says Journalism under attack

Ngozi Okpalakunne

Jennifer Thomas is currently an assistant Professor in the Department of Media, Journalism and Film, Howard University, Washington District of Columbia, United States.

Undoubtedly, Jennifer has really carved a niche for herself in the field of broadcast journalism as she worked for nearly three decades in CNN before retiring to the classroom to teach in her alma mater, the prestigious Howard University.

It is interesting to note that Jennifer left CNN as an executive producer and was said to have played a vital role in the network coverage of major news.

She was honoured by the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences for her contributions to the networks September 11 coverage. She also received the Peabody Award for her contribution to CNNs coverage of Hurricane Katrina.

Recently, Jennifer was invited to Lagos by the US Consulate to aid the Consulate in partnership with the School of Media and Communication, Pan- Atlantic University, Lekki to commemorate 2019 World Press Freedom Day.

After delivering a lecture at the University, she spoke in an interview with some select journalists where she delved in to several issues which include: importance of journalism in the development of a democratic nation; challenges facing journalists in the world; how to identify fake news, among others.

Describing journalism as a calling, she stressed the need for journalists to re-ignite the passion for the calling of journalism, adding, “What we do as journalists is so important to the democracy of every nation around the world. So, I think its important that we have this day to recognise that fact and to serve as a reminder for those of us in it to fight a good fight.

“It is not an easy job, but we are in a noble profession and we just have to remain and re-ignite the passion for that”, Thomas noted.

She regretted that the entire globe is facing the challenges of fake news and attributed it to the advent of social media.

According to her the situation has created a political and pedagogical poser for not just members of the media, but for professors who are tasked with teaching would-be millennial journalists.

In addition, she said : “The current climate for the news industry is synonymous to a thunderstorm, with the convection being the calamity of the Fourth Estate as Fake News. Add the unpredictability of social media, and it becomes the perfect storm. In order to quell this tempest, journalists must ride out the storm and steady the ship through adhering to the fundamental principles of the profession. In turn, journalism professors must be vigilant at teaching media history, literacy, and ethics while underscoring excitement for the profession. It is a daunting, yet surmountable task.

“But even before a discussion of journalists quelling the storm against disinformation, we cannot ignore the dire situation facing journalists in Africa and other continents around the world.

“Journalism is under attack and in unfortunately too many instances that is literal– journalists themselves are under attack”, she added.

Black female journalists face dire situation in US - Prof Thomas
Safety of journalists, nonnegotiable says NGE

Quoting UNESCO, the Assistant Professor of journalism said:  “On average, every five days a journalist is killed for bringing information to the public. These attacks are often perpetrated in non-conflict situations by organised crime groups, militia, security personnel, and even local police. That makes local journalists among the most vulnerable”, Thomas said.

She further explained that the UNESCO report revealed that these attacks include murder, abductions, harassment, intimidation, illegal arrest, and arbitrary detention.

While these types of attacks are not common in America, she said, this is not breaking news here. While in Lagos I’ve had the pleasure of meeting more than 25 working journalists on the local, as well as national levels, from Punch newspaper, Channels TV and TVC to CNN, AFP and the Associated Press. From this group, at least four of them shared with me incidents of detention and intimidation. While the incidents shook them, each one returned to the job, to continue their work.

However, she stated that the United Nations had a plan of action to combat crimes against the press which addresses six areas that include, academic research, standard-setting and policy making, awareness-raising, monitoring and reporting, capacity building; and coalition building.

Talking about journalists in the US, she said that journalists over there have been coined as the enemy of the people and arbitrators of fake news.

Explaining further, she said : “The relationship between the president and the press, has traditionally been a frosty one, “the recent verbal attacks have led to increased incidents of intimidation and sometimes even violence against journalists by citizens. In fact, Black female journalists have been blatantly disrespected just for doing their fundamental role- as defenders of democracy and freedom fighters of the First Amendment.

“One of these journalists, Abby Philip, was a panelist at a forum in Howard University. The forum was sponsored by the institutions Association of Black Journalists- which took place before the most recent events. During this session, in which the journalists shared their experiences of covering the White House, Philip underscored her commitment to doing her job with integrity, while trying to block out the other noise from the naysayers.

“Journalists are not the enemy of the people; we are the advocates for the people. Yet the constant barrage of the term fake news is apparently having an impact on the publics perception of the industry.”
On how to identify fake news, the media expert advised that one should be skeptical, consider the source, look at the byline and quotes, review the photo. Be a curious journalist- question everything.”

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Still on the challenges of black female journalists in the US, she recalled that when she first got a job that she was the youngest and the only black woman in the entire newsroom then.

Continuing, she said: But, twenty years later, when I became CNN executive producer, I wasnt the youngest anymore. I was the only black woman who was an executive producer in the entire network. The challenges facing black women in the news media in US are very real, but I never let that stop me. Im proud of who I am, Im proud of my look, Im proud of my hair. You dont have to like me, you dont have to like the dress Im wearing, the heels Im wearing, but you cannot discount my work. That is something that I tell my students all the time. People may hate you but, they can’t touch the credibility of the work.

“So, let the work speak for itself. That is how I trained myself. I have thousands stories for being in male dominated business”, Jennifer noted.


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