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Behind the scenes with the first Black women bosses of TV news

“These women’s stories teach the industry what it needs to do to improve”

The media industry as a whole has fallen short on commitments to make newsrooms look more like the communities they cover. Television news has made more progress than other sectors, with a steadily increasing number of women and people of color delivering the news. But a crucial measure of racial and gender equity is missing, said Northwestern University professor Ava Thompson Greenwell.

In her new book, “Ladies Leading: The Black Women Who Control Television News,” published by BK Royston, Greenwell goes behind the scenes of broadcast news to document the experiences of 40 Black women, who are among the first to climb the ranks of TV news to the very top, where they have taken on racism and gender bias not only in hiring practices, but also in the way stories about race are reported and framed.

Ava Thompson Greenwell
Ava Thompson Greenwell

An on-camera television news reporter from 1985 to 1993, Greenwell quickly learned in the field that the celebrity status some on-air journalists gain comes with little editorial power — what Black power activist Kwame Ture (also known as Stokely Carmichael) refers to as “powerless visibility.” Greenwell was interested in the Black women of television news in leadership roles, whose stories illustrate continued workplace bias and the harmful inequities that exist, even when you’re the boss.

To protect their identities, Greenwell assigned her subjects the names of flowers. Among the first to integrate television newsrooms, Hyacinth, Lilac, Azalea, Magnolia — and the majority of the Black women interviewed — grew up in the civil rights era, with race and gender discrimination all around them. Like anti-lynching activist and journalist Ida B. Wells, many saw journalism as a means to address society’s deepest ills.

“These women’s stories teach the industry what it needs to do to improve. In addition, their awareness of their experiences may help future Black women managers better cope and correct the historical biases that continue to grip all facets of the news business,” said Greenwell.

A qualitative study at its core, the book identifies and analyzes patterns in their experiences, using microaggression theory to parse out the nuances of their work encounters. Greenwell coins a number of terms to denote experiences common among her subjects; including “Intellectual Theft Syndrome,” which occurs when the women’s ideas are stolen by white men or others who claim the ideas as their own, and “FOMM” — fear of making a mistake, which stems from the women’s belief that must “go above and beyond” to nullify the false assumption that women are incompetent because of their identities.

“Ava Thompson Greenwell opens the door to the ugliness of racial animus that greeted them as they climbed the ranks,” said Lyne Pitts, a former NBC News vice president and a former CBS News executive producer. “In raw, soul-baring interviews, Greenwell documents the toll racism and gender bias have taken on their professional and personal lives, and she documents these women’s strategies to overcome, while demanding that their voices and lived experiences be more fairly represented in news coverage.”

One major, but not unexpected, finding was that the women influenced coverage in several ways. For example, many required their staff members to portray African Americans in a more balanced manner when referencing the race of crime suspects. Others ordered assignment editors to treat women of color who went missing with the same deference and dignity that they treated missing white women.

When George Floyd was killed by police in June 2020, Greenwell was almost finished with her final chapter.

“I wondered how many Black women in newsrooms are deciding how the eight minutes and 46 seconds of footage will be framed, who will report the story, and how often that horrific video will be replayed,” said Greenwell. “This book is about those Black women.”

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