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Communicating the Counter Narrative with Ashton Lattimore

Ashton Lattimore joins Carrie Fox to talk about her role as Editor-in-Chief at Prism, an independent nonprofit newsroom led by journalists of color.

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Our guest today is someone who is actively rethinking, rewriting, and redefining the status quo media landscape. Ashton Lattimore is Editor-in-Chief at Prism, an independent, nonprofit newsroom led by journalists of color, and as she says, “Prism was founded because mainstream media wasn’t reflecting enough of the truth—and it wasn’t bringing us closer to our vision of collective liberation and justice.”

Through in-depth and thought-provoking journalism, Prism reflects the lived experiences of people most impacted by injustice. Journalists tell stories from the ground up at Prism: to disrupt harmful narratives, and to inform movements for justice. Prism launched in August of 2020 and has quickly provided an important lens through which to report on issues such as electoral justice, racial justice, economic justice, gender justice, climate justice, and more—all through an essential and intersectional lens of racial justice

Prism is, as you’ll hear her describe it, a newsroom with a point of view, but one with a keen eye on the center of the story: the subject with the most at stake. And in a media ecosystem in which stake is too often defined by wealth and power, re-defining the concept in terms of justice and equity is a refreshing turn.

Lattimore is a former lawyer and accomplished writer and editor. She’s also a Maynard Institute Fellow whose work focuses on this intersection of race, culture, and law. We thrilled to have her on the show this week.


Episode Transcript

Ashton Lattimore: We prioritize journalists of color. We prioritize the voices of journalists of color, both at the staff reporter level and in terms of leadership. Because I think another key piece of this is, it’s all well and good if you have journalists of color who are writing the stories, but if you have an editor over their head who’s going to take out some of the very important context that they might add, or some of the things that might come from their own lived experience and expertise, that’s just as big a problem as having a fully homogenous newsroom.

Carrie Fox: Hi there, and welcome to the Mission Forward Podcast, where each week we bring you a thought-provoking and perspective-shifting conversation on the world around us. This season, we’re looking deeply at the role that communications and communicators play in helping us make sense of the world. I’m Carrie Fox, your host and CEO of Mission Partners, a social impact communications firm, and certified B corporation. We have such a special guest with us today, someone who is literally working on the ground floor of rethinking and rewriting the role that media plays in society, and specifically the role that journalism plays. Ashton Lattimore is the editor in chief at Prism, an independent, nonprofit newsroom led by journalists of color. Prism formally launched in August 2020, and takes an important intersectional lens to reporting on issues such as electoral justice, racial justice, economic justice, gender justice, climate justice, and more. A former lawyer, an accomplished writer, and a long time editor, Ashton’s work focuses on this intersection of race, culture, and law. And we are so thrilled to have her with us today. Ashton, welcome to the podcast.

Ashton Lattimore: Thank you, Carrie. I’m excited to be here with you today.

Carrie Fox: We just gave a little bit of an overview on who you are, but I’d love to hear it from you. Tell us what brought you on this journey to become editor in chief of Prism?

Ashton Lattimore: Sure. I’ve been a journalist for quite a while. So I actually started off as a journalist when I was in college, and ultimately stepped off that path for a little while to become a lawyer. The trajectory kind of mirrors the trajectory of the country, I would think. I kind of came into adulthood during the Obama era, so things seemed like … We understood that not everything was right with the world, but I think a lot of us kind of naively thought we were on a decent trajectory. And that’s kind of the period when I was off in law, just kind of doing corporate lawyer stuff. Just working within that field, and not doing especially anything particularly social justice related. And then for a lot of reasons, personally and kind of nationally, 2016 was a shock to the system. At the national level we had that election. And when that election happened, I was actually five months pregnant when that occurred. And suddenly found myself on the verge of bringing a new black child into a very different world than the one that I thought, perhaps, I was bringing him into. And over the course of that election, and the things that unfolded in the years immediately after, I saw a lot of the ways that media was complicit in the failure, the many, many failures that kind of led up to the election of someone who was offensive to a lot of different kind of norms and ideas of justice. But also, as we saw, increasingly seemed fundamentally opposed to like the very idea of democracy, and the way that the media kind of played a role in normalizing that, and kind of clearing a path for that, and treating that and all of the messages and ideas that made space for that election, treating them as equivalent to things on the other side perhaps were not equivalent. So as that presidency was unfolding, and things were taking a fairly ugly turn nationally, and seeing kind of strife being ascendant in a way that it hadn’t felt before, at least in my adult life, I started to feel very sidelined. Like I said, I was at large corporate law firms, and didn’t feel like what I was doing was really contributing to making the world any better. And that didn’t feel so good for me anymore. So I felt myself called to return to journalism, because I understood the power, both for good and for ill, of the message and the messengers. And I wanted to get back into that. So that’s how I found my way eventually to start freelancing, and exercising my voice a little more. And then stumbled upon this amazing opportunity to help build Prism from the ground floor, a newsroom that’s centered in communities of color, who have been some of the folks most harmed by the political turns that have happened in the last four, six years. It was really kind of an irresistible opportunity, so I leapt at

