Dear White People and The Power of Student Journalism | Redbrick | University of Birmingham

Dear White People and The Power of Student Journalism

News Editor Liam Taft reflects on how student journalism is used in attempt to combat racism in Netflix's Dear White People

**Spoiler warning.

Before I interned at a fashion magazine, I naively sat down to watch The Devil Wears Prada, as if I’d be rushing around Birmingham with two Starbucks in hand for a devil-horned editor. Thankfully, my placement was not as intimidating as the film had led me to believe.

In general, fictional representations of journalists are far from accurate. Recent films, such as Spotlight and The Post, for example, depict exciting newsrooms working on monumental reports. In reality, however, most journalists spend their days mindlessly scrolling through bland press releases, wondering how they’ve drank four cups of coffee already.

In many respects, Dear White People is far from truthful about what it’s like to be a student journalist. The second season, in particular, leads the characters on an Agatha Christie inspired goose chase. ‘This is some black Harry Potter shit!’ exclaims Sam, as the gang delves deeper into Winchester University’s secret network of alumni.

However, despite its sensationalism of university journalism, the show also has many truthful and important things to say about the power of student media on campus. This is seen through the lens of three major news outlets: Sam’s ‘Dear White People’ radio show, The Winchester Independent, and satirical magazine Pastiche.

Despite its sensationalism of university journalism, the show also has many truthful and important things to say about the power of student media on campus
Sam is the ‘Dear White People’ radio host and central character across the two seasons. Her show tackles racism on campus, from Reggie being held at gunpoint by a white police officer to everyday micro-aggressions. Sam makes it her mission to disrupt the status quo at Winchester University: ‘We’ve finally got the ears of the future leaders of the country,’ she suggests, ‘So what do we want to say?’ Sam’s impassioned speeches give a voice to marginalised students, and her broadcasting helps to spread the word about protests from the Black Student’s Union. Sam’s journey speaks to the heart of what Dear White People says about student media: that journalism and activism can go hand in hand.

Although she gains support from her friends at Armstrong Parker (the housing dorm where the majority of the university’s black community reside), she is also met be a tidal wave of abuse. Pastiche, alongside the right-wing alternative to her show, ‘Dear Right People’, relentlessly attack her stance on race issues. The alt-right Twitter account @AltIvyW also frequently sends her racial abuse online, as a direct result of comments made on her show. Ultimately, Sam’s journey shines a light on the pressures of being a black person in the media spotlight.

Lionel is a shy student who turns to journalism to give himself – and other black students on campus – a voice. He writes for The Winchester Independent, one of two rival newspapers on campus. Through his work, Dear White People raises questions about the ethics of reporting. After Reggie is held at gunpoint by a white police officer, Lionel is tasked with writing an article about the event. ‘Time to shine, Lionel,’ says his editor. ‘How people see this is in your hands.’ This is a wakeup call for Lionel, who realises that he has a responsibility, as a journalist, to accurately represent the truth in his writing.

Ultimately, Sam’s journey shines a light on the pressures of being a black person in the media spotlight
This unleashes Lionel’s journalistic instincts: he becomes fixated on uncovering the injustices facing black students on campus, with one eye firmly set on a Pulitzer Prize. In the first season’s final episode, after an uncomfortably civil town hall meeting with protests raging outside, Lionel takes hold of the microphone and addresses the audience. He reveals that university donors funded cases against voter rights for minority students. Or, as he puts it, ‘the administration is in bed with bigots!’ It is only through Lionel’s bravery as a student journalist that the seedy underbelly of the university’s funding comes to light.

In the second season, Lionel becomes obsessed with uncovering secret societies at Winchester. As the narrator informs us, the founder of The Bugle exposed a similar underground network in 1924, which was a ‘masterclass in shade.’ Lionel creates a pin board, complete with red string connecting the investigation together, as he slowly works towards the root of the mystery. But his Scooby-Doo antics are also contrasted with his more serious reporting. When an alt-right Twitter account starts racially abusing students, for example, Lionel works his magic to find the alias behind the anonymous account.

From Lionel’s investigations to Sam’s impassioned broadcasts, Dear White People shows student journalism at its best: provocative, unafraid to challenge authority, and daring in its search for the truth.

Both seasons of Dear White People are available to view on Netflix now.

News Editor and Third Year English Student. (@liam_taft_)


17th September 2018 at 12:00 pm

Last Updated

15th September 2018 at 5:22 pm

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