In My Words: For democracy’s sake, end racism and support journalism

In this column distributed by the Elon University Writers Syndicate. Rochelle Ford, dean of Elon's School of Communications, writes about the role that journalism plays in educating the public about the impact of racism upon society and the need to support journalism going forward.

By Rochelle Ford

The distressing, infuriating and heartbreaking events of the past week have me reflecting on the start of what was the most challenging year of my two-plus decades in higher education.

Rochelle Ford, dean of the School of Communications

At the inception of the fall 2019 semester, the School of Communications at Elon University began with a call to our faculty to think deeply about three topics: (1) how can we deliver a higher quality education, (2) how can we help improve our understanding of, commitment to and teaching of diversity, equity and inclusion, and (3) what could we do to support the journalism industry? Now, with May ending and the conclusion of this incredibly turbulent academic year, we have moved that call into real action and a recommitment to those objectives.

Elon University has prided itself on having an engaged residential learning environment with global experiences on and off campus. This spring’s global pandemic attempted to disrupt the engagement we hold dear, but instead I witnessed faculty and students motivated to maintaining their relationships online, through video, texts and phone calls. I saw faculty helping students to make sense of the pandemic on their lives and lives of others, and to create campaigns, films, news articles and projects that addressed COVID-19 and its impact. Additionally, I saw faculty closely support our students and alumni on the front line covering the pandemic, riots, protests and even armed displays.

As the world witnessed last week with the baseless arrest of a CNN news team covering protests in Minneapolis, our faculty recognize that we must prepare our students to work in environments where their race, gender, ethnicity or some other part of their identity put them at risk or attacked for simply doing their job. Kelly Furnas, a faculty member in our Journalism Department, serves on the board of directors of the Student Press Law Center, which condemned the arrest of the CNN crew in Minneapolis as an affront to U.S. democracy and example of racial bias.

Recognizing that tensions and distrust of law enforcement had been high in Alamance County, our School of Communications hosted an event for National Reconciliation Day last September that focused on sharing ideas to proactively improve the relationship between law enforcement and local diverse communities. We showcased the documentary “Walking While Black: L.O.V.E. is the Answer,” then held a community forum with Donna Vanhook, founder, Morrowtown Task Force; Kelly Blackwelder, police chief, Town of Elon; Jeffrey Smythe, police chief, City of Burlington; Cliff Parker, chief deputy, Alamance County Sheriff’s Office; Blanca Nienhaus, founder, Latinos Unidos Promoviendo Esperanza (Latinos United Promoting Hope); and representatives from Elon University’s Campus Safety and Police, Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance of Alamance County, and Elon University’s “It Takes a Village” Project.

We emphasized the need to learn about other communities, being open to others’ experiences and ideas, volunteer together and empower others into action. The School of Communications held this event because we recognized that the news media play a crucial role in reporting injustices, highlighting diverse sides of complex issues, and giving voice to overlooked and marginalized communities and community members.

We teach our students this and we teach them to seek facts and check them. We emphasize that they must understand contexts and responsibilities that come along with their roles as storytellers. Even in their private lives, they must be vigilant about not spreading misinformation. Through our Imaging the Internet Center, we call upon students to understand the laws, ethics, risks and benefits surrounding social media and other digital platforms. And how quality journalism grounded in the best reporting and information gathering can be expensive but worth supporting, because our democracy is built on the freedom of the press and the news and information critical to decision making.

Therefore, Elon has increased its efforts to support the sustainability of journalism, because news organizations around the nation, especially in North Carolina, are hurting financially and sometimes closing, resulting in news deserts. On Monday, June 1, we officially launched the NC Local News Workshop to help support news and information providers with convening, collaboration and capacity-building programs. The workshop has identified four summer interns, from diverse backgrounds including two fluent in Spanish, to cover important local news stories and assist newsrooms.

Also, this week, the Burlington Times-News will select two ElonComm students for paid internships, funded by Elon from the Google News Initiative and the estate of former Times-News editor Don Bolden. Our hope is this cadre of multicultural young journalists will be equipped to tell the stories that unite our communities and help make our democracy stronger because more communities will be informed and represented.

The COVID-19 pandemic, escalating police and community conflicts, and the prevalent threats to journalism and its news reporters make what we do in the School of Communications even more critical. We are doubling down on our commitment to quality engaged learning, and that means emphasizing diversity, equity and inclusion, and partnerships that sustain and enrich the journalism industry and the free press. We need our community to join us by fighting racism in our families and spheres of influence, learning about our diverse communities’ struggles and fears, supporting and respecting our professional journalists, abiding the guidance of health officials to slow the spread of the coronavirus, and fact-checking information before sharing it.

We can’t do it alone; our democracy depends on us working together.

Views expressed in this column are the author’s own and not necessarily those of Elon University.