Carrie Fox: Ashton, you and I have talked about this a little bit before on the need to have more black-led organizations in journalism, more organizations that are led by journalists of color. Because the reality is so much of the narrative is lost when it’s told from one perspective, often by default a white perspective. The person who holds the pen holds the power, right? In terms of how that narrative is shaped. But the other flip of this is that if there’s not even an opportunity for the journalists of color to be holding the pen, then you can’t rewrite that narrative. You can’t shift the perspective or widen the gap. So talk to me a little bit about, what is the reality as we think about today’s journalism industry? I know we’re seeing some good shifts, but we’re not where we need to be, right?

Ashton Lattimore: No, we’re not yet where we need to be. But as you said, I think we are seeing a lot of really wonderful shifts. There are so many black-led and other POC-led outlets that have either recently launched, or are in the process of launching. So it really feels like Prism has come into what’s increasingly an ecosystem of other outlets that are really community centered, that treat communities of color as a center of the American story, which I think is what Prism does differently. So we’re not a fringe or separate interest, we see ourselves as the center of the country, the center of our own lives and experiences certainly, and report really from that lens. So rather than kind of taking on the stories of the day as a horse race about who’s winning the messaging race in Washington, or what’s happening to someone’s reelection prospects, we’re really looking at social justice and policy in terms of how they impact people, how they impact human lives. And coming at that with some conviction, with an unabashed orientation toward democracy, toward justice. We think those things are good. And I think that journalists of color often have been the ones at the front lines who are willing to say that. And sometimes face accusations around bias, or not being impartial because we’re willing to say some things are good, some things are very bad. Here are the ways that these issues are affecting our communities, and here’s a way that we think the world can be made better.

Carrie Fox: Is there a way you go about determining what kinds of issues or stories you’re going to take on in any given moment? To address some of those gaps that maybe you’re seeing.

Ashton Lattimore: Part of it is understanding, what are some of the key forces that are animating a lot of the major conflicts that we’re seeing right now? So there’s the attack on democracy. There’s sort of the culture war piece of things, which is manifesting in a few different ways. It’s manifesting as a war on really any kind of anti-racist education, and also manifesting as increasing affronts to women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, and also the climate crisis. We see those as kind of the largest forces animating the big issues that we’re seeing in the news today. With always this through-line of white supremacy that kind of animates them all in various different ways. So coming at all of our stories from an understanding that this is a country that is deeply in crisis, and that’s showing up in real human lives in ways that matter. But that people on the ground are showing up for themselves, and showing up for each other. So yes, we’re in crisis. But there are people who are in motion, and trying to get other folks in motion, to move us toward a better version of what this country can be. We come at our stories from the perspective that, we want to offer a deeper understanding of what’s wrong, but we also are really invested in offering a path forward.

Carrie Fox: Give us an example of a story that you’ve worked on recently, that maybe reinforces the approach you take to how you report on an issue.

Ashton Lattimore: A really strong example of this would be some of the immigration stories that we’ve done recently. So we spent a lot of time, especially earlier this summer, focused on refugee resettlement and kind of the crisis that’s unfolding in that space. We initially set out to just kind of explore the topic a bit more, and expose people more to understandings of how refugee resettlement is experienced by refugees themselves, and what’s happening at a policy level. But as we were undertaking that reporting, we saw this crisis explode with Afghanistan, that war winding down, and an influx of more folks as refugees coming from there. And then more recently more Haitian refugees coming in. So we’ve taken a look at that, really deeply offered a very deep understanding of what refugee resettlement looks like, the mechanics of it. So an explainer is kind of the centerpiece of what that series looked like. But apart from the mechanics of it, really diving deep with some reporting led by folks who themselves are resettled refugees, amplifying their voices about what needs to change within those settlement programs. What’s working within those resettlement programs, and the ways that communities kind of encircle new arrivals to the country. And then as the news cycle has unfolded about those issues, really shining a light on what’s happening right now on the ground with refugee and immigrant communities.

Carrie Fox: I really want to reinforce that. Because that, to me, feels like such an important piece of storytelling. And perhaps the first reminder of what the default process is, versus the opportunity that exists in journalism to have journalism be community-led. And I know you all have a fellows program, you’re thinking differently about how the storyteller, how the journalist, is a not just having access to a community but is embedded in the community. And so how have you built that newsroom? And how are you continuing to cultivate that newsroom?

