Elizabeth Montgomery and Collette Watson have a common goal: Equity in journalism.
On Facebook, Montgomery, a former reporter at The Arizona Republic, was forthright about her shoddy pay at the Gannett-owned newspaper. She eventually left and now works at Downtown Phoenix, Inc. Watson, a communications strategist and musician, briefly studied journalism before deciding it wasn’t for her. She worked at J. Walter Thompson and is now vice president of cultural strategy at the media reform group Free Press and Free Press Action Fund.
Together, they’re trying to help others find clarity in a field that confounded and enraged them. “We were driven and fueled by passion,” Watson says.
Watson’s directorial debut, the short film “Black in the Newsroom,” uses Montgomery’s struggles with systemic racism and awful pay at the Republic to showcase the marginalization and desperation of Blacks in America’s newsrooms. The film, which has played throughout the country coupled with panel discussions or Q&A sessions, is available to screen.
Montgomery and Watson, a Phoenix resident who connected with Montgomery during her Republic days, talked with Poynter about the need for diversity in newsrooms and their personal experiences in a field that confounds and inspires them. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
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Elizabeth, what made you decide to tell your story?
Elizabeth Montgomery: Honestly, it was these Black women that left the paper before me and the Black women that hit my inbox after I announced that I was leaving the paper. And just the fact that they’ve been through similar situations and have not said anything. There’s a quote that I go by: “If you don’t speak about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.” I could barely pay rent at the time and being on deadline for five stories a week at the same time—nobody was going to know what I was going through. So I had to say something. And then the other women started sharing their stories. And that really inspired me to be like, Maybe this story needs to be told so somebody out there can see that this is happening.’
Do you feel that the right people are seeing this film?
Collette Watson: The majority of TV and newspaper and other media outlets (are) owned by corporations and by white men since the first broadcast licenses were issued by the FCC during Jim Crow. There’s that lack of narrative control (from) Black people, and we feel that lays the groundwork for a society where we accept the underpaying of Black women, and we accept the exploitation of Black labor. So, for us, the right people being in the room means Black journalists, Black organizers, our allies and people who believe in the power of solidarity amongst labor, amongst workers. People who want to upend the ways that media have existed to uphold a myth of Black inferiority. And just anybody who’s ready to talk about journalism as a public service.
When people like Elizabeth come along and are trying to highlight underrepresented communities and are trying to report with a truth and historical context and nuance … we have to go all out supporting people like (her). We have to go that extra mile. That is an act of inclusion, but it’s also pay equity. It’s also mental health support. And it’s that redistribution of power. These rooms can’t change on their own.
EM: I hope I’m inspiring students. I make sure I try to speak to as many classrooms as I can because that’s where it starts. I didn’t learn to advocate for myself on all the things you’re supposed to know when you go into the job field. I want to make sure they’re getting the right pay or they’re telling the stories of the community and not just the story of the CEO.
Would you be open to returning to journalism if the right opportunity presented itself?
EM: I have so much trauma around the newsroom. I do love writing and I will always find a way to write because that’s my purpose: to tell these stories. I don’t know if I’ll ever go back to a mainstream newsroom, maybe a nonprofit or something where there’s more care for journalists and we’re not just a number—We can just fill your position really quick after you leave. Just where there’s more care and more empathy to the job that we’re doing because this is stressful on its own on top of not being able to pay bills and what was happening in 2020.
What do readers lose if there isn’t diversity in the newsroom?
EM: People lose the truth. That’s what journalism stands on is the truth. And if you are not equally represented (in the newsroom) as you are in your community, we can’t really trust what you’re saying because you’re only telling one side of the story. We need everybody in the room to be able to tell those stories, not just one demographic.
CW: You lose a chance at having a real multiracial democracy. What we are offering when we talk about care for Black journalists in communities is a new way of doing journalism, an evolved way of doing journalism for the future in which all of our stories are reflected—and with an emphasis on those most marginalized amongst us. For me, that is a path to a future where all voices are actually heard, which would be democracy.
Is there a way to recruit the new generation of Black journalists?
EM: If journalism or if news organizations didn’t have this “pay your dues” (mentality)—I’ve been told that so many times. I didn’t go to journalism school, I just learned on the job. So I don’t have the same type of training as someone who went to ASU or went to Princeton. But I think I deserve the same chance as someone who did. Anybody who’s a good writer should be able to be a journalist. Anybody who can tell the truth and tell it in a way that the community understands, they should be a journalist.
CW: I don’t know if I’ve ever told you this, Liz, but I went to Howard and I initially wanted to major in journalism—and I did for two semesters. But I realized that the way I was being taught journalism, it didn’t feel like a field that I wanted to be in, that I belonged in.
What was it about the journalism training you received that turned you off?
CW: Even though I had these amazing professors that were teaching me with a lens of Black identities, how to recognize tropes and the very basics of storytelling and writing, I had a sense that just overall in our society, the stories that are told and the perspective they exhibit is very tied up in a sort of American exceptionalism and a default to a white perspective.
When you [had] a hurricane in North Carolina in Wilmington, there were folks trying to get basic supplies out of a Family Dollar store, because certain areas in Wilmington had flooded. They were being called looters. You literally had reporters showing up and pointing the camera in folks’ faces and saying, “Hey, we’re working with the police to get those folks arrested.” That sort of “objectivity” is being weaponized as this sense of “We’ve got to help the police get these criminals.”
A lot of Black folks don’t trust police. If I’m a person who grew up with that understanding, who grew up in a Black community, being stopped and frisked, who understands that not all police are here to protect and serve us, then as a journalist, I’m not going default to covering those folks in that way. I’m going to wonder why does that area of Wilmington continually flood? And maybe I’ll dig into the history of environmental injustice and why a housing project was built in a floodplain, and then I’m going to wonder why are people in that community struggling for basic needs. And I’m going to look at income inequality and other histories in that area. I’m just going to report that in a very different way, and I’m not going to try to criminalize people with my camera or with my pen.
Even though I was being taught journalism by people who very much had a strong Black identity, the norms of the field, whether it is objectivity or having close partnerships with police and other institutions like that—those practices that we sort of take for granted—is just the way it’s done. We’ve got to undo those. I knew that that wasn’t necessarily going to happen just by me raising my hand. I didn’t have this language back then, but I just knew that I didn’t feel like I belonged. That’s why I take my hat off to people like Elizabeth who persevered through those kinds of realities and say, “I’m going to tell these stories.”
EM: This happened many a time to me. (Potential sources) were going through something they didn’t want to talk about. Once I told them who I was and they were able to see my previous work, they were like, “OK, I’ll talk to you. I trust you.” It’s a real thing that’s happening. And that’s pretty much the reason why I kept writing and kept going as a journalist I could tell that people were thirsty for it. They were hungry for it, and they needed their stories told, and they didn’t trust people to tell their stories. But they trusted me. So, I was like, I had to do this.
CW: It’s very dehumanizing for Black journalists and Black community members to be these background characters in the stories of the world we actually live in.