On November 20, 2014, as the world waited for the Grand Jury decision in Ferguson, Missouri, Media Impact Funders and The Atlantic Philanthropies hosted a conversation on race, justice and media with philanthropic leaders and media makers. The event was designed to explore how media is changing public opinion and policy on multiple criminal justice issues — from the school-to-prison pipeline, to racial profiling, to wrongful prosecution and beyond.

Now, with another grand jury deciding not to indict another police office in the killing of yet another unarmed black man, Eric Garner, protests are erupting around the country. This makes it more crucial than ever for funders and producers to consider how the narratives around people of color have played out in mainstream media, and how that correlates to representation, judicial policy and policing.

Our event laid out high-impact examples in three core areas — documentary and narrative film, journalism and social and advocacy campaigns — and examined how these forms intersect. We learned how journalism from FRONTLINE informed the creation of the action movie Snitch, which spawned an advocacy campaign on mandatory sentencing minimums. In the same vein, the best-selling book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness inspired the creation of The Marshall Project, a journalistic enterprise focusing on the US criminal justice system. We also learned how these and other philanthropic investments in media productions and social campaigns are sparking dialogue, shining a light on injustices, and moving policymakers to action.

Our Storify from the day captures many of the highlights. If you’d like more detail we are happy to share our notes, which are comprehensive, but not a verbatim transcript. Email us if you’d like a copy.

The discussions and media examples covered an array of issues and approaches. Here are five key strategies for media funders seeking to support projects focused on race and justice.

Christopher Oechsli, President of The Atlantic Philanthropies, opened the conversation by observing that evidence is important, but that you have to reach hearts to make the most impact. Solving big issues — from immigration to school discipline reform — requires us to reframe the narrative, and media has the great potential to do that.

Sarah Burns and Yusef Salaam, the Producer and one of the subjects of the film, The Central Park Five, talked a lot about how media perpetuated a false and dangerous narrative in 1989, and how the documentary helped reclaim the truth. Here’s how the media got it wrong:


Public re-framing had to happen, which the film did beautifully. The story ensured that one of New York City’s ugliest episodes of injustice was publicly corrected and the case has now finally been settled. But it also helped the men who lost everything on a very personal level. “No one had any vested interest in us,” said Yusef to Burns. “You guys gave us our lives back.”


Yusef closed by sharing a poem he wrote that sums up the theme of the day so well.

“The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised
I can remember when that statement made me sad inside
Too young to be in it…
Now I couldn’t even see it?
why couldn’t the revolution be televised?
The Last Poets
Gil Scott Heron
As I grew up I began to see
They left theirs
and I too
wanted to leave a mark on History
A Man in half
and I wanted to bask
in the task that set men free
But a revolution, The Revolution!!! is where I knew I had to be.

The Revolution will not be televised
They don’t want to display the victory of those quote unquote “Lesser Men”

The Revolution Will  Not  Be  Televised
I know  
because I am the revolution. ~ ©Yusef Salaam

 Van Jones, our Keynote Catalyst for the day summed it up: the rarest commodity is not money or power — it’s attention. Funders, advocates and makers have to be more effective in how they use media because that’s how they can get attention on the right things.

Re-framing the narrative has resulted in substantial changes in policy. Here are examples:

The California Endowment’s (TCE) research showed that 800,000 kids in California were being expelled or suspended each year, with 44% of those for something called “willful defiance.” To address this, TCE supported the Fix School Discipline campaign, which featured powerful media that highlights how kids as young as six — especially in communities of color — are getting thrown into a disciplinary system for essentially being kids. Reframing the narrative from “these are bad kids”’ to “these are kids having a bad day” helped to drive down suspension rates by 27% in three years. MIF is hosting a communications case study about this campaign on our website, along with other examinations of TCE’s efforts to change policy through savvy media usage.

Here’s one of the videos that helped change the message so convincingly.

Message — and messengers — can make all the difference. Both Jay Z and Newt Gingrich advocated (separately) for Proposition 47, The Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act of 2014 . The confluence of support from these two very different celebrities helped to raise both visibility and eyebrows.

The ballot measure reduces some low-level, non-violent offenses from being prosecuted as felonies, making them misdemeanors instead. It also redirects money saved from prisons to victims’ services and rehab. The ballot measure passed in November 2014 and is being implemented. Gingrich and Jones are also working together on Rebuild the Dream’s #Cut50 effort — to cut the incarcerated population by 50% over the next ten years.
In contrast to these very public campaigns to combat biased policies, re-framing can sometimes involve a very personal journey that sparks empathy in audiences. Another example we heard was from StoryCorps, highlighting an African American son and his adoptive white mother’s effort to reclaim their personal narrative around race and justice after the son was nearly beaten to death by police after daring to ask for a search warrant during a traffic stop.

Re-framing the narrative can create fast change, but the justice work requires an appetite among funders for big bets and longer horizons for returns on investments.

Annmarie Benedict, Programme Executive at The Atlantic Philanthropies shared that in 2008 it was a hard sell to gain support for The Central Park Five project, even though The Atlantic Philanthropies is a philanthropy that makes big bets. Like many foundations, The Atlantic Philanthropies didn’t have a specific media portfolio, and media is often expensive, takes a long time and requires a leap of faith. But such leaps can pay off significantly. The film raised pressure about the unresolved case to the point that NYC Mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio promised to settle the long-festering suit as soon as he was sworn into office.

