Book Interview with Linda Lumsden

15 Sep 2021 7:06 AM | Autumn Linford (Administrator)

Linda Lumsden is the author of Social Justice Journalism: A Cultural History of Social Movement Media from Abolition to #womensmarch.

Please introduce yourself and include your connections/role with AJHA. 

I’m Linda Lumsden, and I just retired from the School of Journalism at the University of Arizona, where for 15 years I taught courses in journalism history, journalism ethics, diversity in journalism, and social movement media. Before that I taught for ten years at Western Kentucky University.

I’ve been affiliated with AJHA since I was a graduate student in the 1990s at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I’ve found AJHA to be a friendly and nurturing community over the years. I’ve filled just about every role in the organization from presenting papers to serving on the Board of Directors. I’m most honored to have received the Maurine Beasley Award for Outstanding Paper in Women’s History for three consecutive years--a record, I believe. AJHA also has been instrumental in advancing my work by awarding me two Joseph Kerns Research Grants.

What drew you to your topic/time period? 

I’ve been studying advocacy media of the Progressive Era for thirty years. I’m drawn to its producers’ belief in the power of the word and facts as well as their passion for justice. Oftentimes these publications are the best exemplars of the journalistic mission to be a ‘voice for the voiceless.’ I started out as a student looking at how suffragists used the right of assembly to make their case, which of course led me to the suffrage press, particularly Alice Paul’s The Suffragist.

Inez Milholland kept popping up at the head of suffrage parades and, later, as the impetus for the White House pickets after she died while stumping for suffrage in California. Milholland dipped her toes in just about every Progressive movement of the 1910s, so I learned more about socialism, feminism, and other movements as I researched her biography. That led to a full exploration of the prewar radical press in Black, White, and Red all Over (2014).

How did your thinking in the development of your topic start and then lead to this publication? Did it stray? Did you make any sudden and unexpected turns? 

I studied the role of online news media and its “contentious journalism” in opening up political discourse in Malaysia when I was a Fulbright Scholar there during its 2013 election campaign. The connections between print and online advocacy media intrigued me. As were many journalists and scholars at the time, I also was reconsidering the meaning of journalism in the digital era. The Internet spawned a renaissance of what some call ‘activist journalism’ and a reconsideration of the elusive ideal of ‘objectivity.’

People seemed to think activist journalists were born on the Internet, so I wanted to demonstrate their roots in a venerable print culture of dissent that goes back more than a century. As I delved more into current digital mashes of journalism and advocacy, I wrestled with how to characterize the genre. The result was Social Justice Journalism.

As the title indicates, I’m most interested in the aspects of journalistic social movement media, not its propagandizing. I argue facts can be powerful persuaders. To those who say real journalism is neutral, I have two words: Tucker Carlson.

What surprised you most about this project? 

The similarities in functions of 20th-century social justice journalism in print for with 21st century digital media. For example, I write about how the Black Lives Matter interactive website Mapping Police Violence, which documented 1,175 police killings in 2014, is a technologically advanced iteration of Ida Wells-Barnett’s documentation of terrorism against African Americans across the South in her 1892 pamphlet, Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases.

What did you find to be your biggest challenge in working your way to completion of your monograph? 

Conceptualizing and theorizing what actually comprises “social justice journalism.” Negotiating the amorphous lines between journalism and activism remains a challenge. I wrote the conclusion in 2019, when the so-called Trump Resistance Movement was in full swing. I focused on its use of the Internet to spread information, educate citizens, and inspire recruits, but in the end I have to confess its use of media veers more into electoral politics.

As an old print journalist, I found myself vexed by the general lack of print publications at the nexus of current social movements. For example, I questioned whether BLM could survive without at least an online periodical to serve as its institutional memory and maintain movement momentum. Well, I guess the answer is “Yes!”

What are you working on now? 

I just retired, and I spent 2020 coping not only with the COVID pandemic but cancer. I am eager to toss my mask and hop onto my bicycle instead of my laptop. I’m spending the summer visiting family and friends in the Carolinas, Vermont, and Colorado before returning to Tucson in autumn. Hikes, bikes, kayaks, and cocktails figure prominently in my itinerary.

What topic would you like to tackle next? 

After about a year’s sojourn from academia, I might like to return to more popular writing. I’m a big fan of books that combine travel/memoir/natural and cultural history. I’d love to write one.

Of course, I’m also closely observing how social movement media evolves. One of my favorite books this summer was Bearing Witness While Black: African Americans, Smartphones, and the New Protest #Journalism by Alissa Richardson. She does a fantastic job of exploring this form of social movement media.

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