Chris Benson

 

 

 

          217-333-1746
          233 Greg Hall
          cdbenson@illinois.edu


Education

  • J.D., Georgetown University Law Center
  • M.S. Journalism (P.S.), University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
  • B.S. Journalism, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

Affiliations

  • Associate Professor, Journalism
  • Associate Professor, African American Studies
  • Associate Professor, Institute of Communications Research
  • Faculty Affiliate, Psychology

Course Specialties

  • Media Ethics and Diversity
  • Media Law
  • Hate Crimes
  • Race and the Press
  • Magazine Writing

Background and Creative Endeavor
Christopher Benson has worked as a city hall reporter in Chicago for the former WBMX-FM (now WVAZ-FM), and as Features Editor and Washington Editor for Ebony magazine. He has written for Chicago, Savoy, Jet, and The Crisis magazines, and has contributed to The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Sun-Times and Reader’s Digest. He has written a regular column for N’Digo, a Black alternative weekly in Chicago, and has written commentary for the Huffington Post and for The Chicago Reporter. His “Reasonable Doubt” column for the Reporter was honored with a Peter Lisagor Award for exemplary journalism (online, affiliated), presented by the Chicago Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Among the commentary recognized by the award was Professor Benson’s Reporter series on the wrongful murder conviction of Anthony Dansberry, which contributed to the commutation of Dansberry’s 75-year sentence and his release from prison (after serving 23 years).

Professor Benson is co-author with Mamie Till-Mobley of her memoir "Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime That Changed America," (Random House, October 2003) about the life and brutal lynching of Mrs. Till-Mobley’s son, Emmett Till, and the history-making changes that followed. The book won the 2003 Robert F. Kennedy Book Award Special Recognition; the 2004 BlackBoard Nonfiction Book of the Year Award; and the 2008-2009 Black Excellence Award for Outstanding Achievement in Literature (Nonfiction) awarded by the African American Arts Alliance of Chicago. The book has been used widely in public high school classrooms, including a special program among Boston tenth graders, and a special book club program in Queens, NY high schools sponsored by the rap artist 50 Cent. The book also has been used in college courses, including those offered at Brown University and Princeton University, as well as the University of Illinois College of Law. Professor Benson co-authored a screenplay and wrote a stage play based on the book, both currently in development for production. In this connection, Professor Benson was among 10 writers selected by the Sundance Institute as a fellow for the Institute’s 2016 intensive screenwriting workshop.

Professor Benson also was a co-writer and associate producer of the WTTW Channel 11 documentary “Paper Trail: 100 Years of the Chicago Defender,” broadcast by the Chicago PBS station in June 2005. He was honored with two of the documentary’s three 2005-2006 Emmy Awards for Outstanding Achievement presented by the Midwest Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences (narrator Harry Lennix won the third Emmy), and with the 2005 Peter Lisagor Award for exemplary journalism (documentary). Additionally, Professor Benson wrote Matt Damon’s narration script for the documentary “Running the Sahara,” which screened at the 2007 Toronto Film Festival, and premiered on Showtime in January 2009.

In other works, Professor Benson is co-author with Northwestern University Professor Charles Whitaker of the textbook "Magazine Writing" (Routledge, February 2014), and served as contract editor for "Don’t Block the Blessings: Revelations of a Lifetime," The New York Times bestseller and NAACP Image Award-winning memoir by Patti LaBelle with Laura B. Randolph (Riverhead/Putnam, 1996). He also has written fiction, including the novel "Special Interest," a Washington-based suspense thriller (Third World Press, October 2001; One World/Ballantine, December 2003), and the short story “Double Dealing,” published in "Shades of Black: Crime and Mystery Stories by African-Americans," edited by Eleanor Taylor Bland (Berkley Prime Crime, February 2004). A screenplay adaptation of the novel is being developed. The short story is being adapted as a graphic novel by Professor Benson and the graphic novel creative team, John Jennings, associate professor, University of California, Riverside, and Damian Duffy, Ph.D., Illinois School of Information Science. The Jennings & Duffy graphic novel adaptation of Octavia Butler’s "Kindred" debuted at number one on the New York Times Best Seller’s List (Graphic Novels) in January 2017.

