Newhouse alumni discuss experiences with race in media
Newhouse alumni discuss experiences with race in media
As part of Newhouse’s two-day Race and the Media Symposium, dozens of students and faculty members gathered in the Joyce Hergenhan Auditorium Wednesday morning to hear five Newhouse alumni speak about how they’re navigating careers in the media industry as people of color.
Brooke Lewis, a reporter at The Houston Chronicle, discussed how as an intern she covered the story of Joseph Dowell, a former inmate at Harris County Jail. He was beginning to transform his life upon after his release, she said, when his body was found in 2017 in flooding wreckage caused by Hurricane Harvey.
“I watched this man’s life transform, and then I watched it get taken in an instant,” Lewis said. “I realized then how powerful journalism is. We have the opportunity to tell someone’s life story and make people get to know their pain and their joy.”
Lewis said only a little over two percent of black women are working journalists, and that being a black journalist comes with many difficulties. She also said that women of color represent a little less than eight percent of employees in U.S. print newsrooms.
“For me, it can feel lonely…isolating at times,” she said. “But I realize I can’t let those feelings overtake me. It can be easy to be bitter, or even frustrated at the lack of diversity in the newsroom, but I realized instead of being bitter, the tiny changes of progress can start with me.”
Lewis also discussed a story she wrote about the discovery of 95 African American remains in Sugar Land, Texas. She reported on how the convict-leasing system was another form of slavery and often thought of how some of her own ancestors might be buried in Sugar Land.
“I realized that they had paved their way for me to get to the place I am,” Lewis said. “I had a privilege that they didn’t get to have, and that is to be able to tell peoples’ stories. I realized that this career path is actually bigger than me.”
“If you don’t forget that your voice matters, if you don’t let the frustration overtake you, if you rely on your support system — then you’ll make it in this industry. You will.”
Elliot Williams is an assistant editor at the Washingtonian Magazine and said he was one of only two black interns at the magazine when he began in 2017. When he was hired full-time, he was one of two black editorial staffers in the magazine’s 50-year history.
“I looked up in editorial meetings and saw almost no one that looked like me,” he said.
“The magazine hired black librarians, marketing and event staffers, but when it came to putting words into the pages of the magazine, I was in uncharted territory,” Williams said.
He described how the magazine’s relationships with Washington D.C.’s 47 percent of black residents is complicated. He noted that the magazine has a long way to go before it can represent all Washingtonians, not just the elite.
When he moved to D.C., Williams lived in a historically black neighborhood and said when he told his black neighbors where he worked, the mood in their exchange instantly changed.
“I know who that magazine is for, and I know it’s not for me,” one neighbor told him.
Williams said this dialogue kept him up at night; he didn’t move to D.C. to become the “Jackie Robinson of journalism,” he said, he simply wanted to write about a really interesting city and get clips.
He described FOMU – the fear of messing up. He described being afraid that he would speak too honestly and “be cast as a brash, unyielding black man” or that he would not be honest enough and be forgotten; he would write too many stories about black Washingtonians and be boxed in as “that black writer;” he would step on too many toes.
“All of these fears built up in my system, and for months my work didn’t reflect my full potential,” he said. “I made sure the stories I pitched were safe. Eventually, I decided I was spending too much time being worried about what others thought of me and not enough time doing what I came to D.C. to do in the first place, which was to write.”
The day after this realization, he walked into his editor’s office and pitched the first story he was proud of — a story about his position as a young black newcomer in a historically black neighborhood and how that allowed him see things from a fresh new vantage point.
He continued on to write about black musicians, athletes, business owners, restauranteurs and more.
“Each one, if only or the person I wrote about, showed a side of Washington that had rarely been shown to them in the pages of Washingtonian,” Williams said. “The whole time I was worried about messing up, I didn’t realize that by being different I brought something new — a fresh perspective to a place that really needed it.”
“Do not let your fears reduce you to something smaller than you can become,” he said.
Jourdan Bennett-Begaye is a reporter and producer at Indian Country Today and began her talk apologizing that she was a little “shaken up” because of an incident that had happened the day before.
Bennett-Begaye said while she was walking near Marshall Street to buy some t-shirts, someone walked by her and referred to her as “Pocahontas.”
“I was a little bit shaken up, and I couldn’t believe that it is 2019 and slurs like that are being called,” she said. “It’s very ironic being at a race and media symposium.”
She went on to talk about how she’s been in her position at Indian Country Today for about seven months, and she gets the chance to wake up every day and write about native people.
“It’s an absolute dream,” she said.
After graduating from Newhouse in 2016, Bennett-Begaye taught high school students journalism, theatre production and drama. She credits her love of storytelling to her being a good teacher in those fields. During her teaching tenure, she realized that she wanted to become a reporter, and moved to Seattle shortly after that.
She recalled a time when she was in a newsroom with only older, white male editors, and prepared 13 story pitches including multimedia elements and timelines about the Dakota Access Pipeline. The first two editors said no to the story, and the third offered only a maybe. She kept pushing the story, even though the editors told her it wasn’t for their readers.
Bennett-Begaye emailed her editors and told them she was going to be gone for a certain number of days, and went to North Dakota to report on the Standing Rock protests. Eventually, when she came back with videos of the protests, the editors let her continue with the story.
“It took that experience to finally trust myself, and I stood taller as an indigenous person and as a Navajo woman because I knew that I wasn’t going to be part of mainstream views or work for a mainstream outlet,” she said.
Bennett-Begaye added that Native American women only represent 0.2 percent of journalists in newsrooms across the United States.
“We want to be respected and interviewed about our stories, and we want to show up in the news as human beings and not as 1900s caricatures that only show up in history books in schools across this country,” she said.
