Why the Movement for Black Lives Is Using the Media to Build Empathy [OP-ED]

By Shanelle Matthews Aug 25, 2017

Since the publication of Drew Westen’s 2008 opus on the role of emotion in political messaging, The Political Brain," progressive media specialists have been working on the problem of a White male monolithic perspective in mainstream outlets. The trouble with this perspective is that only a narrow band of empathy tends to be conveyed to mass audiences. In other words, in the daily emotional discourse underlying news reporting on important current events that affect everyone, much of the country is left out, pushed out or vilified. People running the show refuse to give us opportunities to understand everyone’s experience.

Seeking to diversify the media’s narrow perspective, Media Matters’ 2009 Progressive Talent Initiative (PTI) began training cohorts of mid-career professionals to get progressive messages out to audiences through a wide range of media channels. At the same time, we seem to understand deep down, like Sally Kohn, why we struggle to care about each other. And just having more progressive talking heads isn’t enough. We need actual representation, people in positions to speak to the range of experiences in our society. We need pundits who can widen the empathic perspective—and do so on air, not filtered through the same White male informants.

In January 2017, the Black Lives Matter Global Network and Movement for Black Lives committed to a rigorous approach to diversifying the faces and voices in media and created Channel Black. Channel Black is an immersive training program that prepares the next generation of Black leaders to construct, optimize and implement strategic interventions through the media. It is the first progressive training program to start from the premises that the diverse lived experience of reporters, analysts and pundits is vital to accurate empathic reporting, and that increasing the number of Black people seen as experts on their own experiences will help reduce bias. People need to understand the pain of whole communities that are silenced. The only way to create that understanding is to absolutely stop silencing people.

Too often, my own experience is made silent in mainstream media. Yes, it gets disheartening to be talked to repeatedly about the communities I belong to, about the issues that impact me directly, by people who have never experienced that impact nor have any idea what my life is like. Then again, when you’re a queer, Black woman, you get used to making your own way in the world. You do a kind of alchemy on your emotional and psychic experiences so that you can transform fear and pain into courage, delight and strength. And if you’re like me, you do that personal work so that everyone can see and hear it, because you know the deep loneliness of lack of empathy and you don’t wish it on anyone. 

Channel Black trains organizers, activists and spokespeople, but the work will not end there. The long-term goal is not just to develop new talking heads and pundits, but to deliver real change for the communities in question. By encouraging strategic thinking, acting and planning, we can foster understanding of the plight of Black America. It is not enough to talk a good game. We need to train and nurture new leaders so that we can move toward a more just society and ensure that democracy includes all Americans, not just a select few.

In collaboration with the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, PTI focused specifically on increasing the number of progressive spokeswomen in media. The Women Media Center’s Progressive Women’s Voices training program, of which I am an alumna, continued this trend in developing women to serve as experts in news media.

That’s where Channel Black’s approach comes in. It’s the first real effort being made to specifically train Black cis and trans women and Black gender nonconforming and masculine-of-center people to be featured as experts on television, radio and in newspapers. This is the first program of its kind that is dedicated to transcending barriers and improving understanding of what it means to be Black in this world.

Channel Black will bring to the forefront the perspective of people who have all-too-often been left at the periphery of our society. Few people have been more marginalized in the United States than Black cis and trans women and Black gender nonconforming and masculine-of-center people. It is time that we hear from them. These are the people in our communities who sit at the crossroads of anti-Black and gender-based violence, and until they are heard none of us will be.

These are also the people who can move us all forward. Because they have been on the frontlines and witnessed much of the anti-Black violence that is not only ignored by the media but sanctioned by the state, they know what their communities need. They understand the problems and pitfalls and can help develop and deliver proactive solutions.

Implicit and explicit bias in this country is allowed not only to exist, but to flourish because we only hear from a few viewpoints. No matter what the issue, the perspective rarely changes. Whether we are talking about issues that impact the Black community, White community or any community, news is primarily delivered via a White male perspective. This informs and influences the way the majority of the country thinks and understands or doesn’t understand each other. We will not be able to move forward and become a more empathetic and pluralistic country until we hear from more diverse voices. Regularly.

It is all too easy to fear the unknown. It is time to change that dynamic. By giving voice to communities who have not had one, Channel Black will move not just the Black community forward, but the entire nation.

Shanelle Matthews is an award-winning political communications strategist. She serves as the director of communications for the Black Lives Matter Global Network and is the inaugural activist-in-residence at The New School.