An Op-Ed piece by Cuban-American reporter Soledad O’Brien for The New York Times.
Every journalist of color has a story.
My first job as an on-air reporter was at KRON in San Francisco from 1993 to 1996. I saw my new colleagues having a lively conversation and wanted to jump in. I discovered that they were talking about the “affirmative-action hire,” who turned out to be me. That’s how they saw me — it didn’t matter that I’d been a researcher and producer at NBC News or that I had gone to Harvard.
At that same job, the managers half-joked that they had taken their lives into their own hands when their morning commute was rerouted through Oakland. I was the bureau chief for the East Bay, which includes Oakland, and they would be signing off on my reports hours later.
So, as other journalists of color in these recent weeks have spoken up about their lack of representation and influence in newsrooms, and how that warps coverage, I know exactly what they’re talking about: how treatment leads to unfair coverage. What’s most disturbing, though, is how much their stories, in 2020, sound like mine from several decades ago.
After my time at KRON, I moved on to NBC News in New York and worked my share of nights and weekends, as is standard for young reporters. It wasn’t lost on me that people of color were usually the ones who got stuck there, at the bottom on the ladder. I didn’t, fortunately, eventually becoming an anchor, and then in 2003, I became an anchor at CNN. This was a great opportunity to work with journalists at a network known for its saturation coverage of news events.
But people of color were rarely included in reports unless they were about crime or tragedy or poverty. Deeper reporting on our community was often limited to Black and Hispanic history months — a “special report” that often felt more marginalizing than special. When CNN responded to internal pressure for more coverage of people of color and their communities, it created the series “Uncovering America,” as if the network were revealing some secret world.
When I began reporting the “Black in America” documentary series in 2008, followed by the “Latino in America” series, the production team had so few producers of color that they had to draft them from the news gathering unit. The first team meeting about “Latino in America” ended with approximately 15 people debating whether Puerto Ricans on the island should count as part of the Latino community in the States.
This was at the same news outlet where staff members had complained for years, to no avail, about Lou Dobbs’s racist, and frequently inaccurate, reporting on immigration. When “Latino in America” debuted, Latino activists picketed our screeningsbecause of him. When the “Black in America” series aired, I was attacked by racist trolls.
In both cases, the leaders of CNN stayed on the sidelines.
I left CNN more than seven years ago. But I watch its coverage, and that of other news networks — the panel-driven journalism that sometimes gives voice to liars and white supremacists; the excuse of “balance” to embolden and normalize bigots and bigotry by posing them as the “other side.” When I criticize CNN (as I do frequently on social media), the company attacks me as “more of a liberal activist than a journalist,” a common dig against journalists of color who criticize newsroom management.
I have never been alone in speaking up, but these days something seismic is finally happening. Journalists of color are sidestepping management and going straight to the public: Absent a hashtag but buoyed by this public awakening over Black Lives Matter, we have collectively inaugurated our own #MeToo movement.
We are risking jobs and status and a metaphorical stoning by bigots on social media to call out an industry that reports on racism and segregation while shamefully allowing it to fester within.
To be clear, this is not just about how reporters of color are treated when they talk about race in the newsroom. The thin ranks of people of color in American newsrooms have often meant us-and-them reporting, where everyone from architecture critics to real estate writers, from entertainment reporters to sports anchors, talk about the world as if the people listening or reading their work are exclusively white.
There are simply not enough of us in the newsroom to object effectively — not in TV, print or online, certainly not in management. So our only option is to mimic the protester’s strategy: Talk directly to the public and just talk loud.
According to the News Leaders Association in 2019, 21 percent of newspaper employees and 31 percent of online-only news employees belonged to so-called minority groups — that includes African-Americans, Latinos, Asian-Americans and Native Americans. I say “so-called” because people of color are not minorities in many parts of this country. Blacks, Latinos and Asians are about 37 percent of the American population and much more in big cities where big news organizations exist.
According to the report, from 2004 to 2019, only 38 percent of newsrooms gained racial diversity, while 15 percent became less diverse. Moreover, just 18.8 percent of newsroom managers at print, digital and online-only publications are people of color.
It’s so bad that The Village Voice recently republished a 1995 two-part series called “The Unbearable Whiteness of Publishing,” by James Ledbetter, without an update, because nothing has changed.
There is better news in television newsrooms, where, a study found, people of color made up 25.9 percent of staff in 2019. The study noted, however, that “in the last 29 years, the population of people of color in the U.S. has risen 12.8 points” while “in TV news it is up just 8.1.”
I run an independent production company now, so I have less to lose when I speak up. I can even speak for those who can’t: This is a moment, propelled by the outrage over brutal policing and so many other flagrant inequities, when Black and brown reporters won’t await your awakening.
We are letting viewers, listeners and readers know that the absence of reporting on communities of color is why it took shocking videos of police killings to awaken them to police brutality. We are telling the public about the editor who wore brownface and the puffy article about the first lady that fails to mention she is a birther and the pained euphemisms that replace calling the president a racist when he acts out.
We refuse to be benched or tainted as activists or deemed incapable of objectivity, while white reporters are hailed for their “perspective” on stories.
It’s been 52 years since the Kerner Commission declared: “The press has too long basked in a white world, looking out of it, if at all, with white men’s eyes and a white perspective. That is no longer good enough.” You don’t get another 52 years. Time’s up on hiring and promoting and giving us voice. We can’t stand it anymore. I’m optimistic that the public will agree.