January 31, 2024 by Preach Jacobs
The text came late one Friday night this past May. I was already fast asleep from an exhausting work week. But as a mother with young adults who live away from home, no matter the time, when I hear a ping, I check the text. “We won! Twice as Likely won an Emmy.” Nicole Zaremba, WKAR’s producer extraordinaire texted me. She wanted me to know as soon as she knew, our film depicting the reality of infant mortality in the black community won an Emmy. Now wide awake and wanting to share my jubilation, I repeated the text message with a gleeful shout. “We Won! Twice as Likely won an Emmy.” My dog, Rocco, matched my energy with a startled howl and my husband mumbled an incoherent, “that’s great,” before falling back asleep.
When home and dog settled into the hum of slumber, I sat in solace perplexed by the complexity of my emotions. I felt overjoyed, and validated with the win, but questioned if those emotions were appropriate for such a hard-fought victory, years in the making. I pondered whether the win would represent a ‘one and done’ for inclusive stories making it through the production process, not only at my station, but at other stations too. Would Twice As Likely affirm the importance and necessity of inclusive stories? Would this film impact public media culture enough to create a wide sweeping change in how inclusive stories were embraced, cultivated and navigated through the public media production system?
I realized I was expecting a six-minute digital film short to carry a heavy load, yet this weight to progress equity and inclusion is typical for artifacts representing communities of color. The topic of infant deaths was certainly a monstrous pill to swallow, but this film had been the culmination of five years of persistence in the face of rejection and disinterest within a siloed production system. Now, having received the ultimate recognition, I reflected on the vast array of stories that weren’t produced or afforded recognition for, “outstanding achievement, raising industry standards and improving the quality of television” as missioned by the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. An Emmy elevates stories from communities of color and invites mass consumption, yet so many stories had never been told.
After months of reflection, I’m able to understand lessons learned from Twice As Likely. My understanding reveals persistent challenges besieging public media’s capacity to create a robust spectrum of inclusive content. My hope is that we move beyond identifying barriers that prevent inclusive content production and welcome the diverse tapestry of stories from within our local communities as a true north in chronicling American culture.
The documentary film short “Twice as Likely: Black Infant Mortality Rates in the U.S.” was produced 50 years after health researchers exposed the crisis; 33 years after the film’s expert experienced a personal loss of her infant son; 10 years after WKAR’s local health department established a coalition to create awareness and decrease mortality rates; and five years after I began pitching the topic to our production team. This well-documented public health crisis of epic proportions persisted for half a century and yet no one seemed to want to tell the story with the exception of those within the black community. This crisis could not be solved simply amongst ‘ourselves’ and yet research and personal stories weren’t prevalent in local or national news reports. I was dumbfounded that the media I found rich in representation of children, did not value representation enough to expose infant mortality data, and, in turn, save lives.
My quest to expand awareness started in 2012 when I was the director of Lansing Community College’s CCAMPIS (Childcare Access Means Parents in School) federal program. The purpose of the program was to fund high-quality childcare for low-income students who were also parents. I provided academic success coaching to increase degree program completion and decrease access barriers. Wrap-around support services for infants were vital to the program’s success. Therefore, I joined the Ingham County Maternal/Infant Mortality Coalition. I found myself numb listening to medical professionals who specialized in maternal/infant health care. They detailed the startling statistics of black babies and mothers who died within the first year of giving birth, being twice as high (10.8 per 1000 births) as those of white counterparts (4.6 per 1000 births). I was aghast to read substantiated data proving black women who earned their PhDs were more likely to lose an infant in the first year of life, than were white teenaged high-school dropouts. What was even more startling, each death was preventable.
Although the information was new to me, I quickly learned researchers Dr. Laws-Barker, and Dr. Branch Canady had documented the trend for more than fifty years. This was not a new public health crisis. “Infant mortality is an important indicator of a nation’s health and well-being and is often seen as a marker for social progress and human development,” explained public health researchers in their recently-published analysis of more than a century of infant mortality disparities in the U.S. I pondered in outrage how this medical truth could continue to exist within our hospitals, policies, and health system with little resistance.
I continued to attend monthly meetings, discussions and conferences to immerse myself in the research, services, and awareness education developed by the coalition with a desire to eradicate future preventable deaths. The more I learned, the more I recognized my own experience in many of the painful, personal testimonials shared to determine correlation. I felt shame and fear for not knowing how risky my own births were to both me and my babies. “Few studies have presented a comprehensive picture of time trends and socio-demographic differentials in infant mortality in the U.S. although high-quality statistics have been available for the nation for over a century,” the researchers explained. How would I know this information, when it was rarely spotlighted in studies and barely featured in the media? And more importantly, how could awareness save my life or the life of a loved one?
