Ida B. Wells Society welcomes Rhema Bland

As a Black, female journalist rising up the ranks, Rhema Bland couldn’t name what she was experiencing. She saw other journalists with the kinds of investigative reporting skills she wanted, but she often felt passed over for opportunities to learn more.

“More than once, stories or beats I was vying for would go to younger, white reporters who didn’t have my education or level of experience,” she says. “It took longer for me to achieve those things, even when I worked harder. There was something unwritten that didn’t make sense to me.”

She saw journalists of color tracked into lifestyle reporting and breaking news. When she left the industry to work in higher education, she saw something similar: few students of color doing investigative journalism.

“When I started working with student media, there was a dearth of students of color. And they weren’t doing deep-dive journalism, the comprehensive, investigative stories,” said Bland. “When I learned about the Ida B. Wells Society, I realized – this gets to what I couldn’t name so long ago.”

Bland is the new director of the Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media. Co-founded by award-winning journalists Nikole Hannah-Jones (M.A. ’03), Ron Nixon and Topher Sanders, the society seeks to increase the ranks, retention and profile of reporters and editors of color in the field of investigative reporting. They host trainings year-round for journalists of all skill levels, led by media professionals from around the country, and focusing on everything from reporting about racial inequality and schools to COVID-19.

“This is a tremendous opportunity,” says Bland. “2020 struck a lot of chords that needed to be struck. The society is needed more than ever as we bolster and elevate journalists who are marginalized in an industry that is often marginalized itself. I’m excited to be part of this great mission and help propel the ideals of the cofounders, and come up with my own, at this precipice.”

Bland graduated from the University of Connecticut and earned a master’s degree in broadcast journalism at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. She worked for CBS News, New York Daily News, Pensacola News Journal, WJCT Radio and the Florida Times-Union before moving into higher education as an adjunct professor in the journalism program at University of North Florida and joining the staff of Florida Gulf Coast University, where she was the first full-time adviser for its student media program. There, she started a student radio program and the first student media production studio on campus, as well as the Media Career Prep Workshop, an annual professional development and networking event connecting students with media professionals.

“I found that I loved working with aspiring journalists, and I developed a passion for increasing diversity in media, because the lack of students of color really troubled me,” said Bland. “I made a dedicated effort to get more Black students and students of color into the media program and our new radio program.”

Bland and her family moved to North Carolina in 2019, where she became the director of student media at East Carolina University. Her transition to the Ida B. Wells Society comes at a time when the nation faces a racial reckoning and a pandemic, which she says calls for dedicated resources that can help reporters uncover untold stories.

“The frank discussions we’re having about race, coupled with this growing hostility toward media in general, creates this necessary point where we need to particularly provide support and spaces for journalists of color who want to do stories of significance to our communities,” she says. “I’m looking forward to being part of something that helps reporters of color look deeper into stories that don’t get a lot of play and make sure they have the tools they need to do their work. There’s a lot there, and I think it takes people who are in those communities, in the trenches, to bring them to the front.”

Susan Leath, who directs UNC Hussman’s Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media — and has served as the acting director of the Ida B. Wells Society through the search for a permanent director — said Bland brings the right mix of experience, values and passion to work with its cofounders to drive their mission forward. “Rhema knows the business; she knows firsthand the barriers there are to overcome; and she has a passion and a track record for creating diversity within the ranks of journalism,” said Leath. “Her commitment and understanding of student journalists adds another dimension that will create strong ties to the society’s mission with our own aspiring student journalists at UNC Hussman.”