Jillian Whitaker always knew she would be a news anchor. She’s the self-described Oprah of her family, an inquisitive child who grew into a questioning adult. Her calling, she says, is to be a voice for those people who are silenced, to call attention to taboo topics which deserve attention.
Jillian’s platform is Better Black News, the only online news broadcast station of its kind in Oklahoma. Frustrated by the relentless stream of negative news stories in the mainstream media, she founded Better Black News to promote positive coverage of the black community. Five years later, her mission is more important than ever.
Candor recently chatted with Jillian about the importance of black people covering the news, how white people can be better allies and why becoming a mother totally shifted her perspective.
What was the impetus behind Better Black News?
Jillian: I was getting ready to graduate from the University of Central Oklahoma (UCO) and was putting a demo reel together. At the time, I had short, spiky purple hair. My professor told me I was going to have to change my look to appear more professional — it turns out my professor was referring more to the style of my hair, not so much the color.
Black women, we love our hair. We do different things with it, we’re very expressive with it, because we can be. That was just one of the styles I loved on people I grew up around. At the time, I hadn’t really grown into my voice to stand up to her, so I just went with it.
I was in the middle of recording a new demo reel — one in which I adhered to my white professor’s definition of “professional” — and then I just stopped. I wasn’t OK with this. First of all, when black people are on the news, the stories are always either negative or they’re sports related. So, we’re either criminals or we’re athletes. And when there is a story about crime and it’s on the black side of town, they always send a black reporter. It’s like it’s expected for us to cover the bad stuff. I wasn’t going to fall into that trap.
I had a conversation with one of my good friends, and she asked me if I could change anything, what would it be? I told her it would be the way black people are represented in media. She told me to do something about it. That lit the fire under me — and we’re still here five years later.
What topics do you cover?
Jillian: In the beginning, we mostly just highlighted black businesses and any positive black news. I was just so excited to be doing this, and I honestly didn’t have a clear direction. But when I had my son two years ago, my direction changed. When you become a mother, you see things differently. Now, the only things we cover are things that are relative to the black family. We’ve covered fibroid tumors, infertility, breastfeeding — the black community has the lowest breastfeeding rate of any other group in America. This season we covered mental health, child sexual abuse and toxic black masculinity. It’s been heavier, but these are important topics black people need to talk about that they usually brush under the rug.
The shift in direction has been well received. A lot of people are like, “Yes. Finally. Somebody is covering this from our perspective.
Right now, we’re seeing a lot of negative comments relating to race relations and media coverage. As a black reporter, what are your thoughts?
Jillian: This is why outlets like Better Black News, and outlets that employ people of color, matter. You get to hear our perspective. We’ve seen black reporters like Oscar Jimenez getting arrested for simply trying to cover the news — I hope that shows their news director and their team that something really is going on. When you don’t have the fears of raising a black child in this world, you’re oblivious to a lot of things. That’s why it’s important to have representation, to have black people at the table, so you can see and hear what’s going on and not default to saying black people are pulling the race card.
What can other communicators and media outlets do to support the black media and stand up against racial inequality?
Jillian: Make sure your support of black people is a lifestyle change. Don’t just do it because it’s mainstream right now or it’s trending right now. If this truly becomes a lifestyle for brands who are standing up and showing their support, then we’ll be in better shape when my son is my age. I want to make sure the cause isn’t forgotten.