Media Impact Focus: Race, Justice and Media

For many Americans of color, our criminal justice system seems far from just. Historical inequities have contributed to a chronically fraught relationship between police and minority communities, and numerous questions about prisoner treatment plague our system, which has one of the highest rates of incarceration in the world. As a society, how can we affirm the value of law and order while still making sure it is fair for the most vulnerable among us?

Media projects can reveal and help to rectify disparities in arrests, sentencing, inmate rights and life after lockup. Media Impact Funders and The Atlantic Philanthropies brought together leading funders for a discussion about the ways in which media productions are making a difference in the debate about race and justice, helping to shift public opinion and policy on issues such as profiling, solitary confinement and the school-to-prison pipeline.

This was a gathering for a small group of foundation leaders who could bring their experience and insights to the discussion. We considered the distinctions between how different media formats and approaches — including documentary, journalism, long-form analysis, strategic campaigns, fiction and even humor — make an impact in this highly volatile discussion, and ways they can interlock to drive change.

We know that the roots of these injustices run deep, and there’s a clear danger of condemning both communities and their police forces. Our hope for the day was not to point fingers, but to elevate the role that media can play in identifying unequal treatment and surfacing possible solutions.

This event was created as a follow up to an earlier discussion on The Central Park Five, also hosted at The Atlantic Philanthropies.

Read the Storify from the day and explore the agenda below.


10:00 a.m. – Morning Sessions


Welcome and Intros 

  • Vince Stehle, Executive Director, Media Impact Funders 
  • Christopher Oechsli, President, The Atlantic Philanthropies
  • Arun Venugopal, Reporter and creator of Micropolis, WNYC
    (MC and Moderator for the day)


Session 1 – Documentary and Narrative Film

How are media makers and advocates telling stories and creating campaigns that are moving the needle on criminal justice issues, and what can funders learn from these examples? We’ll consider different models for impact that can inform how foundations might shape future investments.

A. Historical context – Slavery by Another Name, The House I Live In

  • Arun Venugopal, WNYC
  • Cara Mertes, Director, Just Films, Ford Foundation 


B. Current approaches to the problem – The Central Park Five

  • Sarah Burns, Filmmaker, The Central Park Five
  • Yusef Salaam, The Central Park Five
  • Annmarie Benedict, Programme Executive, Reconciliation & Human Rights, The Atlantic Philanthropies 
  • Moderator: Arun Venugopal, WNYC


C. Impact campaign – Middle of Nowhere

  • Chad Boettcher, Executive Vice President, Social Action and Advocacy, Participant Media 


Session 2 – Journalism   

What is journalism’s role in revealing and rectifying criminal justice issues? We’ll discuss how funders can best support this type of work while balancing journalistic independence with impact goals.

A. Data and advocacy journalism

New forms of data journalism are shedding light on controversial actions by police — such as Stop-and-Frisk policies or shootings involving unarmed citizens — and reporting on contentious issues that are dividing our society. We’ll hear from leading nonprofit news outlets, and discuss how advocacy journalism is reaching and reflecting communties.

  • John Keefe, Senior Editor for Data News and Journalism Technology, WNYC
  • Dick Tofel, President, ProPublica 
  • Jamilah King, Senior Editor, ColorLines
  • Moderator: Arun Venugopal, WNYC


B. Journalism and narrative models

How does journalism inform narrative storytelling? We’ll examine how reporting can lead to other creative media projects and explore which formats are producing impact for specific audiences, including policymakers.

  • Chad Boettcher, Executive Vice President, Social Action and Advocacy, Participant Media 
  • David Fanning, Executive Producer, Frontline 
  • Vince Stehle, Executive Director, Media Impact Funders


12:30 p.m. – Lunch 

1:15 p.m. – Van Jones, Keynote Catalyst 

From his unique perspective as a long-time social justice advocate and major media commentator, coupled with his experience as a White House policy advisor, Van Jones will help us appreciate the impact we can make supporting all types of media, journalism, film and entertainment and advocacy campaigns. And he will help us understand the new opportunities opening up across political boundaries to create more equitable criminal justice policies.


1:45 p.m. – Afternoon Sessions

Session 3 – Social and advocacy campaigns 

How are engaged analysis and social campaigns combining to drive justice system reform? We’ll hear from leaders of current campaigns about how to strike the most effective balance between funding, movement building, and grassroots actions.

  • Diane Wachtell, Editor, The New Jim Crow 
  • Rashad Robinson, Executive Director, Color of Change
  • Moderator: Van Jones


2:45 p.m. – Coffee Break 


Session 4 – Wrap up and next steps 

We’ll hear about new investments that use media to address race and justice issues and wrap up by discussing how we can move important stories and campaigns on racial justice into broader awareness and action.

  • David Morse, Chief Communications Officer, The Atlantic Philanthropies
  • Neil Barsky, Founder and Chairman, The Marshall Project
  • Leonard Noisette, Director, Justice Fund for US Programs, Open Society Foundations
  • Arun Venugopal, WNYC 


4:30 pm – Reception