When most people think of careers in television, their first thought usually goes to someone in front of the camera. I am no different. When I got serious about my broadcast journalism major, I too had visions of being in front of the camera to become the next Oprah. I knew I wanted to be a reporter and eventually an anchor until a professor told me it is easier to get a job behind the camera as a producer. Post-graduation, I sent out dozens of resumes to news stations across the country for openings for reporters or producers. When itty bitty Amarillo, Texas, called with a producing position, I answered.
Working in Amarillo allowed me to produce and turn around stories. The opportunity made me realize I prefer crafting a show to trying to run people down to get them to talk to me about a story. I also learned that the real power of storytelling is not necessarily who you see on the screen but the person behind it pulling the strings.
I am that person. The storyteller. The puppet master. The voice in a news anchor’s ear. The person who organizes a newscast; deciding the stories you see, the order in which you see them, the soundbites you hear, the video you watch, and any graphic that hits the screen.
I started my journalism career six weeks before Bear Stearns failed, marking a prelude to the financial collapse of 2008. This was also the time when the presidential campaigns of Barack Obama and John McCain were in full swing. I was a 22-year-old black girl from the South Side of Chicago working in rural, Republican red, Amarillo, Texas. I was one of four black people at my station and the only one who touched content. My experiences were different from my coworkers. My sensitivities were different from my coworkers. My political preferences and social proclivities were different from my coworkers.
Offhand remarks like, “That’s so ghetto,” hit me hard. A rope tied together like a noose and left on a nearby desk made me question, “Was that meant for me?” The order to run a two-minute package on John McCain’s announcement of Sarah Palin as his running mate, when all we had been running on Obama and Biden were 40-second ads made me wonder if the “equal time” rule was really a rule or more of a suggestion.
But I was young, eager, and learning; and being steered and guided in an environment that is biased.
The news is biased. I shouldn’t say that, but if you consider what news is—a group of people deciding what stories they want to tell you; the industry that is supposed to be the bedrock of truth, justice, fairness, balance, and enlightenment is always subject to someone else’s opinion.
I have been on the receiving end of such opinions: being forced to run a story I didn’t think was newsworthy, or being told to scrap a story I thought was newsworthy. I have also done the same to others; telling reporters to make more phone calls and look for something else because their story is not news.
So what happens when the subjective nature of news runs up against the very real and very painful subject of racial angst and anger?
Arguments. Lots of arguments.
I’ve spent the last eight years working in Jacksonville, Fla. I began working in Jacksonville in March 2011. On Feb.26, 2012, Trayvon Martin was killed. Nov. 23, 2012, Jordan Davis was killed. July 13, 2013, George Zimmerman was acquitted in the death of Trayvon. July 17, 2014, Eric Garner was killed. Aug. 9, 2014, Mike Brown was killed.
I list these names and dates because for the majority of these killings, cases, trials, and verdicts I was at work. For the Florida cases (Trayvon and Jordan), I remember how the information trickled in, tip by tip, until the story became an avalanche that consumed local consciousness and eventually warranted national attention. I covered the protests that began peacefully and descended into “riots.” What I remember most are the faces of my co-workers; those who looked like me, wracked with grief, and those who did not, questioning why we were all so upset, so angry, so sensitive, so aggressive.
I’ve argued with managers for and against stories:
Manager: “George Zimmerman is auctioning off the gun he used to kill Trayvon. It’s a lead.”
Me: “No, it’s not. It’s insulting, and damaging, and giving attention to a man who doesn’t deserve it.”
This is an argument I lost.
Manager: “What’s this Michigan ‘stand your ground’ story?”
Me: “A 19-year-old black woman was shot and killed. Her killer was convicted. It’s a video.”
Manager: “Does anybody even know who she is?”
This argument I won.
Me: “Hey, have you had time to look at my script about Donald Trump being endorsed and supported by the KKK?”
Manager: “I don’t think this is something our viewers want. Why don’t you run the story about the black journalist who was berated by the racist white woman and held her composure throughout the whole incident. I thought you’d be all over that story.”
This battle I unfortunately lost. One year later, Charlottesville, Va., happened.
I have cried in newsrooms watching the raw videos of deadly police shootings, never getting used to the ease in which people consume and normalize black death. I have argued and advocated for stories that show the humanity of the people in the communities we only go to when there is crime scene tape blocking the street, and evidence markers denoting what happened. I have listened to anchors vigorously support political candidates in ad-libs I did not write, and I have conferenced with black co-workers about how we were going to make it through the day when the pain of our people was the lead story and it was told without the same empathy or sympathy given to Becky or Chad, armed with white privilege and the benefit of the doubt.
As a journalist, opinions on stories are expected. As a black journalist, however, other people’s perceptions of who you are and what you stand for inform their assumptions about the kind of work you do and the stories you tell. One person’s bias about you—be it manager, viewer, or random man on the street—becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy in the cognitive dissonance created between what you reported and what was heard; the truth of your story versus the slant and angle upon which it was received.
In a time of political volatility, racial hostility, and everything being documented on video, the role and value of journalists has changed. Local news is competing with new media companies that have broken the mold to do the old job faster and better and with a more diverse supporting cast than traditional media. In this limbo space black journalists working in newsrooms across the country find ourselves in a precarious position: We can either force the industry—which is still mostly white, and male—to recognize the value in the stories we have to tell or leave the industry and become citizen journalists, vloggers, bloggers, podcasters, or all-day tweeters regurgitating top stories from other outlets. No matter which road we choose we are still beholden to more than just ourselves. The responsibility of truth-telling never goes away and the burden never gets lighter. Our backs and the tools with which we carry our load just get stronger.