Twice per school year, SUNY New Paltz hosts the Distinguished Speakers Series. On Oct. 19., students and community members gathered in the Lecture Center to hear accomplished journalist and activist, Sonali Kolhatkar, speak about racial justice.
“Rising Up: The Power of Narrative in Pursuing Racial Justice” covered intersecting subjects like media literacy, the 2016 election and racist narratives.
Kolhatkar spoke about how far right leaning media and corporate liberal media contributed to the spread of racists and xenophobic ideologies. Specifically in 2016, when the Washington Post fact checked Donald Trump’s comments on Mexican immigrants but refused to label this comment as racist. Then, in 2019, the Post called Trump a racist for his tweet telling people of color in Congress to go back to their own country.
Calling a person racist is often seen as unprofessional or subjective in the corporate media world, but Kolhatkar argues that with clear statements from a politician like Trump, labeling someone as a racist is objective. Kolhatkar says turning a blind eye to racism is being complicit to the issue. “You are accepting the status. If you are not advocating for justice, you’re accepting the status quo that is a biased position,” she told The Oracle.
The ability to be critical of people in power is essential to a free press. “The point of journalism is to reveal, is to do storytelling about the world in which we live in order to strengthen our democracy. We talk about the free press as a bulwark of democracy so even mainstream journalists accept that a free society, a free democratic society, is one where journalists are free to do what they need to do to tell the stories,” said Kolhatkar.
American politics have shifted further to the right in correlation to what Americans have been consuming. The opinions and ideologies of many voters have changed because of a lack of media literacy. “Critical thinking skills and being skeptical of anything we see on the internet is so important for the health of our democracy, because far too many people get far too swayed by unverified things that look like facts, that are masquerading as facts,” Kolhatkar told The Oracle. “The first thing anyone should do whenever they see something that seems a little far fetched, is just to fact check before you act on it. That would make a huge difference.”
Kolhatkar then spoke about Hollywood during the Black Lives Matter movement. TV series and movies have a habit of “copaganda” or portraying law enforcement in an exclusively positive light. People of color are often cast as police officers which can give viewers a false impression of law enforcement.
While it’s important for journalists to expose realities, ethically it can be harmful to publish footage of police brutality. “I think they [videos] can have the impact of moving the needle and convincing Americans that there is enough brutality against real human beings that needs to be addressed. So how we frame it is important, but also helping protect those among us who have been so deeply scarred,” Kolhatkar told The Oracle.
Although misrepresentations are spread across all media platforms, there’s been a shift in who is telling stories. Ava DuVernay and Ryan Coogler are two Black filmmakers who are changing the narrative and redirecting how we view Black stories. Making changes in newsrooms can have the same impact on our publications.
“If you have enough change, enough demographic shifting, enough women, enough people of color in the newsrooms telling the stories, you’re going to get better stories,” Kolhatkar explained.
She ended the talk by speaking about how she, as a woman of color, tried to fit in when she first moved to the U.S.A. Kolhatkar said that in her first article that was published, she changed the byline to Sally Ingalls in hopes of not being judged on the basis of her name. Eventually she began to embrace herself for who she was. “I could have changed myself to fit into this world, but instead, I chose to change the world,” she said at the end.
The reception was bustling with attendees chatting with one another and eagerly waiting for Kolhatkar to sign her books. Among them was program director and 2023 graduate student, Lisa Sandick. When choosing a speaker, giving a platform to underrepresented voices is important.
“Diversity is a huge thing. You know, we also want to make sure it’s not too many men. We look for what’s currently happening in the world. What topics or current events would be of interest to people?” said Sandick. “I think it also makes students realize they have a voice too. They should be part of the conversation. They should be proactive and reactive and be part of the social justice movement, hopefully to make things better in the world.”
Even though Kolhatkar came from a background in astronomy and physics, her interest in journalism started at a young age. When living in Dubai as a child, Kolhatkar submitted her writing to a magazine called Young Times. “It was this little blip in my childhood that I remember feeling a lot of joy doing that, but just putting it aside, not even thinking of journalism as a career for some reason,” said Kolhatkar.
Along with her work as a print journalist, broadcast journalist and author, she also creates paintings and is a musician who performs with her husband Jim Ingalls.“It turns out I am a complex person with many different interests and I tend to not give up when I want to learn something. I’m like a dog with a bone and I just keep pursuing it, painstakingly, till I start to slowly master it,” she said. “All I know is I am a multi-dimensional person with many different interests and they don’t all have to fit one another and this is what makes me human.”
Despite speaking about the problematic elements of the corporate media world, Kolhatkar believes there is hope for our news. “I think corporate media can embrace racial justice if it doesn’t have demographic change in the newsrooms, but there’s going to be a limit and we need to start talking about the fact that capitalism is not working, that capitalism has led us into the climate crisis,” she told The Oracle. “We’re in this growth economy model that is broken, and sucking up resources faster than we can even use them, all in the name of profits and destroying our very world. If we don’t address that, we’re all in trouble.”