She said she chose to work at Indian Country Today for many reasons, but the most important was because as a native run media outlet, everyone understands how important culture, kinship, family and ceremony are. Bennett-Begaye said growing up, she was ashamed of who she was, but her grandmother helped her be proud of her heritage and that their stories are important and worth telling.
“I want to help native people tell their stories the right way,” she said. “If you see any media outlets not telling the stories you think should be told, then you should go out and seek those outlets.”
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I actually always hoped I’d go back to Newhouse to speak about reporting on Indigenous communities. And I did! So neat to be back and see people who I consider my family (includes the Indigenous Students at Syracuse, Regina and Tammy). ☺️???? I also got to meet more wonderful people/alumni doing awesome work!
Daniel Taroy is the senior social media director at Vanity Fair and said while the industry does try to improve diversity, it’s not always done in the best way. Taroy said growing up in diverse Orange County, California, meant he was never really subjected to microaggressions or much overt racism until he came to college.
“Over the three and a half years I spent at Newhouse, I gradually realized that this wasn’t just going to be a brief bout of culture shock, this was going to be my life for the foreseeable future if I wanted to stay in media,” he said.
He focused his energy on school and let his work speak for itself, and he brought that mentality with him when he moved to New York City.
“That was when I started to see just how clumsy people could be when it came to race, especially older people who are used to a different time in the industry,” Taroy said.
At his first job, Taroy said it was easy to feel like an outsider, as he was the only person of color and the youngest person to work there. He said his boss, a mostly innocuous woman, liked to drop comments about how he was unlike any assistants she had had before. He recalled another time when he grew out his hair and came to work with a top bun, and his boss said, “You look like a cute samurai.”
Fortunately, he said, this job was a learning experience for Taroy. He said everyone else he’s worked with since then has supported the notion of change in the industry.
“It was refreshing to just be in a room with people who looked like you, who saw the world the same way that you did,” he said. “Moving to Conde Nast and going to Vanity Fair really showed me what it was like when that intentional change came from the top down.”
Taroy said in 2017 when Vanity Fair appointed Radhika Jones, a woman of Indian descent, as editor-in-chief, the changes have been “monumental.”
Taroy said she’s changed small things like integrating web and print or hiring new people with new ideas, but she’s also changed big things like hiring more women and people of color, as well as making many cover stars people of color.
“The fact that they’re thinking about these things, along these lines, shows that there is a real sense of progress in the industry,” he said. “I think that it’s a really exciting time to be in it.”
Lena Pringle is a morning and traffic anchor at WJXT in Jacksonville, Florida. She said as a black woman, she’s grown up knowing her race was going to be an issue in some way, shape or form in her career.
“It was made common by my parents that you, as a black woman, are going to have to move differently in this world,” she said.
When she was at Newhouse, she focused on creating a solid foundation of skills that would help her thrive in her career, but added that there were some things she just couldn’t learn in a classroom.
“Newhouse didn’t particularly prepare me to be a minority in journalism,” she said. “And I mean, how would they? You learn through shared experiences.”
She said about two weeks before her graduation in 2016, she went to a National Association of Black Journalists conference. While she was standing in line, a woman told her to hold on to the moment of being at the conference. She told Pringle she would never again see a space in which the majority of people of color are in your face and working with you.
Four months later, she accepted a reporter position at WACH, a Fox affiliate in Columbia, South Carolina. She walked into the newsroom with that woman’s words in mind, but was pleasantly surprised to find she and her coworker were both black women and the news director, two anchors, two photographers, two directors, a producer and a video editor were all black.
“My newsroom didn’t look like what we hear a lot of the narrative of people of color being few, far and in between,” she said. “I had the whole crew. We were all in there together.”
Even with that many people of color, she said, her office would still come across several race-related issues in the newsroom. She recalled the first issue with race at her job was during the 2017 inauguration. She was pumping gas into the station car, and an elderly white woman told her she was glad their station didn’t spread “fake news.”
The women went on to tell her the station makes sure President Donald Trump looks good all the time, and that the inauguration is beautiful because it was bringing class back to the White House.
“I mean, you’re pretty for a black woman,” the elderly woman said to Pringle. “But that Michelle Obama, I mean, it’s good she’s out. We’re getting class back.”
Pringle said in that moment, she had on her WACH Fox hat and jacket and couldn’t respond the way she wanted as just a person pumping gas because she was representing her station.
“It was the first moment in my life, in my professional career, where I had to bite my tongue,” Pringle said. “I knew in that moment, I didn’t have it in me. I knew I wasn’t grounded enough to convey an image or to talk back to her in a way she would understand where I was coming from without being completely and utterly rude.”
Pringle said this moment taught her professionalism and professional grace. When she went back and told her newsroom what happened, no one was surprised. They told her South Carolina was only 60 years removed from segregation, and these occurrences were semi-normal for them.
She recalled another time when she had to cover an event for the South Carolina Secessionist Party – a group that got together once a year to celebrate the Confederate flag, and its protestors.
“That moment taught me that journalists, you don’t have a comfort zone,” she said. “There’s no such thing. Because everything that you do will sometimes make you uncomfortable and will push you out of that, no matter what personal trauma might be related to the event that you’re covering.”
She sat down and spoke with protestors and counter-protestors because she wanted to deliver the best story for her audience. She referred to the story as one of the most difficult she’s had to cover because of her own life experiences.
“It’s a very unique privilege to be a journalist,” Pringle said. “Remember that when times get tough that we all stand on the shoulders of people like us who have been consistently pushing boundaries in this industry, and the only thing that we can do to continue to move forward is to push those same boundaries and to remember the privilege that we have to be able to share people’s stories daily.”