Generally, in his non-fiction writing, Professor Benson focuses on the intimate personal story as a way of presenting the full context of the construction of social difference and its often-violent enforcement. His research and creative works bring together key elements of critical race theory, media studies and narrative theory, interpreting personal stories and events in both historical and structural contexts. Through creative dramatic works, he weaves such social themes organically into compelling narratives that can elevate as well as entertain. His latest project is a stage adaptation of the Emmy Award-winning documentary “Inheritance” by James Moll, founding executive director of the Shoah Foundation. “Inheritance” is an extension of the “Schindler’s List” story. In the dramatic adaptation, Professor Benson explores the dynamics of memory and forgetting, as well as the enduring effects of trauma. This presentation centers on a conversation between a Holocaust survivor and the daughter of a Nazi perpetrator—a war criminal responsible for the liquidation of the Krakow Ghetto, the operation of the nearby Plaszow concentration camp, and ultimately the deaths of thousands of Jews. The encounter of the two women has both historical overtones and contemporary resonance. Professor Benson has been invited to present on the story and its implications in significant public forums, including the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Skokie, Illinois.

In the Journalism Department at the University of Illinois, Professor Benson has taught media law, focusing on the balance between First Amendment rights and other individual protections; magazine writing, with an emphasis on literary techniques (theme, character, voice, conflict, resolution); and ethics and diversity with an emphasis on media responsibility, particularly in considering media agenda setting, framing and representation in connection with the effect on public understanding and enlightened choice making. He has taught African American Studies courses on hate crimes and on race and the press (with a special focus on Emmett Till coverage). He also launched a new “Discovery” course (a freshman seminar) to explore representation and stereotypes in motion pictures. Titled “Avatar: The Noble Savage in American Film,” the course covers the role of motion pictures in shaping attitudes toward race and ethnicity through content and production techniques.

In both African American Studies and Journalism, Professor Benson consistently is listed among professors rated excellent by their students, and has won several honors, including the highest campus teaching award for excellence. His research interests focus on the role of the media in the social construction of difference. Upcoming projects include a collaborative analysis of racially coded language in media coverage, and an examination of media treatment of traditionally marginalized groups.

In his former role as associate dean of the College of Media, Professor Benson worked closely with the dean of the college on strategic planning, successful development of the college accreditation self-study (satisfying all 9 standards), development of research partnerships and online education opportunities, planning for a new Roger Ebert Center for the exploration of the impact of film on American culture, and designed a comprehensive strategic diversity plan for the college. For his leadership and commitment to diversity, including service on several campus diversity committees at the University of Illinois, Professor Benson received the 2011 Larine Y. Cowan Make a Difference Award, which honors faculty and staff members “who demonstrate exceptional dedication to and success in promoting diversity and inclusion on campus.”

Professor Benson has done numerous television, radio and print interviews, and has delivered a number of major speeches and presentations on the significance of Mamie Till-Mobley’s contribution to the modern civil rights movement; on the historical significance of the Black advocacy press; on media agenda setting; on race, power and privilege in America; on everyday racism (micro aggression), on Black images in film, and on the violent enforcement of racial, ethnic and gender difference through ethno-violence. The common theme among these presentations is the role of a free and responsible press in deepening public understanding, with an assessment of how effectively the media are meeting this social responsibility.

Among his significant public presentations was the First Annual Ted Sorensen Lecture at Sorensen’s Alma Mater in Lincoln, Nebraska, with personal approval and support by the late JFK advisor and speechwriter. In clarifying the balance between free expression and equal protection, Professor Benson also has been called upon to frame legal narratives as an expert witness in several civil cases to clarify the harmful meaning of a hangman’s noose in the workplace and its injurious effect. One federal case in Central Illinois, Barbee v. Christy-Foltz, ended with a jury verdict for the African-American Plaintiff, who was awarded punitive damages after complaining of threat and intimidation by the display of two nooses on the job. Another case was resolved before trial in New Jersey, and others are pending in New Jersey and Hawaii.

In his legal career, Professor Benson served as vice president and associate counsel of Johnson Publishing Company, Inc., where his responsibilities included start-up and U.S. management oversight of Ebony South Africa magazine, and pre-publication review of magazine content for such legal issues as defamation and invasion of privacy. He also has worked as a promotional writer for The Chicago Reporter and as a speechwriter for Washington, D.C. politicians, including former U.S. Representative Harold Washington and former Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Chairman Clarence Thomas, and as Press Secretary for former U.S. Representative Cardiss Collins. He currently is a member of the Illinois Bar, the District of Columbia Bar and the Federal Bar, Northern District of Illinois.

Additionally, Professor Benson has received training by Chicago Legal Advocacy for Incarcerated Mothers to provide family law counseling to women in the penal system, and to document their stories. He has been retained as co-curator of a Chicago History Museum (Chicago Historical Society) exhibition on the difficult social and racial transformation of Hyde Park, the once-rigidly segregated, now racially diverse Chicago community that produced three U.S. Senators, two Supreme Court Justices, a U.S. Secretary of State, the first African American Mayor of Chicago and the first African American President of the United States. A book project also is planned.

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