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COMMENTARY: Media Responsibility and Accountability in the Era of #MeToo

NNPA NEWSWIRE — “The statistics confirm that sexual harassment is alive and well across all industries and women of color working low-wage jobs are facing the brunt of this abuse,” Emily Martin, the vice president of Education & Workplace Justice at the National Women’s Law Center, said in response to those statistics.

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Recently, the recurring challenge for journalists has been demonstrating fairness and objectivity in the wake of the #MeToo movement, founded by Tarana Burke in 2006 to help survivors of sexual violence.

By Stacy M. Brown, NNPA Newswire Correspondent
@StacyBrownMedia

In a world with an ultra-competitive, 24-hour news cycle, journalists are often urged by their editors and publishers to be first with the story.

Unfortunately, in doing so, some have traded accuracy for sensationalism.

Being first to break a story might provide accolades and even financial rewards, but whether printed, published online, or broadcast, a journalist’s words can have serious repercussions for both the accuser and the accused.

A 2018 Pew Research survey found that about two-thirds of American adults (68 percent) say they at least occasionally get news on social media. About the same percentage share the news and information that they find on social channels.

While Pew notes that many of these consumers are skeptical about the information they see there, noting that a majority (57%) say they find information on social media to be inaccurate, the pervasiveness of social channels makes it more imperative than ever for the press to present facts and stray from innuendo.

In some cases, mainstream media has failed to adequately report or focus on stories that would benefit the public.

For example, FBI statistics indicate that more than 424,000 girls have gone missing since the beginning of 2018, yet many say the media hasn’t done enough to shine a light on the crisis, which includes a large number of African Americans.

News reporting is a key witness in the court of public opinion

Take for example the case of  Emmett Till, the black teen lynched and killed by white men after he was falsely accused of whistling at a white woman in Mississippi in 1955.

Author Michael Oby noted that the Black Press shed light on Emmett Till’s brutal murder and continued to press the case for decades afterwards. Though Emmett’s killers never spent a day in prison, in the APMreports series, “In the Dark: Acquitting Emmett Till’s killers,” Peter Vesco notes, “Pictues of Till’s battered, unrecognizable face were printed in JET magazine and publications across the country. News of his hideous lynching led to outrage around the world.”

Oby said news coverage by the Black Press proved to be crucial in the mobilization of African Americans at that time because it ignited the civil rights movement of the mid-1950s.

In a 2007 interview with historian Timothy Tyson, Carolyn Bryant, wife of Roy Bryant, one of the two men who faced trial for the killing, and Emmett’s false accuser, admitted that she lied, and in 2018 federal prosecutors reopened the case.

Today, it may be difficult for some to maintain high journalistic standards, especially since so many ‘citizen reporters’ are using cell phones and other handheld devices to chronicle criminal activity and expose wrongdoing that would have otherwise never been seen – or believed.

Diamond Reynolds filmed the police shooting of her fiancée, Philando Castile, who was pulled over by an officer because his car’s break light wasn’t working.

While the officer claimed he feared for his life because Castile was reaching for a gun, Reynold’s video showed that Castile informed the officer that he had a firearm and was licensed to carry it. It also showed that he never reached for it.

In July 2014, video captured by a citizen reporter shows police questioning Eric Garner of Staten Island, New York, after he allegedly sold loose cigarettes. Officer Daniel Pantaleo then used a chokehold on Garner, who heard repeatedly telling police “I can’t  breathe!”

Garner later died.

During that same year, cellphone video captured the tragic moment when 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot and killed by police, just seconds after exiting their patrol car, while he was playing in a park in Cleveland with a toy gun.

A police dispatcher had alerted Timothy Loehmann, the officer that fatally shot the boy, that Tamir had a fake gun when she sent authorities to the scene, but Loehman still got out of his car and shot the young boy to death.