In 2018, I became the education director at WKAR Public Media and immediately began advocating for the production team to produce a story on infant mortality death rates and its impact on maternal health. I asked several times about how to pitch the story and sought help to focus the information, but it was evident there was no clear process for pitches or an established protocol for project approval. From my understanding, there wasn’t a committee responsible for review and evaluation in a formal or informal context. I couldn’t identify how a project was green lit, and no one I asked could offer a clear understanding of the process either. This lack of structure sent a message that storytelling was reserved for a few, and inclusive stories were devalued.
I struggled to maintain patience. Yet patience was not the issue. Plain and simple, the lack of a defined, transparent process meant that diverse voices could not find (or even push) their way onto our airwaves. Public media programs were reserved for predominantly white storytellers. Instead of programming being used as a tool to bring understanding and solutions to communities within our viewing reach, programs reinforced an elite power structure that was white-centered and white-controlled, even if unbeknownst to the producers.
Over time, I discovered storytelling on public media was not for everyone but regarded as a holy grail for elite decision-making. Power structures such as these undermined inclusive stories from reaching audiences. Hindsight is 20/20 but at the time, I blamed my fifteen-minute elevator pitch and leaned into learning more to perfect it. Then the world fell apart.
COVID forced us home and George Floyd’s murder forced us to reckon with racism yet again. I sought to understand racism as a public health crisis when I attended a webinar hosted by the coalition where Dr. Branch-Canady detailed a painfully traumatic racist incident she experienced as a young girl growing up in Jim Crow South. She drew a correlating line from that moment to the death of her premature son, adding her to the maternal/infant mortality data. In her book, Room At The Table: A Leader’s Guide to Advancing Health Equity and Justice she wrote, “As it turns out, Black women have the highest age-adjusted prevalence of preeclampsia. It is my hope that this book summons equity leaders to ask why. My own desire to know why pushed me ahead.”
This story mattered and I knew public media held the power to strengthen awareness and impact change. So I kept pitching, knowing viewers deserved to know more. Finally, in 2021, NOVA Science Studios partnered with WKAR and five other local stations to support increased audience engagement through a national/local collaboration with an emphasis on inclusive storytelling. The NOVA team requested pitches for short digital content ‘at the intersection of science and society’ from partner stations. In exchange, NOVA provided assistance with science content production strategies and project funding. Their production format emphasized cross-department collaboration as a priority. They modeled gathering resources from a variety of station departments including education, development, and communication to increase audience engagement. And they demanded inclusive storytelling with individuals of color at the forefront of the production process, including the film’s experts.
This model provided an opportunity for me to pitch the film in a structured format. I was ecstatic when the story immediately resonated with their team and was recommended for production. Unfortunately, my enthusiasm was short lived as I struggled with new anxieties. I wasn’t sure why, but perhaps my worries resided in the history of rejection the story had experienced – that too many stories experienced.
I wondered if this production would resonate with the masses. I tried to anchor my journey in positive examples of inclusive stories. Yet few of those examples were visible to me, except for films produced by public media’s giants, Stanley Nelson and Henry Louis Gates. And I was no giant. I also wondered about the impact our film short would create and wanted to ensure all involved handled the story and community with care. These concerns led me to new lessons.
Revisionist storytelling has historically exploited marginalized communities. I feared the possibility of creating a harmful narrative rooted in stereotypes. Therefore, I expressed my need to establish trust as a priority amongst all stakeholders. I worried about overstepping production boundaries, but the assigned producer, Nicole Zaremba, leaned into the principles of trust. She welcomed me to the production table through conversation, treatment consultation, expert selection, and insight on the rough cut. She recognized how important it was for me to remain a part of the production team to demonstrate care and preserve trust among all involved. We understood telling this story collaboratively was not a moment to say, “look at us,” but a moment to say to the community, “we see you.”
When I reflect back, Twice As Likely taught numerous lessons in equity and inclusive storytelling. The first reflected the need for a transparent production structure. NOVA’s production invitation affirmed inclusion and advocacy. They welcomed public voices which welcomed Twice As Likely. This can be mimicked across the system. As new structures are formed, continued improvements toward design justice principles that “center people who are normally marginalized by design, to address the deepest challenges they face using a collaborative and creative practice,” should be prioritized.
The second lesson demonstrated a commitment to inclusive stories through action. At each station, analyzed data should document the frequency of inclusive stories being produced and aired across channels. If it doesn’t, evaluate where bias and barriers are active within the production structure or programming system preventing inclusion equity. Question whether titles, credentials, status, or positions have siloed the work of telling stories representing all aspects of society. Appraise the need for power structures and dismantle them wherever possible. Abort programs and processes that promote exclusion.
My final lesson was rooted in public media’s responsibility as a “storycatcher.” A storycatcher is defined as one who gathers, catches and lifts stories of others. Too often storycatchers have exploited marginalized communities by not building and maintaining trust. Healthy organizations should recognize the history of harm and elevate the care.
In conclusion, let me be clear, a six-minute short does not begin to unpack the devastating effects of infant mortality in the black community, but Twice As Likely was a win. And I’m hopeful the lessons learned will increase the production of inclusive storytelling across public media. As Mother Theresa stated, “I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the water to create many ripples.”
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