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Dean's Speech from Democratic Club of North Florida Lunch

Dean Michelle Ferrier

Dean Michelle Ferrier of FAMU’s School of Journalism & Graphic Communication shared her view of the state of journalism at the Democratic Club of North Florida on Monday, January 27 for their luncheon celebrating Black History Month. Ferrier has conducted research into media deserts and local news ecosystems as well as shepherding new curriculum in digital media and media innovation. Ferrier penned a letter to the profession called “Dispatches from the Edge” of the challenges ahead and how the SJGC is preparing students to meet those challenges.

I am honored to be here today. I thank Dave Jacobsen, president of the Democratic Club of North Florida for his invitation to share my history and illuminate my vision for the School of Journalism & Graphic Communication at the historic Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University. I am humbled to be speaking at this particular place and time in history, to share a bit of my past work, my current mission, the state of journalism today and our future at the School of Journalism & Graphic Communication.

This is not my first rodeo here in Florida. But more about that in a minute.

About a year ago, I came here to Tallahassee with my family to become the new dean of the School of Journalism & Graphic Communication. I had come from Ohio – Joey Burrow or Joe Burrow country, some of the most impoverished areas of the Appalachias, where I had been working with our Southeast Ohio communities on understanding our media deserts and how to remedy them. My research on what is called the Media Deserts Project, has for more than 10 years, attempted to map the media ecosystem at the local level.

As the Internet disrupted our business model, fractured our audiences, and expanded into new voices and online platforms, I sought to map and describe the complexities of the local news ecosystem.

Words matter.

My research, media deserts, looks at the code, conduit and content layers of the media ecosystem as described by media scholar and legal expert Lawrence Lessig. That means looking beyond measuring the presence or absence of news, I’m looking at infrastructure to see whether communities and individuals have access. I’m examining search engine results to see if they are built on biased algorithms. I’ve worked on bringing digital practices to our newsrooms, creating online community and engagement practices to our work, reimagining what journalism can and might be.

But more than just pointing to a challenged journalism industry and the precariousness of a journalism profession, I also sought to make visible the effects on communities, on individuals and on families, taking a holistic approach to re-imagining civic communication and the role of journalism from the ground up.

My research…and my worldview were shaped by my childhood dream to be an astronaut. As a teen, I worked at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, digitizing LandSat imagery to create the basis of our geographic information systems. As the mother of Google maps, I spent my early years as an intern at the remote sensing unit at Goddard, then working alongside of meteorologists, engineers and other trying to launch our Space Shuttle system into orbit.

I went to school at Virginia Tech, studying first aerospace engineering, then business, then finally journalism…embodying J.R.R. Tolkien’s quote, “All who wander are not lost.” I realized that my mission, my purpose was to use words and stories to share stories of underserved and underrepresented communities, like Southeast Ohio and its lack of broadband access, local news and and national narratives of the opioid epidemic or disenfranchised White voters in rural America, or like Hurricane Katrina.

Most recently, my work and research has been supporting journalists to keep telling those stories, in the face of relentless attacks online and in physical space. First through the Media Deserts work, then through my work with TrollBusters fighting online harassment, I have been witness to the challenges to journalism, democracy and truth in this Digital Age.

We have work to do here in Tallahassee, on the Highest of Seven Hills. Journalism and Democracy are at risk, right here, right now. And our School of Journalism & Graphic Communication students must be prepared in new and different ways to navigate and do our work in this current political environment here in the U.S. and abroad.

We are training all our students on how to navigate this dangerous landscape. We are building their digital competencies, deepening their listening and interviewing skills and helping to focus on telling the stories some don’t want us to hear. We are building media innovation into our curriculum to train students to be leaders in inventing the next process, service or product for news and information. With the pen as our sword, and the computer as our shield, we are polishing leaders to design the future of the profession.

So let me tell you my origin story and why I became a journalist. It was the summer before my sophomore year of college. I was at home getting ready to head back to school for the Fall semester. It was a hot summer still in early September, so I was sleeping on the couch in our living room where the air was cooler. At 3 a.m., there was a knock at the door. My mom walked from her bedroom past the living room, where I could see to the door. Two uniformed police officers were bathed in the doorway light.

“Are you the wife of Frederick Barrett?” They asked my mom. She shook her head.

“We’re sorry m’aam. Your husband was murdered last night, shot to death in Baltimore.”

By then, I was at her side, looking up into her face, not knowing that the crazymaking that would become our lives. I thought I knew crazy. See, my father was a public figure, working for the U.S. government as the first head of the Consumer Product Safety Commission. As an immigrant, who came to the U.S. from Jamaica, he had started his own electronics engineering company after earning his degree from Northeastern University, and had risen to prominence for growing his company to provide jobs for the formerly incarcerated and high school drop outs, and doing military contract work. He designed and produced an audio tuner, that would be touted as state of the art by audiophiles the world over.

As a black Republican, he was noticed by the Ford administration, and tapped to become the first head of the safety commission. When we moved from New York, to Washington DC, I lived my childhood under surveillance. The U.S. government was spying on my dad. We knew our phones were bugged and that every conversation was being recorded. My father was afraid that we would be kidnapped. I lived a cloistered life. That lockdown went into hyper-mode when my father gained evidence of the government’s spying campaign. He had the memo hidden in our Washington home. It’s why, when the knock came at the door, we believed my father had been assassinated.