Ava DuVernay’s recent documentary, “When They See Us,” has brought attention to the “Central Park Five,” a group of young men who spent eight years in prison after being falsely accused of raping a woman in New York’s Central Park in 1989.

Much has been made about Donald Trump’s position on that case, including when he took out full-page ads in several New York newspapers calling for the death penalty after the incident.

But very little attention was given to the failure of the press to accurately report that story. Instead, the media sensationalized. For his part, Trump continues to refuse to acknowledge that he was mistaken and apologize to the young men who were ultimately exonerated.

When asked by a reporter in mid-June whether he would apologize, Trump replied, “Why do you bring that question up now? It’s an interesting time to bring it up.  You have people on both sides of that. They admitted their guilt. If you look at Linda Fairstein and you look at some of the prosecutors, they think that the city should have never settled that case, so we’ll leave it at that.”

Recently, the recurring challenge for journalists has been demonstrating fairness and objectivity in the wake of the #MeToo movement, founded by Tarana Burke in 2006 to help survivors of sexual violence.

Because there are often no other fact witnesses to the allegations levelled by accusers or corroborators that support the denials made by the accused, #MeToo’s gray areas have proven to be the places where the media fails to adequately practice journalistic standards or exercise caution. Many accusations associated with #MeToo have been substantiated. However, others were proven false.

It Matters if You’re Black or White

The National Organization of Women – or NOW – noted that, for African American women, sexual assault and violence are “incredibly pervasive issues that routinely go unreported and under-addressed.”

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reported that, between 2012 and 2016, black women filed sexual harassment charges at nearly three times the rate of white and non-Hispanic women.

Data shows this is true regardless of the type of industry.

“Black people in the United States have never been given a presumption of innocence in the criminal justice system. Their entire relationship to justice is not a standard of ‘not guilty’ but one of ‘not guilty, yet,’” said Innocence Project Senior Staff Attorney Karen Thompson, who released a report earlier this year that revealed that more than 220 black men have been exonerated by DNA while on death row after they were falsely convicted of various serious crimes.

“The statistics confirm that sexual harassment is alive and well across all industries and women of color working low-wage jobs are facing the brunt of this abuse,” Emily Martin, the vice president of Education & Workplace Justice at the National Women’s Law Center, said in response to those statistics.

Sexual assaults and harassments are serious charges and false accusations can be devastating and career-ending, especially when amplified by news reports.

For example, in 2018, multi-talented actor, singer and songwriter Jamie Foxx was accused of assaulting a woman after she allegedly refused to perform a sex act.

The woman reported the 2002 incident to Las Vegas police and the media seized upon it, threatening Foxx’s career.

Foxx’s attorney said his client didn’t even know the woman, but reporters still swarmed to get her story.

“Jamie emphatically denies that this incident ever occurred,” Allison Hart, Foxx’s attorney said in a statement.

“The first time [Foxx] became aware of this woman’s absurd claims about an incident that supposedly occurred 16 years ago was when [celebrity website] TMZ contacted his representatives about this story,” Hart said.

Eventually, Foxx was cleared of any wrongdoing, but little was written about his innocence.

Even in instances where the truth is not immediately evident – a he said/she said scenario – like that faced by entertainment mogul Russell Simmons, the press has an obligation to objectively present the facts when reporting the story.

Simmons, who maintains that he’s never been violent with a woman or forced any to have sex, said aspects of the #MeToo movement will help ensure that his own daughters will have a better future.

“I see no benefit in getting in the mud with my accusers or the media,” Simmons said. “I’m certain that my truth will come out sooner or later.”

To accuse someone who was doing the kind of work Simmons was doing – “using his money and fame to raise more [money] to help those who needed it, you have to wonder why?” said Barbara Mealer, author of the novels “The Jillian Factor” and “Abilene: No Place to Hide.”

“The media must ask these questions before running with a one-sided story: Did he reject them? Were they just trying to get even with him for some slight? Were they just jumping on the bandwagon so they could get notoriety?” Mealer said.