Ashton Lattimore: We built it in a couple of ways that I’m really excited about. One of them is just that we have kind of an open call for freelance folks to pitch us stories. And we also routinely reach out to different community-led organizations to seek out their commentary on the news as it’s unfolding. And by this point, I think we’ve published more than a hundred-plus voices, which are 99% black, indigenous, and people of color, many of them community leaders, or just folks in community who are the work or sharing their experiences. But just lifting up that volume of different voices has been a really exciting opportunity for us to reach into many different communities around the country, and create a pathway for people to share experiences at the national level. I think another way that we’ve done that, as you mentioned, is through our senior fellows program. Which brings into our ecosystem community leaders who are doing the work at really the highest levels on things like electoral justice, criminal justice, abolition and reform justice, gender justice, bringing those folks in and having them help to shape our coverage. So giving us a deeper understanding within the newsroom. Sitting with us and talking about what’s going on in the work, and helping us to kind of shape our stories around what really matters and what’s actually happening. And apart from that, just within our newsroom, we prioritize journalists of color. We prioritize the voices of journalists of color, both at the staff reporter level and in terms of leadership. Because I think another key piece of this is, it’s all well and good if you have journalists of color who are writing the stories. But if you have an editor over their head, who’s going to take out some of the very important context that they might add, or some of the things that might come from their own lived experience and expertise, that’s just as big a problem as having a fully homogenous newsroom. So I think something that we really value is having people of color in positions of power all throughout the newsroom, to not only tell the story themselves, but shape what the story ultimately looks like by the time it’s published.

Carrie Fox: That’s incredibly important, and I think a good reminder for folks to think about the news that they consume. How much have they ever spent time thinking about the makeup of that newsroom, and how it might in fact impact the news that they are receiving, and the perspectives that they are receiving? I would love to pause here for a minute, because at the top we talked about Prism as an independent, nonprofit newsroom. That may not still make a lot of sense to folks. What do you mean a non-profit newsroom? What do you mean an independent newsroom? Talk about that. Why is it so important, in fact, that Prism is a non-profit independent newsroom?

Ashton Lattimore: The independence piece of it is really key. And I think there’s a really critical difference between the word independent and a word like nonpartisan, which is a word that we kind of deliberately did not use. We have a point of view, and we’re not beholden to any particular forces who are going to tell us that that point of view is okay to express, or not okay to express. So that sense of independence gives us the ability to be really fearless, frankly, in our reporting, in holding power structures to account, holding the government to account, holding big corporations to account in our workers’ rights coverage. That independence is really what gives us the ability to do that. And as far as being a nonprofit, we see the work that we’re doing as a social good, so that felt like a model that was appropriate for us. And it also kind of frees us up from this profit-driven idea, to focus more on sustainability. What are the ways that we can make our journalism valuable to the communities that we’re aiming to serve in such a way that they’re willing to invest in us? Which is ultimately where we’re headed.

Carrie Fox: I want to go back and explore something a little more deeply with you, Ashton. Something that we’re taking on this season around some of the communications norms that show up in Western society. And I’m thinking primarily through ableist lens in this moment, and how by default many of us deliver communications and content in a way that assumes everyone can access it. When, as we know, that’s not the case, right? So from your point of view, as Prism has been so intentional, what norms of communications do you abide by, or consider when you are creating content? What norms are you challenging, and almost rewriting in your workplace?

Ashton Lattimore: I think one of the things that we have started to be even more thoughtful about in the last kind of year is understanding that not everyone in our readership exists within the same spaces, particularly within social justice spaces, but wanting to invite more folks in. So being careful about not assuming knowledge of acronyms, or certain terms, has been something that we’ve been really, really intentional about. Because we just want to make sure that we are writing in a way that’s open to everyone, and invites folks to learn more, rather than kind of just talking to a group of folks who may be the most informed. That’s something we’ve been thinking about a good deal more. But as far as norms, I think another one that we have really been thinking about very deeply is this idea of, who is the center? And this is both kind of narrative and norm. But the way that a story is told, the perspective that the story is told from, any story that you write necessarily is going to have a protagonist. So kind of being very careful about who we assume is the protagonist of a story about abortion. Who is the protagonist of a story about police violence? Because if you treat the police as the protagonist, you get a very different story than if you treat it as the community who’s been affected by it, or the person who’s been subject to violence. So really understanding where we put our lens, and not defaulting to the norm of treating power as the protagonist. Treating an official as the most important person in a story about what’s happening in Congress, or what’s happening with a particular bill. Not treating maybe the doctors, or treating the legislature as the important people in a story about abortion, but what’s happening to the women themselves who are seeking these procedures. Or the women themselves and other folks who are trying to help others get access when there’s no access available. It really, really impacts what ultimately gets published, who you decide is the center of your story. And I think some of the journalistic norms that have existed have been really harmful in terms of narrowing who people see as important, and significant enough to report from their point of view.