By 6 a.m., the press was at our front door. And the journalists were there to write the story.

“What was your father like? Do you know what happened?” The press asked me questions that I couldn’t answer, still reeling from the news a scant three hours before. I shut the door on them. But the murder made the papers in Baltimore and Washington DC and the radio stations were reporting on the story. My family was the subject of a news story that circulated for days while police searched for the murderers.

Just weeks after his funeral, I was back at school. I went to a university forum where journalists from the Roanoke Times had come to talk about their work. I stood up at the microphone for the question and answer.

“Help me understand, what is the value of journalists showing up at my door at 6 a.m. in the morning?” I asked. “Why did you come and intrude on our shock and grief?’ I asked.

To their credit, the folks from the Roanoke Times listened. They reached out and invited me to the newsroom to meet with editors and explain what it felt like to be the subject of a news story, to survive the second trauma of having your life splashed across the pages of the newspaper, or to hear your father’s murder reported on the radio for days.

I changed my major from business to journalism. I wanted to find a way to tell the stories of my life and the lives of people of color like me, that I didn’t see in the newspapers…stories of accomplishments, love, dedication, intelligence, resistance and leadership. I went on to become a writer, designer, publisher, technologist and educator.

As a columnist for a Florida newspaper on the East Coast, I was targeted with hate mail around my slice-of-life stories of being Black in America. I went back to school to study digital spaces and design tools and practices such as engaged journalism, to rebuild journalism to be by and for the people, not the 10 percent. To prepare students to do journalism work like the 1619 Project by the New York Times or the border investigations of U.S. Customs and Border Protection and immigration issues or to challenge the lies of repressive regimes here and around the world.

Fast forward to Tallahassee. And today.

I found out about Kobe Bryant’s death on Twitter yesterday. That’s where I’ve found out about many breaking news events. Then I turn to television and other news websites to validate and verify the information.

Yesterday challenged me in many ways as both a critic and creator of what journalism can be. Misinformation about who was on the helicopter rippled across Twitter, with speculation from print and broadcast journalists circulating furiously in the first hours after the crash.

I was angry for the families of those on board that helicopter. I have first hand experience of being the subject of a news story. I wanted to share with you today why words matter. Why journalism matters and the state of journalism today. So I wrote this letter to my profession called---

“Dispatches from the Edge”

Dear Journalism,

I’m writing to you from the front lines of the News Wars, where right now misinformation and disinformation are ripping communities and histories apart. Truth has been taken hostage, and I fear Reality is next.

From the glow of my iPhone, I break news first from the trenches here on Twitter. From the Dark Web, we are fielding fierce volleys from trolls and bots and government surveillance where we are waging a battle, even now, for Truth. Democracy. Equality. And Love.

I’ve been fighting on a tweetly basis, 24/7, 365 against those who have weaponized the Internet to sow hate, distrust and to threaten.

Are all at risk here on Twitter as we cower in this social media war of words, memes, tweets, bots, bots…bots, bots, bots,
gifs, gifs,
gifs, gifs,
and viral lies, spinning deadly deception and illusion.

Tweets fly fast and furious, ripping thorough narratives and slinging stories. I amplify the voices of those fighting in these border wars in both physical and digital spaces, lobbing alternative narratives into the digital stream. We tell stories and try to seek truth and report it. It’s increasingly dangerous work.

Nothing is sacred. No one is safe. Our present, past and future are clouded in the fog of InfoWars.

And, I’m fighting on two fronts: One, to improve journalism from the inside – coaxing, scolding, cajoling, leading, inventing, creating new ways to make our journalism more inclusive, more relevant, more useful, more sustainable.

Two, I’m fiercely defending you from your enemies here on Twitter and in digital spaces. Fighting to preserve freedom of speech, freedom of expression and freedom of the press in some of the darkest of times I’ve seen.

I write to you, dear journalism, because I’m afraid that Democracy is bleeding out. And Truth is on life-support.

These are perilous times for the free press here in the United States…
  • Where we have the holder of the highest office in this country tweeting “Fake News.”
  • Where we have the holder of the highest office in this country tweeting the press is an enemy of the people.
  • Where we have the holder of the highest office in this land tweeting threats to news outlets sharing unfavorable reporting.
  • Where we have the holder of the highest office in this America sharing white supremacist symbols. And threatening journalists for thwarting his words.

Make no mistake. Journalism is being shaken to its foundations as we rethink how and why and -- most importantly -- for whom we do our work.

I was so triggered yesterday, when I first saw the news of Kobe Bryant. Was it true? TMZ Exclusive. CNN. ESPN. Family, last tweets were all lobbied and speculating about the events.

I thought of the families. I imagined them seeing the news on Instagram, then turning to the TV to see video played out before their eyes.

We had journalists circulating “fake news” and just like our audiences and readers, we were challenged to understand what is the role of journalism? How can we make a difference?

We are living in perilous times. This is a difficult time to be a writer, a journalist, an artist, a public intellectual. Truth is on trial and sadly, we are losing in the telewars and toxic tweets of “fake news.”

So dear Journalists, what are we to do in the shifting narratives and threats to Truth?

Verify. That is the bedrock, the heart, the core of what we do as journalists. Seek the truth and tell it. If journalism is the first draft of history, we have a responsibility and the challenge to write and report inclusive, diverse stories of all of our nation and its residents.

Our history – and our future – depend on it.

Imagine better. With love.

Michelle Ferrier