One high-profile individual who requested anonymity for this article, told NNPA Newswire that, “There’s a case pending against me, which my lawyers said will probably be dismissed shortly and the court has indicated it will be.”

“I’m lucky, right? But, why do I have to spend $600,000 or whatever the number is, to defend myself against a woman who said I did something not her 31 years ago and I don’t ever remember meeting her and she couldn’t produce one friend who she ever told she knew me or one photo or one thing to prove that she ever met me,” the individual said.

The media has been guilty of exacerbating claims, including those of Jackie Coakley, who provided an unsubstantiated story to Rolling Stone magazine that formed the basis of 2015’s “A Rape on Campus,” saying that she had been gang-raped by fraternity members at the University of Virginia.

The story went viral, making headlines in newspapers and television news broadcasts throughout the country, until it was discovered that Coakley made up the story. Even using fake text messages to support her false claims.

Rolling Stone reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely failed to verify Coakley’s story and the magazine ultimately settled the lawsuits with the fraternity and its members.

In 2013, blogger Susan Shannon accused Col. David “Wil” Riggins of sexually assaulting her in 1986 while they were both cadets at West Point. The allegations caused Riggins to lose a promotion to general, leading him to retire. A jury heard both sides and sided with Riggins, awarding him $8.4 million in damages.

A July 2019 Forbes Magazine article referenced an earlier story in The New Yorker. Jane Mayer’s piece is highly critical of the frenzy that led to the forced resignation of Al Franken from the Senate.

“Mayer described Franken’s fall as ‘stunningly swift’—so swift that it left far too little time to sort the facts,” Forbes reported.

“Every accuser should be heard, but their rights should be no more substantial than the accused, a fact that separates the United States from every other country,” New York-based marketing strategist Tracey Campbell said. “The press must be above that and must recognize that the burden of proof can’t be found in one corner or the other, even when a reporter is convinced the accuser is telling the truth,” Campbell said.

“Believe women,” a slogan that gained popularity during the Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh, refers to the need to accept women’s allegations of sexual harassment or sexual assault at face value. Don’t assume women as a gender are especially deceptive or vindictive and recognize that false allegations are less common than real ones, says Elle Magazine’s Sadie Doyle.

The professional press has an obligation to do as much as possible to “get it right,” present a fair and balanced summary of the facts to its readers and resist the urge to encourage a presumption of guilt.

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Black Woman to Lead United States Park Police

 Chief Smith’s experience serving in leadership roles in every U.S. Park Police field office has provided her with an unmatched foundation to lead the diverse agency,” said Flynn, who oversees law enforcement programs at USPP.

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Pamela A. Smith

Pamela A. Smith, a 23-year veteran of the United States Park Police, will lead the nation’s oldest federal law enforcement agency.

Smith, who became the first African American woman to lead the 230-year-old agency, immediately remarked that she would establish a body-worn camera program for USPP within 90 days.

The program will initially begin in San Francisco and be implemented across the country by the end of the year, Smith said.

“Body-worn cameras are good for the public and good for our officers, which is why I am prioritizing implementing a body-worn camera program within my first 90 days,” Smith offered in a statement.

 “This is one of the many steps we must take to continue to build trust and credibility with the public we have been entrusted to serve.”

Smith earned a bachelor’s degree in Education from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff and graduated from the FBI National Academy. She is a member of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives and the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

During her law enforcement career, the proud Zeta Phi Beta Sorority sister has served as a patrol officer, field training officer, canine handler, and academy instructor at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center.

 According to a news release, Smith also served as executive lieutenant to the chief of police, assistant commander of the San Francisco Field Office, commander of the New York Field Office, acting deputy chief of the Homeland Security Division, and deputy chief for the Field Operations Division.

Smith was the first woman to lead the New York Field Office as its Major.