Carrie Fox: So that is so interesting to me, because it speaks to the role of communicators across all platforms, whether they are journalists by trade or not. But if we think about, folks who are listening to this are representing communications directors, development directors from nonprofits and foundations, organizations and coalitions, a variety of people who are working to use communications as their tool to advance social change. And everything that you’ve just shared is such an important reminder, and very specific skill to be thinking about of, are you in your communication, thinking specifically about who is the main character? Who’s the protagonist? What bias might you be naturally bringing into that, to kind of check the bias before you release that content? If you’re putting a fundraising appeal together, who’s at the center of that story, and how have they been consulted in the development of the story? We use this phrase at Mission Partners that we did not coin, but have seen it many times before, design for the margins. If you design not just for the person that you know gets your work, and is on the inside track of your work, but for the folks who really may have very limited view and understanding and knowledge of the issue, you’re more likely to be able to communicate to them. Is that correct?

Ashton Lattimore: I think that sounds exactly right. Designing your work, certainly staying true to what your core messages are, but trying to shape them to bring as many folks in as you can. Not pursuing that without conviction, but doing so just in a way that’s accessible. I think that’s a word that you used, accessibility, and that can be, that’s something that you can kind of enact across many different axes. And I think it matters, especially if you’re trying to do the work of social good, you kind of need coalition building. And something to be clear about, this doesn’t necessarily mean orienting your work toward folks who you know are viscerally opposed to everything that you’re talking about. Because I think that’s another norm that has brought about some toxic results in many halls of journalism, treating people who are openly and unabashedly racist, or fundamentally opposed to the idea of democracy, as people we should be trying to reach. That’s not what our aim is at Prism. I’m talking more about coalition building between different parts of communities of color, who may not typically be in conversation with each other. But if we approach our messaging in a way that’s accessible, can be put into conversation with each other that can result in some really powerful, powerful action.

Carrie Fox: The best by default is always to build the bridge, right? Not to tear it down. All right, my last question for you, because we are almost at time already. What are you working on at Prism that gets you really excited, and what should we be looking out for?

Ashton Lattimore: So a couple of things. We have a fantastic collaboration that’s just starting up with Workday Minnesota, which is an outlet based in Minneapolis focused on workers rights. So increasingly the two of us, our outlets are going to have a lot more shared stories on workers rights, workers organizing out of the Midwest, especially centered on immigrant workers. So that’s something that folks can look out for. And further into the future, as redistricting unfolds around the country after the census has been completed and now district maps are being redrawn, Prism’s working on a series with the support of the Solutions Journalism Network to explore and explain the fight against racial and partisan gerrymandering, both within court, with independent redistricting commissions. Really taking a deep dive into what solutions have worked and are working, and which ones are maybe falling short of what our expectations were in this really important push for representation that’s fair.

Carrie Fox: So cool. Well, I am thrilled about that on a lot of levels. Including, we had Tina Rosenberg on last season to talk about solutions journalism, and the importance of asset framing. And so we’ll make sure we’ll pull that one back up too. So no paywalls, right? Access to all of your content. And where do folks go to access that content?

Ashton Lattimore: People can go to www.Prismreports.org to access all of our content. And as you said, there’s no paywall. We welcome donations. We welcome people to sign up as members, sign up for our newsletters, and follow us on all social media. But no paywall. And our content is not only free for readers to consume, but for any news outlets who feel like there’s a gap in their own coverage. It’s free to republish just across the board.

Carrie Fox: And we will post those links in the chat in the show notes too, so folks can see them. Ashton, you and your team are doing such incredible work. Thank you for taking a few minutes away to connect with us today. And thanks for everything you’re doing. We look forward to continuing to support you.

Ashton Lattimore: Thank you.

Carrie Fox: Mission Forward is produced with support of [Nimra Haroon 00:22:33] and the Mission Partners team, in association with True Story FM. Engineering by Pete Wright. Music this week is by Ian Post and Josh Leak. If your podcast app allows ratings and reviews, we hope you’ll consider doing just that for our show. But the best thing you can do the support Mission Forward is simply to share this show with a friend or colleague. Thanks for your support, and we’ll see you next time.

This season, we are taking you on a journey to meet ten people influencing and shaping how we communicate at scale for social change. From advertising executives to coalition directors, news editors, campaign managers, and authors, they're all people who are shaping and challenging the deep power of communication. If you’re working to become a more inclusive and thoughtful communicator, there’s nothing holding you back—except you.

Carrie Fox

Carrie Fox is the founder and CEO of Mission Partners, a woman-owned strategic communications firm and Certified B Corporation that guides high-potential nonprofits, foundations, and socially responsible corporations in realizing their greatest social impact. Since launching her first firm in 2004, she has guided hundreds of organizations around the world to lead with purpose, fueling organizations and their missions forward in new and more impactful ways.