How Black Reporters Report On Black Death : Code Switch As calls for newsroom diversity get louder, we might do well to consider that black reporters covering race and policing literally have skin in the game.
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How Black Reporters Report On Black Death

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How Black Reporters Report On Black Death

How Black Reporters Report On Black Death

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Our colleague Gene Demby says he recently came close to resigning. Demby works for NPR's Code Switch team, which covers race and identity. That means Gene has been covering a lot of deaths of African-Americans in the past year, from Ferguson, Mo. to Waller County, Tex. to Charleston, S.C. In story after story, he has run across other black reporters who feel as he does. One is Trymaine Lee of MSNBC.

TRYMAINE LEE: As journalists who are also humans, I don't think we always do a good enough job at identifying that this does take a toll in some way. And I just think that we're taught to be vigilant and courageous and, you know, seek the truth and shine light in very dark places. But that means you have to go to dark places and shine light. And that can take a lot out of you, I believe.

INSKEEP: That's one of the journalists who spoke with NPR's Gene Demby as he wrote a story with an arresting headline, "How Black Reporters Report On Black Death."

Why did you think about resigning?

GENE DEMBY, BYLINE: Well, it was sort of the accumulation of stories over months - I mean, the steady trickle of calamity. And I think it may have been one of the incidents in the spring of this year when it was just like, I have nothing else to say about this. And, you know, at Code Switch, our broad portfolio is race and culture. But because of the news over the last year, my focus has sort of moved toward race and policing, and policing in particular. And so it means being in this really grim space a lot. And people know that this is my beat. And so they - you know, they tweet it at me. They tweet these stories at me. And it just...

INSKEEP: They assume you want to talk about it.

DEMBY: Right. I mean, people assume I want to talk about it on social media. People assume I want to talk about it on my off-the-clock hours, you know. Like, people are like, well, what do you think about this? And you feel like, I mean, this is my beat. I have to be on top of this stuff. So you want to know the details. And you feel like you have to watch the video. And so it was like every time one of these videos surfaced, I felt myself taking more and more time before I would go watch them. And it just got to be too much. It just got to be too distressing.

INSKEEP: You know, what you're describing sounds, on one level, like something that is very common in the news business. You deal in chaos. You deal in tragedy. You deal in wars and hurricanes and fires. And many people get that feeling of having had too much of it. But it sounds like this is something a little more personal for you.

DEMBY: As journalists, we're asked to put some psychic distance between ourselves and these stories. But when we talk about these stories in particular, we're talking about often situations that a lot of us have been in. I mean, you know, in passing, I was talking to a good friend of mine who works at BuzzFeed who's been on this beat too. And he just sort of brought up, like, hey, I've been stopped by cops three times a year since I started driving 20 years ago. And so a story like Sandra Bland, a story that begins with a police encounter that escalates and becomes something much darker really quickly, those stories are not abstractions to a lot of us. Part of the reason these stories have had so much traction is because people can imagine their sons and daughters and brothers and fathers, like, being the people in the stories - if not themselves being the victims in these stories.

INSKEEP: Given that this is part of people's lives - many people's lives, if you're an African-American - why isn't this a moment of liberation almost, that you can write about it, that you can talk about it, that you can call attention to it again and again and again?

DEMBY: On some level, I think it is. I struggled to write this story. I sort of put it off for a long time. But I think one of the things that was incredibly affirming in the response to it has been how many people have been like, this is how I feel too. And, you know, I think we're at a very specific place in the race beat right now. A lot of news organizations have decided to make this a priority. And so I think there is some sort of sense that this is a unique opportunity to talk about this stuff. But it doesn't sort of obviate the psychic toll of being in these dark places all the time.

INSKEEP: Meaning that you have to think about not only the dark story in front of you but how it relates to your own life.

DEMBY: Right. Sometimes the stuff I'm writing about is just, like, terrible things happening to black people. And you feel the sense of, I think, responsibility for doing that beat well. But also I think even times when I want to sort of talk about other things or write about other things, I feel this sort of nagging obligation and this guilt around not talking about whatever other pressing story of inequality might be out there.

INSKEEP: Well, let me ask a question about journalism then. People can say that a standard for journalism is to be objective. Many of us might prefer another word, like truthful or honest or fair. Are you able, in your mind, to meet whatever your standard of objectivity or fairness is when you're covering this story?

DEMBY: I think the idea of objectivity is separate from the idea of truthfulness or fairness - right? - because I think objectivity is often sort of characterized as not having a point of view. And I don't think that's necessarily truthful though, right? I mean, the idea that black journalists are bringing a different set of skepticisms, a different set of assumptions, a different set of experiences into the reporting of policing is an important part of the story of policing. I mean, if we're talking about the people who are being policed in this country, they tend to be people of color. A lot of our conversations about newsroom objectivity and editorial objectivity start from the position that whiteness is neutral, that white people do not have racialized experiences and that white people do not bring a set of racialized assumptions into situations. And so we're having these conversations in which I think probably more than ever the voices of people of color are - or at least the perspectives of the people of color are - sort of framing much of the conversation. And I think that's part of getting to truthfulness.

INSKEEP: Gene Demby, I'm glad you're still around.

DEMBY: Thank you so much, Steve. I'm glad I'm here too.

INSKEEP: That's Gene Demby of NPR's Code Switch team.


And we should say there is even more news out of Ferguson, Mo. That is the city where the death of an 18-year-old at the hands of a police officer led to widespread protest. In that particular case, neither state nor federal authorities found a reason to charge the officer. But the Justice Department did find widespread evidence of racial bias in the police force, and protests have continued in recent days.

INSKEEP: And then on Tuesday night, 9-year-old Jamila Bolden was killed. She was struck by bullet as she lay in her bed doing her homework. Her mother was injured as well. At a press conference yesterday about that shooting, police spokesperson Sergeant Dominica Fuller sounded shaken up.


DOMINICA FULLER: As a mother, I was hurt. I showed emotion. I cried. I said a prayer for her. And my heart is still broken. And that's why we're pleading to the public and the community who's backing us, who's supporting us and the family, to help us solve this case.

GREENE: Sergeant Fuller told reporters the shots came from outside the Bolden family home. So far, there is no known motive or suspect.

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