At the USPP, she will lead a 560-member workforce that protects the public, parks, and the nation’s most iconic landmarks in Wash., D.C., New York City, and San Francisco metropolitan areas.

“Chief Smith’s commitment to policing as public service and her willingness to listen and collaborate make her the right person to lead the U.S. Park Police at this pivotal moment in our country,” Shawn Benge, deputy director exercising the delegated authority of the NPS director, noted in a statement.

 “Over the coming months, the leadership of the National Park Service will explore opportunities with Chief Smith designed to strengthen our organization’s commitment to transparency. Her personal and professional experience make her acutely aware of and ready to meet the challenges and responsibilities that face U.S. Park Police and law enforcement agencies across the nation.”

 Jennifer Flynn, the associate director for Visitor Resource Protection at the National Park Service added that she’s looking forward to Smith’s leadership.

“Chief Smith’s experience serving in leadership roles in every U.S. Park Police field office has provided her with an unmatched foundation to lead the diverse agency,” said Flynn, who oversees law enforcement programs at USPP.

 “As federal law enforcement officers, the U.S. Park Police officers have a new opportunity each day to give their best to the American people. Chief Smith exemplifies that approach as a colleague and mentor, and she will be instrumental in refining and shaping the future of the organization,” Flynn said.

Smith declared that she would lead by example and expects all officers to display integrity.

 “I have dedicated my career to the professionalism of law enforcement, and it is my highest honor and privilege to serve as chief of police,” Chief Smith declared. “Today’s officers face many challenges, and I firmly believe challenges present opportunities. I look forward to leading this exemplary team as we carry out our mission with honesty and integrity.”  

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Children’s Defense Fund: State of America’s Children Reveals that 71 Percent of Children of Color Live in Poverty

“While we reported on the 73 million children in the U.S. in 2019, which is 22 percent of the nation’s population, we also note that 2020 was the first year in American history that a majority of children are projected to be children of color,” said the Rev. Dr. Starsky Wilson, the president and CEO of the Children’s Defense Fund.

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Dr. Wilson did note that the Children’s Defense Fund is pleased about President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan, which, among other things, makes it easier for parents to keep their jobs and provides a lifeline for disadvantaged children. (Photo: iStockphoto / NNPA)
Dr. Wilson did note that the Children’s Defense Fund is pleased about President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan, which, among other things, makes it easier for parents to keep their jobs and provides a lifeline for disadvantaged children. (Photo: iStockphoto / NNPA)

Part One of an ongoing series on this impactful and informative report.

By Stacy M. Brown, NNPA Newswire Senior National Correspondent
@StacyBrownMedia

The child population in America is the most diverse in history, but children remain the poorest age group in the country with youth of color suffering the highest poverty rates.

“While we reported on the 73 million children in the U.S. in 2019, which is 22 percent of the nation’s population, we also note that 2020 was the first year in American history that a majority of children are projected to be children of color,” said the Rev. Dr. Starsky Wilson, the president and CEO of the Children’s Defense Fund.

Dr. Wilson’s remarks come as the Marian Wright Edelman founded nonprofit released “The State of America’s Children 2021.”

The comprehensive report is eye-opening.

It highlights how children remain the poorest age group in America, with children of color and young children suffering the highest poverty rates. For instance, of the more than 10.5 million poverty-stricken children in America in 2019, approximately 71 percent were those of color.

The stunning exposé revealed that income and wealth inequality are growing and harming children in low-income, Black and Brown families.

While the share of all wealth held by the top one percent of Americans grew from 30 percent to 37 percent, the share held by the bottom 90 percent fell from 33 percent to 23 percent between 1989 and 2019.

Today, a member of the top 10 percent of income earners makes about 39 times as much as the average earner in the bottom 90 percent.

The median family income of White households with children ($95,700) was more than double that of Black ($43,900), and Hispanic households with children ($52,300).

Further, the report noted that the lack of affordable housing and federal rental assistance leaves millions of children homeless or at risk of homelessness.

