During the past 15 months, Ava Thompson Greenwell completed the documentary she produced and directed, “Mandela in Chicago,” saw it premier on Chicago’s WTTW-Channel 11, completed and submitted for publication the manuscript for her first book, “Ladies Leading: The Black Women Who Control Television News,” and taught reporting classes at Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications, where she has also served as the associate dean for curriculum, director of the Teaching Television Program, co-curator for the nationally recognized Ida B. Wells award and director of the McCormick Tribune Fellows Program.
On Tuesday, July 13, she spoke to the Levy Lecture audience about the making of the documentary and some of the research findings from her book.
While all of the aforementioned responsibilities would be Herculean for most people, Dr. Thompson Greenwell is exceedingly organized, has a robust network of contacts, and as she readily shares, has a very supportive husband and works for deans who have provided her with much needed flexibility with her academic schedule.
This is Greenwell’s third time participating in the Levy Lecture Series. In December 2017, she spoke about “Media Consumption in a Polarized and Politicized Time” and suggested what a concerned news consumer could do to avoid getting bamboozled by fake stories masquerading online as journalism.
A year later, she returned to the Levy Senior Center to show a ‘rough cut’ of her documentary, which at that time had a working title of “Mission Possible: Chicago’s Free South Africa Movement.” It was a fascinating look into what was involved to tell a story on film, and the urgency to secure taped interviews with the key players in Chicagoland before they were too ill or old, or before they passed away.
It is fitting that she would return to the Levy Lecture Series to talk about the finished film and provide updates about some of the participants since they were interviewed. Greenwell was fortunate in her timing—she completed her research and filming in South Africa in February 2020—and managed to get back to the United States right before pandemic travel restrictions kicked in. To view the documentary on WTTW, go to this link.
Her book, “Ladies Leading,” looks behind the cameras in television journalism, where the real power lies. As detailed by Greenwell, a news director for a television station has the ability to hire and fire, is responsible for all journalistic decisions, and decides which stories get covered, by whom, and how they are communicated to their audiences. In a field that for decades has been dominated mostly by white men, being a woman, and a woman of color, was unusual. Often those starting out found themselves to be the only Black woman in their newsrooms. Colleagues and bosses were not always welcoming, supportive, or believing in their co-worker’s value and talent, Greenwell recounts.
Therein lies the crux of the book: the exploration of the history and experiences of the groundbreaking Black women who achieved management positions in television news. How are they treated compared to men, especially white men, with similar roles? How does the workplace affect their professional decision-making? How do their identities influence their workplace and the news coverage it generates?
Greenwell talks about the ways in which television journalism is a challenging field—the long hours, unpredictable schedules that require being at work when friends and family may be sleeping, and frequent moves, often to unfamiliar or even undesirable cities. It is not always a “family friendly” career, and the demands on women to look a certain way, and the emphasis on youth and beauty, add extra pressures men typically do not have to confront, according to Greenwell.
The Black women interviewed in this book emphasize the pressure they felt to work harder and longer than anyone else, and to never make a mistake. They recounted a constant stream of microaggressions, comments made deliberately to wear down their confidence, to push back on given authority, and to belittle privately and publicly. Each person felt that they were not just working for themselves—they were representing all future Black female journalists.
Fortunately, most of these women actively mentor other women, and many have been mentored by colleagues, men and women of all races. Many have achieved career and financial success, and see the changes and improvements taking place in the industry. The National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) offers advocacy, career development, and educational resources, as well as membership in a strong professional community.
Still, the work is not finished.
To hear Dr. Thompson Greenwell’s presentation, go to the Levy Senior Center Foundation’s YouTube channel.