Journalists of color are part of the story of racism in America. That raises tough questions on the job

Published on
June 22, 2020

When reporting on live TV, split-second decisions about what to say or not say can make or break a career. There's no time to analyze, edit, revise or rethink — and no chance to un-ring the bell. Those "in the moment" comments can add context or damage a reporter's reputation forever. 

I had one of these split-second moments while reporting on the death of George Floyd. An anchor unexpectedly said: "Can I ask you a personal question?" He wanted to know my reaction the first time I saw the now infamous video of an officer's knee pressing Floyd's neck as he begged for mercy, unable to breathe. I felt uncomfortable but compelled to answer. It was almost cathartic, as if someone finally cared how this was affecting me. My colleague had given me the OK to release the tension building inside my head and my heart as I covered this story. I explained that as an African American, the mother of a teenage son — and simply as a human being — I was appalled.

When I saw George Floyd on the ground, I saw my son with a knee on his neck.

As I responded, alarm bells went off. In my head I heard what my old journalism instructors drilled into my psyche: "Reporters don’t give opinions. You are not the story!" I've lived by that. I've even taught it. But now journalists of color are part of this story.

We’re not just covering protests and policy — we are also reporting on issues that reflect our lived experiences. We can identify with and validate what we're hearing in the streets and seeing on video because many of us have had an encounter with police, or we know someone who has. Baseless traffic stops, being followed in stores or being reported for routine activities — “living while Black” is part of our experience.

Issues of racism, discrimination and police brutality elevated by Floyd's death are deeply personal for journalists of color. This moment raises new questions about how we do our jobs:

When is my experience OK to share? Is it helpful for viewers and readers to know my connection?

How do I report on race from a personal perspective without having my objectivity questioned?

Should I use my experiences to ask questions that may not otherwise be asked or pursue stories that might never be assigned?

What’s appropriate? What crosses the line? 

These questions have no easy, or common, answers. I’m constantly assessing what’s OK to say, share, like, post and do to be authentic without appearing biased.

I believe I do viewers a disservice by telling any story without context. Reporting on race, that context includes my own experiences. It’s something I address in news literacy classes: understanding the important difference between bias and perspective. We avoid bias — slanting stories and telling readers and viewers what to think. But using perspective to provide context — in this case, my perspective as an African American — is my responsibility.

Issues of racism, discrimination and police brutality elevated by Floyd's death are deeply personal for journalists of color. This moment raises new questions about how we do our jobs.

Engaging with the public on social media has taught me that our audience is interested in the person telling the story. Before believing what you say, they want to know who you are. As a Washington correspondent it always amazes me that my posts and tweets about the stories I cover may get a few “likes,” no matter how important the topic. But when I share the backstory or personal connections to what I’m reporting, hundreds of people react. Knowing the storyteller makes our words more credible.

But sometimes those experiences are hard to share. Especially now. Emotions evoked by these protests can be overwhelming, on and off the job. One day my 16-year-old son was headed to the grocery store and I found myself hugging him repeatedly. I cried a bit when he left, wondering, "What if he has a bad encounter with police, and the next time I see his face it is under a sheet at the morgue?" These are real fears for African Americans. Talking day after day about George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others who died at the hands of law enforcement, takes its toll in unusual ways. When I see their faces I’m not always a journalist. Sometimes I’m a mother.

The Floyd killing has prompted me to have “the talk” with my son, again. It's a speech that African American parents and their children know well: This is what you do if you’re pulled over. This is what you say. This is how you act. This is where you place your hands. This is what you don’t say. Remember, you have one job, son: to come home to me alive. I am often haunted by the thought that a White police officer could look at my smart, funny teenager and see a criminal instead of a B student who loves children, renovates homes with his dad and plays piano for the church choir. All because he’s wearing a hoodie and driving a nice car.

Constant coverage of police brutality and racial profiling has flooded my mind with memories. There was the day my husband was home with our infant daughter, cooking breakfast, and he opened our front door and faced officers with guns drawn. He had accidentally tripped our security alarm, something people do all the time. Police came almost instantly. We were the only Black family I knew in the neighborhood, so seeing a tall Black man in the large picture window as they approached may have caught them off guard. But it shouldn’t automatically make him a burglary suspect.

When my husband answered the door, officers pulled their weapons. They insisted that he show ID to prove he lived there, despite pretty obvious context clues. What about a man in pajamas with a baby in one hand and a spatula in the other looks suspicious? I was shaken that my child had come that close to a bullet. I was angry that after working hard to buy a home in a nice neighborhood with good schools, we still have to “prove” that we live there. We obey the law. We respect and appreciate police. But this moment left me feeling … exposed. Were these officers there to protect my family or harm us? 

There's no way for me to forget these experiences — and the feelings they create — when reporting on African American interactions with police. As a colleague posted on Facebook: "Check on your friends who work in professions which require them to refrain from saying 90% of what they think. We are not OK."

Not only are we thinking about what has happened in the past, but there's the very real and present danger of ending up in handcuffs while doing our jobs, respectfully. We all saw the arrest of CNN reporter Omar Jimenez on live TV while covering protests in Minneapolis. It leaves Black journalists wondering: "Could that happen to me?”

Mental health experts acknowledge that these incidents are emotionally devastating for African Americans. The Washington Post reports that a federal survey found that four in 10 African Americans experienced anxiety or depression in the week after George Floyd’s death, a significant increase and a higher rate than in any other racial or ethnic group. 

Another study found that Black people stopped repeatedly by police were three times more likely to exhibit symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, and high levels of anxiety and stress. David Williams, professor of public health at Harvard University, explains: "Every police shooting of an unarmed Black person leads to worse mental health for the entire Black population in the state in which it occurred, for the next three months. It means they have more difficulty sleeping at night. It means that their biological systems are not functioning the way that they should."

That includes those of us covering these incidents.

Some media companies recognize the toll this coverage is taking on African American employees. Comcast NBCUniversal's Black Employee Network is hosting listening sessions for colleagues who are hurting, "to share our thoughts, experiences and ideas on how we move forward." The network also broadcast a conversation, called "Can You Hear Us Now?” moderated by MSNBC correspondent Trymaine Lee.

"It's an exhaustion that should not be seen as an exaggeration," Lee said. "It's an exhaustion that should be seen as justified, and that there is a real and true understanding of why it's there."

As an African American reporter, I can't be dispassionate when covering race and policing. But I can and will always be fair in telling all sides of the story. The two are not mutually exclusive. Both can and must happen. As important as it is to share African American experiences, it's equally important to tell stories about officers who put their lives on the line every day to protect us all.

Reporting on race can be stressful. But it’s necessary. In this critical moment in our nation’s history, no one can tell this story like those who have lived it.

Tracie Potts is a Washington-based correspondent covering Capitol Hill for NBC's local morning news programs. She was a Center for Health Journalism 2017  National Fellow and is a member of the Center's Advisory Board.