More than 1.5 million children enrolled in public schools experienced homelessness during the 2017-2018 school year, and 74 percent of unhoused students during the 2017-2018 school year were living temporarily with family or friends.

Millions of children live in food-insecure households, lacking reliable access to safe, sufficient, and nutritious food, and more than 1 in 7 children – 10.7 million – were food insecure, meaning they lived in households where not everyone had enough to eat.

Black and Hispanic children were twice as likely to live in food-insecure households as White children.

The report further found that America’s schools have continued to slip backwards into patterns of deep racial and socioeconomic segregation, perpetuating achievement gaps.

For instance, during the 2017-2018 public school year, 19 percent of Black, 21 percent of Hispanic, and more than 26 percent of American Indian/Alaska Native school students did not graduate on time compared with only 11 percent of White students.

More than 77 percent of Hispanic and more than 79 percent of Black fourth and eighth grade public school students were not proficient in reading or math in 2019, compared with less than 60 percent of White students.

“We find that in the course of the last year, we’ve come to the point where our conversations about child well-being and our dialogue and reckoning around racial justice has really met a point of intersection, and so we must consider child well-being in every conversation about racial justice and quite frankly you can only sustainably speak of racial justice if we’re talking about the state of our children,” Dr. Wilson observed.

Some more of the startling statistics found in the report include:

  • A White public school student is suspended every six seconds, while students of color and non-White students are suspended every two seconds.
  • Conditions leading to a person dropping out of high school occur with white students every 19 seconds, while it occurs every nine seconds for non-White and students of color.
  • A White child is arrested every 1 minute and 12 seconds, while students of color and non-whites are arrested every 45 seconds.
  • A White student in public school is corporally punished every two minutes, while students of color and non-Whites face such action every 49 seconds.

Dr. Wilson asserted that federal spending “reflects the nation’s skewed priorities.”

In the report, he notes that children are not receiving the investment they need to thrive, and despite making up such a large portion of the population, less than 7.5 percent of federal spending went towards children in fiscal year 2020.

Despite Congress raising statutory caps on discretionary spending in fiscal years 2018 to 2020, children did not receive their fair share of those increases and children’s share of total federal spending has continued to decline.

“Children continue to be the poorest segment of the population,” Dr. Wilson demanded. “We are headed into a dark place as it relates to poverty and inequity on the American landscape because our children become the canary in the coal mine.”

Dr. Wilson did note that the Children’s Defense Fund is pleased about President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan, which, among other things, makes it easier for parents to keep their jobs and provides a lifeline for disadvantaged children.

The $1.9 trillion plan not only contained $1,400 checks for individuals, it includes monthly allowances and other elements to help reduce child poverty.

The President’s plan expands home visitation programs that help at-risk parents from pregnancy through early childhood and is presents universal access to top-notch pre-K for 3- and 4-year-olds.

“The American Rescue Plan carried significant and powerful anti-poverty messages that will have remarkable benefits on the lives of children in America over the course of the next two years,” Dr. Wilson declared.

“The Children’s Defense Fund was quick to applaud the efforts of the President. We have worked with partners, including leading a child poverty coalition, to advance the ideas of that investment,” he continued.

“Most notably, the expansion of the child tax credit which has the impact of reducing poverty, lifting more than 50 percent of African American children out of poverty, 81 percent of Indigenous children, 45 percent of Hispanic children. It’s not only good policy, but it’s specifically good policy for Black and Brown children.”

Click here to view the full report.

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She Bought Freedom for Herself and Other Slaves Today a Park is Named in Her Honor

Alethia Browning Tanner saved enough money to purchase her freedom in 1810. “The total amount, thought to have been paid in installments, was $1,400. In 1810, $1,400 was a significant amount; about the equivalent of three years’ earnings for an average skilled tradesperson,” attucksadams.com researchers surmised. 

