Durham-based journalist Lewis Raven Wallace isn’t afraid to buck the trend. In fact, he thrives on it. He wrote a blog post, got fired, and authored a book that argues that journalistic objectivity is a myth. He also created and hosts the podcast The View from Somewhere, based on the book, in collaboration with producer Ramona Martinez. As co-founder of a Southern media collective – Press On–he works to empower social change among the oppressed through movement journalism, or what he calls “journalism in service of liberation”.
Wallace spoke as part of Journalism at Denison University’s “The New Storytellers” series and also hosted a Q&A session for students. While on campus, The Reporting Project’s Jen Clancey sat down with him to discuss his book, reporting and writing, and the future of journalism.
What experiences motivated you to write your book?
I’d been in public media for about five years, and I’d gone from a small station to a big national show and moved to New York and was excited about having my dream job. And I was really aware that the way that we were approaching journalism in public radio was not sustainable under an increasingly authoritarian government.
All of that led me to write this blog post. There was nothing too wild in it, but it said objectivity isn’t the right frame for us right now, and neutrality isn’t real. We need to claim our values and stand up for democracy and free speech. And my boss asked me to take that blog post down. Initially I did, actually, and then I realized, this is not a moment where I feel comfortable being bullied ideologically.
So I put the blog post back up and wrote a long letter to my employers about why, and they fired me.
It was that acute experience that led me to write this book about the history of other people who have challenged objectivity and stood outside that frame in the past. I knew that nothing I was saying was new. I hadn’t come up with this critique. I had come to it through lived experience, but it wasn’t a new set of ideas at all. I was like, where are the other journalists who have been through this same thing?
What was it about Ida B. Wells’ story and her experience that you really wanted to focus on and that you decided to research about? Because, that was definitely an important part.
I think a lot of people think of her as a precursor to the Black Lives Matter movement. I think Ida B. Wells and her work around lynching was that movement journalism work for a different era. But an era that’s really related because it’s similarly about criminalizing Black people, the extra judicial murder of Black people. And then no one being held accountable, the pattern is the same.
And her being held up as a journalist and as someone who in many ways pioneered these techniques of investigative journalism that are now being taught devoid of context. That shift and that erasure of her and so many other Black women reporters who created these approaches to journalism…the erasure makes everything harder today, right? Because we can’t have an honest conversation about the purpose of the investigation…That they should be anti-racist. That’s their whole foundation.
What do you think is the solution or antidote to all these newsrooms wanting to aim for objectivity or false objectivity? What do you think is the solution to getting those real stories out there and voices that actually tell the story?
The answers are already there in a sense, people already know how to. Every community has always had storytellers. And it’s always had ways of getting information and has always had communicators. And maybe those people haven’t been allowed to be journalists or seen as journalists, but they’re there. And so, it’s not that we have a lack of local journalism, it’s that we have a lack of resourcing for that work and training and infrastructure and ways to really grow that work.
And so I think that when we talk about movement journalism at Press On, we always say, it’s something that’s always been here, but what we’re trying to do is build infrastructure and support for that work.
You do a lot of writing in many different ways. You do radio writing, podcast writing and journalism articles. And then I read that you like to write letters to your friends, and you like journaling. How do all those different types of styles of writing change the way that you look at writing or the way that you write now?
I guess before I was a news reporter, I thought of writing mostly as an art. And then when I started doing daily reporting, I sort of shifted to really understanding it as a craft. There’s an aspect of being a producer who turns out writing every day that’s like, okay I can’t be precious about this. My words are not special. There’s always tomorrow to have more words and today I just have to make this thing. So I think learning to write for radio and to write for the podcast has brought a lot of craft into my writing, but also helped me understand how news can be poetry and poetry can be news.
A news story on radio is 45 seconds or 60 seconds, which is essentially five or six lines. So then you get maybe three sentences that you can say. And so it forces you to think sort of really intentionally about narrative structure.
What is your utopian vision for journalism in its future?
What I would picture is that the places where we tell stories and make radio and disseminate information and communication – what is now often called a newsroom – is a community center. It’s a place where anyone can go and learn and tell their story and hear other people’s stories. And it’s a place of purposeful gathering and trust building and community building all the time.
Journalism at Denison events are funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and a gift by Sue Douthit O’Donnell ‘67.