Minnesota State students got a taste of history and journalism Tuesday.
Author, professor and historian Michelle Duster spoke about her great-grandmother, Ida B. Wells’ childhood, the stories she wrote and the journalism tactics she employed.
Wells gained a reputation as a writer in the late 1800s, advocating for the truth of lynchings in southern newspapers and pamphlets. Wells’s line “nobody in this section believes the thread-bare lie that Negro men assault white women” caused a mob to burn down her newspaper office.
With news becoming politically divided, Duster said the rise of “fake news” can be attributed to the accessibility of around-the-clock news.
“Most people were getting their news at the same time from reading the newspaper or watching CBS, ABC and NBC. Now the news is more siloed to the point where we almost live in different universes,” Duster said. “I feel like people choose their news versus the news being available to everybody.”
Duster’s presentation focused heavily on the tactics Wells used to cover in-depth stories as an activist and investigative journalist. Wells used journalism data such as numbers and dates to give “statistical analysis.” Duster said she sees these tactics employed by writers Ta-Nehisi Coates and Michael Harriot.
“Coates wrote a 15,000-word essay about the case for reparations that required a lot of investigation as it was like a case study. Harriot does an amazing job of framing facts that make creative arguments on Twitter,” Duster said. “There are some journalists doing really good work that help people understand the context.”
Like her great-grandmother, Duster tells stories that are frequently “omitted, skewed or marginalized.” Duster said the media needs to not take a “soundbite” approach and go for more in-depth reporting when it comes to covering stories for oppressed communities.
“We live in a time period where people feel like they don’t have any attention span of 10 seconds or less, but it’s impossible to tell all perspectives in a multi-dimensional kind of way through just soundbites,” Duster said.
Duster said the article she is most proud of was for Ms. Magazine about a man who expressed outrage on a public history project Duster is a part of — a women’s suffrage mural of whom Wells was an advocate.
“Ida tried to help people understand what was going on and the power dynamic that was being abused,” Duster said. “I’m proud of that (article) because I was trying to do what she would.”
Besides writing numerous articles for magazines, Duster has written multiple books. Duster’s recent book “Ida B. Wells, Voice of Truth” is directed toward 4 to 8-year-olds. Duster said she wanted to write a children’s book about Wells to introduce children to a social justice advocate.
“It’s important for as many kids as possible to be exposed to black women and historical figures because there are so few books that are written about them,” Duster said.
Speaking the truth like her great-grandmother, Duster touched upon how “dangerous” book banning is becoming and the importance of sharing everyone’s stories.
“I’m hoping as a country we can figure out how we can tell our country’s story in ways that are truthful and inclusive,” Duster said.
For those wanting to follow in Wells’ footsteps, Duster said students should pursue their passions.
“My mom used to say ‘You got to do what you got to do to get where you got to go.’ If you stay focused on what your ultimate goal is, then you can get through the hard part,” Duster said.
Header photo: Author and historian Michelle Duster spoke to students Tuesday about her great-grandmother, Ida B. Wells, and her journalism tactics. (Dylan Engel/The Reporter)
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