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Alethia Browning Tanner worked to purchase the freedom of more than 20 of her relatives and neighbors, mostly the family of her older sister Laurana including Laurana herself, her children, and her grandchildren.

In her early years, Alethia Browning Tanner sold vegetables in a produce stall near President’s Square – now known as Lafayette Square – in what is now Northwest Washington, D.C.

According to the D.C. Genealogy Research, Resources, and Records, Tanner bought her freedom in 1810 and later purchased several relatives’ release.

She was the first woman on the Roll of Members of the Union Bethel AME Church (now Metropolitan AME Church on M Street), and Turner owned land and a store at 14th and H Streets, which she left to her nephews – one of whom later sold the property for $100,000.

Named in her honor, the Alethia Tanner Park is located at 227 Harry Thomas Way in Northeast DC.

The park sits near the corner of Harry Thomas Way and Q Street and is accessible by foot or bike via the Metropolitan Branch Trail, just north of the Florida Ave entrances.

“The first Council legislative meeting of Black History Month, the Council took a second and final vote on naming the new park for Alethia Tanner, an amazing woman who is more than worthy of this long-delayed recognition,” Ward 5 Councilman Kenyan McDuffie said in 2020 ahead of the park’s naming ceremony.

“[Her upbringing] itself would be a remarkable legacy, but Ms. Tanner was also active in founding and supporting many educational, religious, and civic institutions,” McDuffie remarked.

“She contributed funds to start the first school for free Black children in Washington, the Bell School. Feeling unwelcome at her predominately segregated church, she & other church members founded the Israel Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. When the church fell on hard times and was sold at auction by creditors, she and her family stepped in and repurchased the church.”

Born in 1781 on a plantation owned by Tobias and Mary Belt in Prince George’s County, Maryland, historians noted that Tanner had two sisters, Sophia Bell and Laurena Cook.

“Upon the death of Mary Pratt (Tobias had predeceased his wife) in 1795, the plantation, known as Chelsea Plantation, was inherited by their daughter Rachel Belt Pratt,” historians wrote.

“Mary Belt’s will stipulated that Laurena be sent to live with a sibling of Rachel Pratt’s while Sophia and Alethia were to stay at the Chelsea Plantation.”

Tanner sold vegetables at the well-known market just north of the White House in Presidents Park. It is possible – and probable – she met Thomas Jefferson there as he was known to frequent the vegetable markets there along with other prominent early Washingtonians, according to historians at attacksadams.com. 

“There are also White House records suggesting she worked for Thomas Jefferson in some capacity, likely doing various housework tasks,” the researchers determined.

Tanner saved enough money to purchase her freedom in 1810. “The total amount, thought to have been paid in installments, was $1,400. In 1810, $1,400 was a significant amount; about the equivalent of three years’ earnings for an average skilled tradesperson,” attucksadams.com researchers surmised.

“Self-emancipation was not an option for all enslaved peoples, but both Alethia and her sister Sophia were able to accomplish this, almost entirely through selling vegetables at the market,” the researchers continued.

“Alethia Tanner moved to D.C. and became one of a significant and growing number of free Black people in the District. In 1800, 793 free Black people were living in D.C.

By 1810, there were 2,549, and by 1860, 11,131 free Black people lived in D.C., more than the number of enslaved peoples.”

Historians wrote that beginning at about 15 years after securing her manumission, Alethia Tanner worked to purchase the freedom of more than 20 of her relatives and neighbors, mostly the family of her older sister Laurana including Laurana herself, her children, and her grandchildren.

All in all, Tanner would have paid the Pratt family well over $5,000. All accomplished with proceeds from her own vegetable market business, they concluded.

“Alethia Tanner, it’s an amazing story of resilience, hard work, and perseverance,” D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation Director Delano Hunter said at the park’s dedication.

“I just learned about this history through this, so it shows how when you name a park, you really educate people on the historical significance.”

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