Black Journalists In Central Illinois Forge Own Paths In Media
Journalism is the first rough draft of history. In newsrooms across the country, that first draft has historically been written mostly by white men.
In a feature for Black History Month, central Illinois journalists explain how they found their way in an industry that has largely shut them out. During a time of racial reckoning in America, they say they want to make sure they are there to write the next draft.
As a child of the 1960s, Garry Moore didn't see people who looked like him in local news when he was growing up in Chicago. When a copy of the Chicago Defender newspaper landed on his front porch, he knew how he wanted to make his mark.
“Growing up in that environment and looking at stories that the mainstream media didn’t cover and knowing that when something happened there was another perspective that wasn’t represented, that laid the foundation for me being a reporter,” Moore said.
Moore wanted to know about media history. After learning about the atrocities Black journalists covered, he became passionate about continuing their legacies.
“Were it not for people like Ida B. Wells who covered lynchings, history would’ve forgotten about those important aspects of our experiences,” he said. “That let me know that my voice and contribution to journalism would be worth it.”
Beginning his career at Bradley University, Moore received an internship at WXCL radio, a country music station in Peoria. Moore soon learned even in an audio-only medium, his race would still be an issue.
“This one guy called and invited me to an event because he listened to me and he said, ‘This event is down the street from the Taft Homes and you want to be careful because you know how those people are.’ I said ‘No, how are those people?’ He didn’t know that I was Black," Moore recalled.
Moore shrugged off the experience while his voice and work ethic opened new doors for him. After graduating from Bradley in 1980, he became WXCL’s news director, helping him lead the way for other journalists of color to get their foot in the door.
By the time Moore left the country music station in 1985, the radio industry had changed.
Radio stations no longer had to run as much news and public affairs programming. Stations cut their news departments. Moore joined Peoria's WEEK-TV and began what would become a 33-year career in television.
When Shaunda Brooks-Green's interest in news began to spark, she wanted to be a music journalist. But she didn’t see any Black representation in magazines like Rolling Stone.
Green, of Chicago, became discouraged.
“Me wanting to defy the odds by being one of the few Black people to work there seemed an obtainable goal at the time. However, learning more about the industry and seeing how all that worked seemed less and less obtainable," Green said.
Green enrolled at Illinois State University. She was determined to find her place in journalism. Green saw the same lack of diversity there. So she decided to create what she wanted to see.
“Because of the experiences I had with other publications on campus with them not wanting to include students of color in the experiences, or show our student organizations to put them in the spotlight, creating my own lane kind of built my confidence," Green said.
She launched Scope magazine in 2012, Green’s platform gave students of color a voice. It shed light on student organizations, events, and more. Green said the dedication to finding her place began to pay off.
Financial hardships took over and Green stopped publishing. But after Green graduated, she landed her first newsroom opportunity at Chicago Scene magazine. Butwhen she walked through the door, the harsh reality struck Green again. She was the only Black person there.
“I thought I gained the confidence I needed to move forward in that space, but you just see the lack of diversity and lack of care,” she said. “It was like, ‘We don’t have to do this, we will do it to make you feel a little comfortable, but we don’t have to talk about these things or events because you’re the only one.'”
Green said that experience turned her off from reporting hard news. But it inspired her to pursue music journalism again so she enrolled at Columbia College in Chicago in pursuit of her master's degree.
Today, Green is a full-time social media manager and a radio host for a non-profit music talk show. She also manages up-and-coming artists and works in her passion for the music scene.
Executive editor of the Peoria Journal Star, Romando Dixson, said diversity is his priority. As a Black journalist, Dixson said the lack of representation in his newsroom hit home.
“It was obvious when you look at the people on staff and the people in the community, our newsroom didn’t reflect that,” he said. “I know the issue of race and diversity are to some people buzzwords, but to me they’re reality.”
Diversifying the newsroom isn’t a quick fix to Dixson. He plans to implement changes over the next five years.
“We will hire the best person for the position, but we will take every effort to have a diverse applicant pool,” he said.
While race plays a role in that plan, Dixson said gender does, too.
“You can walk in the newsroom and see that I'm the only Black person on staff and that we are nowhere near 50-50 when it comes to male and females,” Dixson said. “Gender is important and diversity in ideas. We want to have a balanced newsroom so we can have balanced coverage.”
As Black journalists find their voice, some barriers to expression have lifted.
A former host at WXRJ radio in Bloomington, Ursula Crooks, said wearing natural hairstyles like braids, locs and afros on camera is becoming less taboo.
“You have a couple reporters who rock their braids and that’s not even an issue anymore, or you’d like to think it’s not an issue," Crooks said. "It may be for some, but it isn’t for me and the rest of us that just want to hear the news. It’s just a woman with braids that’s just doing the news. And it’s providing a voice for an entire community.”
Pamela Hart is a former Bloomington resident and television anchor. As the next generation of news professionals emerge, she sympathizes with those that feel exhausted.
“When you are an African American and are one of the only ones or the only one, you stick out,” Hart said. “People feel you’re representing the entire culture when you’re just (there) to do a great job to grow in your environment and career.”
But while the job environment may be uncomfortable, Hart said it takes on special meaning to be a Black journalist today. She said positive change doesn’t happen unless all voices are at the table.
A 2018 study by the Pew Research Center indicates white men make up about half of all newsroom staffs, but they make up only one-third of the overall workforce.
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