Activism

Journalist Patrice O'Neill Wins Danny Award for Tireless Fight Against Hate Crime

O'Neill has fostered a network of community activists, leading anti-hate media campaigns in hundreds of communities nationwide.

Patrice O'Neill

A fresh burst of hate incidents and crimes was reported in the days following Donald Trump's election last year, fueled by inflamed passions roused by his campaign, with its “dog whistle” calls to bigots, newly empowered “Alt-Right,” and racist, xenophobic media arm summoning supremacists to “Make America White Again.” Not surprisingly, given the Islamophobia and antisemitism prevalent among many Trump supporters, bias crimes against Muslims and Jews – as well as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people -- accounted for much of the reported rise. 

The situation has eased somewhat in recent months, but hate activity remains above pre-election levels, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. In any event, the problem is undoubtedly worse than the figures show or most people realize: hate crimes are in fact dramatically underreported.

Along with winning the White House, Trump's cunning campaign unleashed deep-seated bitterness – and seemed to spur hateful actions – toward refugees and immigrants, people of color, Muslims, Jews, Sikhs, LGBT-identified people, women and many others. As his administration's real-world ramifications quickly unfolded – deportations, travel bans, proposals to cut funds to sanctuary cities, appointments of political neophytes with a pronounced hostility toward government programs designed to promote equality, etc. –  fear spread rapidly through vulnerable populations. A spate of hate-based shootings, vandalism against cemeteries, synagogues and mosques, and other bias crimes only exacerbated the situation.

For 20 years, Patrice O'Neill and the organization she founded, Not In Our Town, have been preparing for these times such as these. O'Neill is Founder and Executive Producer of the Oakland-based non-profit strategic media company The Working Group and leader of Not In Our Town, the organization's core project devoted to addressing hate, intolerance and bullying in local communities. 

That's why I am proud to announce the selection of Patrice O'Neill as the second recipient of “The Danny,” more formally known as the Danny Schechter Global Vision Award for Journalism & Activism, awarded annually to an individual who best emulates Schechter's practice of combining excellent journalism with social advocacy. The award includes a $3000 stipend to support future work.

An accomplished filmmaker, O'Neill has produced national films series on PBS for twenty years and fashioned a multi-platform approach that utilizes documentary film, social networking, and civic engagement to spur community action. She also regularly speaks before community and college groups, law enforcement organizations and faith institutions on how to address hate crimes and intolerance.

This movement of people across the country working to build safe, inclusive communities for all had its genesis when O'Neill's film Not In Our Town (made with Rhian Miller) aired in 1995 as a PBS special. It showed how ordinary citizens in Billings, Montana came together to stand up to hate when their neighbors were attacked by white supremacists. Townspeople of all races and religions found common ground against hate-based assaults on African American, Native American and Jewish families and congregations. Religious and community leaders, labor union volunteers, law enforcement, the local newspaper and concerned residents all united in action and spoke loudly against intolerance, proclaiming in no uncertain terms “Not In Our Town!”  The story of how the residents of Billings stood  together against hate inspired many others around the country to create new ways to respond when neighbors are under attack.

 Since then, O'Neill has fostered a network of community activists and helped lead a series of anti-hate media campaigns featuring screenings and town hall meetings in hundreds of communities nationwide. Under her leadership, Not In Our Town turned into a dynamic mass movement that thrives in communities across the U.S. – and around the world. Her team launched  NIOT.org, a social media resource and film site that opens new civic engagement possibilities, andNot In Our School, which includes anti-bullying campaign resources for teachers and students.

The late Danny Schechter was one of the first journalists to marry his reporting with  activism against racism and hatred, and to advocate forcefully in his work for increased tolerance and openness. While at CNN and later ABC News, Schechter pushed hard against the constraints of the cable and broadcast news media. In frustration, he left ABC  to partner with me in the independent production company Globalvision. Together we began producing regular programming about such controversial topics as apartheid in South Africa and human rights abuses around the world.

We knew from first-hand experience at CNN, ABC and CBS that the commercial world was not very open to such coverage. So we offered it instead to public television – where both of us had started our broadcast careers. Rather than being welcomed, we were instead told by top PBS media executives that our public opposition to the racist regime in South Africa was “too controversial” and that human rights was “an insufficient organizing principle” for a television program.” The PBS reaction, combined with deceitful, highly organized right-wing protests against us, led to our being branded with a metaphoric scarlet letter and told that our advocacy meant that we weren't really journalists at all. 

Such views, while they are eroding, are still somewhat prevalent in today's media world. But as the pace of change within that world continues to accelerate, more people within the field  have begun to raise questions about such outmoded views regarding the role of advocacy. Increasingly it is becoming understood that journalists with strong, transparent points of view are giving us news and insights we truly need and can use.

“NIOT offers a different model,” says O'Neill. “We have a clear perspective and angle on a topic we cover in depth. We are transparent about the fact that we think hate crimes should be prevented, that hate and intolerance are poisonous to each of us as individuals, to our schools, communities, our country, our world, and that there are effective ways for local communities to counter it together.  NIOT seeks out stories about what people can do to both respond to hate and bullying incidents, but more vitally, what they can do to create an atmosphere where hate doesn’t grow.”

“If what we’re doing is advocating for the public,” says Patricia Aufderheide, University Professor of Communication Studies at American University. “That’s our job.” Media theorist Jeff Jarvis, professor at the CUNY School of Graduate Journalism, agrees. He says if a piece of journalism “isn’t advocacy, it isn’t journalism. 

“Isn’t advocacy on behalf of principles and the public the true test of journalism?” Jarvis asks. “The choices we make about what to cover and how we cover it and what the public needs to know are acts of advocacy on the public’s behalf. Don’t we believe that we act in their interest? After all, what is a journalist, if not an advocate on behalf of the public?”

“When we talk about advocacy journalism, why don’t we talk about Fox News or even MSNBC?” adds Patrice O'Neill, pushing back against the notion that the mainstream media is somehow “more objective” and therefore more trustworthy than those who are transparent about their point of view and openly advocate on behalf of the public. “Those news organizations have a point of view that is well-known to their audience,” she notes. “Why shouldn't we?”

Rory O'Connor is an award-winning author, journalist and filmmaker. He has written three books, including Friends, Followers and the Future.

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