As a black journalist, it becomes more and more difficult to read and evaluate news stories, when it is clear that so many people do not care about whether black people live or die. So I have to ask myself: how can I report on issues surrounding racial equality without bias? Just this past week, so many trending news stories focused on the failure of: local, domestic and international governments to protect black bodies. McKinney, Charleston, Los Angeles, the Dominican Republic, the list goes on. Even though black people are making headlines, doesn’t mean that black reporters are telling their stories. According to 4th Estate’s Newsroom Diversity study, white reporters wrote 93% of front-page election related stories in 2012.
When my writing career first took off, it seemed like every day was a battle to get my editor(s) to accurately represent various types of black voices in a respectful way. One of my former editors felt I was too worried about what other black people thought. “You should not be a journalist if you are worried about what every black person in the world thinks,” she said.
She didn’t understand the social and cultural implications of discussing taboo topics related to other black Americans. She also didn’t understand how few black reporters work in political journalism. Of the 36, 700 daily full-time newspaper employees in 2014, only 4,900 of them identified as ethnic or racial minorities. I wanted to respect black voices, but I hosted this passion to contribute to diversity in the newspaper industry. I wanted to help contribute to more political dialogue with the few political reporters of color out there. So I traded in my prior cool catholic high school kid attitude, and started caring about things that most people my age don’t really care about.
I thought I was getting job offers because my content often focused on race and sex. When in reality, I was good at pissing people off without caring. I produced controversial content quickly, checked off someone’s diversity quota, and built a career for myself in less than a year. For a few months, I thought I had it made.
With success came criticism. I quickly gained a reputation for being a cocky b*tch, and many of my peers at USC feared and resented me. The people I believed were my friends talked about me to each other, without realizing all of their gossip came right back to me each time. Only a few of my real friends had the courage to tell me that I needed “to calm down.” But I was expected to work and write like an adult, for adults, and I was proud that editors across the country sought me out.
It wasn’t until last semester that I knew I had become really desensitized. Desensitized like the Pulitzer Prize winning photographer who captures the moment a vulture begins to eat a dying child. Desensitized like the black reporters who have the capacity to snap a few photos of a Ferguson protest and fly back to their offices.
News with trigger warnings stopped scaring me. I started looking at photographs and video footage from conflict zones to see if I could really pursue a career in justice reporting. I even watched ISIS members burn a Jordanian pilot alive. As the pilot melted to death, I barely blinked. Something had changed in me that caused me to view victims as headlines, not human beings.
I became emotionally separate from what people thought of me, that I continued to expose myself to instances of racism and terrorism to produce what journalists call “fair reporting.” I seriously considered working for government agencies because of my growing disregard for human life.
My ability to temporarily detach from my identity while reporting on black issues contributed to my success.
I still struggle to find a balance between the young woman who carries the weight of a nation on her shoulders, versus the cold reporter who doesn’t flinch at the loss of a human life.
As much as I love political journalism, I don’t understand why I should be expected to be emotionless. I don’t understand why I should have to call myself “African-American,” instead of “black” to seem less threatening. I don’t want to be the token, whitewashed “African-American” reporter who speaks on black issues without appearing to feel a connection to black lives.
If established writers and editors really want to teach aspiring journalists how to engage in fair reporting, then they should specifically encourage black reporters to embrace who they are and where they come from, even if their feelings and opinions don’t appeal to the majority.