Cara Mertes, Director of the JustFilms initiative at the Ford Foundation noted that while funding media can seem arbitrary and high-risk, filmmakers “are canaries in the coal mine. They see issues long before they blow up.” The documentary Slavery By Another Name makes the case. It was a 2008 Pulitzer Prize winning book, and then the film aired on PBS in 2012. Media is a drumbeat strategy, Mertes noted: you need to keep at it to move the needle. Neil Barsky, Founder of The Marshall Project added that while the risks are high, if it hits the right timing, message and audiences, the impact can be huge. (See for example our 2014 Media Impact Festival selections and winners.)

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness is a prime example. Diane Wachtell, Executive Director at the New Press explained that five years after publishing The New Jim Crow, its author Michelle Alexander has partnered with Teaching Tolerance to create a curriculum based on the book, bringing its message to vastly wider audiences. You can also download a recent New Press case study on the role of books in leveraging social change: The New Press NJC Case Study (Nov2014). Barsky revealed that he founded The Marshall Project after reading the book and recognizing the need for our country to address the systemic failings of our criminal justice system. The ripple effect from one book has been profound, but it takes time to see the ripples and even longer to see the impact on the shore.

Chad Boettcher, Executive Vice President, Social Action and Advocacy, Participant Media explained Participant’s approach to advocacy campaigns succinctly. “We never construct a campaign from the start,” he said. “We join a coalition of experts who have been working on the issue for years. There is no project we do for which we don’t have other partners.”

Participant Media bought the small narrative film, The Middle of Nowhere and used it for a very inexpensive but ultimately enormously successful campaign around predatory prison phone rates.
See their strategic approach:
Chad slide

Following the screening at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Commissioner Mignon Clyburn issued a statement, held a public comment period and changed the law, saving low-income families $2 billion a year, and more importantly, making it much easier for families to stay connected with their loved ones who are incarcerated. The Center for Media Justice and the Media Action Grassroots Network worked both together with other groups and independently for years to lower phone rates. The film served as the tipping point for the 10-year effort around prison phone justice.
Dick Tofel, President of ProPublica reiterated the power of multiple partners. ProPublica partners with nearly every major news media outlet. Smart editors know they can’t do every story, he said, and working with an organization like ProPublica is beneficial to both, and ensures meaningful reach.

John Keefe, Senior Editor for Data News and Journalism Technology at WNYC shared a story by journalist Ailsa Chang, who was hearing that teens were getting stopped and frisked on the way to school. Chang was able to use data from stop and frisk reporting to identify a tale of two cities and experiences for area high school students. Here are excerpts from the article:

Last year, the NYPD stopped teenagers more than 140,000 times.

 But at Stuyvesant High School in Lower Manhattan, which is 96 percent Asian and white, you would be hard pressed to find even one kid among the 3,300 students who has ever been stopped and frisked.

The demographics of Teachers Preparatory High School in Brownsville are 99 percent black and Latino.  It takes only five minutes to find a group of 14-year olds here who say they have been stopped by police two, three, even seven times.

Listen to the story.

While the different rates of stop and frisk are a clear part of the story, it’s the personal narrative from the kids, revealing their human experience with policing, that is so important in data-driven journalism. Data becomes most impactful when it’s applied to human stories.

Jamilah King, Senior Editor of ColorLines discussed their Drop the I Word campaign, which blends advocacy and journalism. The campaign targeted media outlets to stop using the word “illegal” when describing undocumented immigrants and to let undocumented immigrants tell their own stories in positive ways. According to ColorLines, by Spring 2013, the Associated Press, USA Today, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, and many other news outlets had changed their practice of using “illegal” in their articles to describe people’s status in this country. This is both a journalistic impact and major way of reclaiming the narrative of millions of people. King also noted the magazine’s Life Cycles of Inequity series as an antidote to coverage that reduces young black men to criminals without considering the systemic racism that shapes their choices.

David Fanning, Executive Producer of FRONTLINE shared an example of journalism making direct policy change. Their multi-platform project Rape in the Fields looked at the lack of prosecution when undocumented workers face sexual violence and harassment in the fields. The project was another example of the power of partners — in this case collaboration between the Center for Investigative Reporting, the Investigative Reporting Program at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, KQED-FM and Univision. The program was screened widely, and California Senator Bill Monning, D-Monterey, authored a bill in response to watching the episode, which was signed by Governor Jerry Brown. According to FRONTLINE, “The new law requires sexual harassment training for labor contractors, supervisors and all farm employees. Questions related to sexual harassment will be added to the labor contractors’ licensing exam.”

Rashad Robinson, Executive Director of online advocacy group Color of Change framed the discussion around strategy vs. tactics. It took over a million tweets before mainstream media showed up in Ferguson after Mike Brown was killed, he noted. Social media gives people a greater ability to amplify these moments and drive change, said Robinson, but you need an actual strategy to use with the tactics and tools.

Van Jones joined in on this point. After Trayvon Martin’s death everyone was mad and upset about the system. But Color of Change campaigns pointed out the connection between ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council) and the proliferation of Stand Your Ground laws that George Zimmerman cited in his defense. Creating a media campaign to force companies to stop supporting ALEC is strategic and gets results, and is much more effective than just using social media to express outrage.

We covered a lot of ground and could have talked for days, and explored many other dimensions around race, justice and media. This is an ongoing conversation and we’ll add resources and insights in the coming months.

Photo credit: David Bledsoe

About the Author

Sarah Armour-Jones