How Black Reporters Report On Black Death
On an unbearably hot August afternoon last summer, I was walking along West Florissant Avenue in Ferguson, Mo., notebook in hand, when I ran into two good friends who were also on the clock, Joel Anderson of BuzzFeed and Jamelle Bouie of Slate. A few nights later, we got dinner with a couple of other black journos from D.C. We'd all known each other for years, and joked about how we rarely get together back home and here we were, eating wings at a gastropub in St. Louis. But this was a strange reunion: We weren't gathered for a birthday, or happy hour, but because a young black man's body had lain out for four hours on a sweltering street.
In the 12 months since, the national conversation about police brutality has reached a higher pitch than we could have imagined. We've all become part-time cops reporters and part-time criminal justice reporters. We've interviewed weeping family members, scrutinized dash cam footage and witnesses' YouTube uploads, and wrestled with the long-term political implications of what this moment might mean. At this point, I'm probably approaching 30,000 words on the subject of race and policing. It's everything you want in a story — consequential, evolving, complicated. This work will matter in a way that so many other stories don't or won't.
But this beat has also been distressing and unrelenting. I've come uncomfortably close to handing in my resignation, asking to cover anything but this. I can't even remember which case or video got me to that point, but I just didn't want to do it anymore. Over the past month, I've talked to a dozen other black reporters who've covered race and policing since Michael Brown's death — or even further back, since Oscar Grant or Ramarley Graham — and it's been a relief to learn that I'm not the only one. That sinking feeling when a hashtag of a black person's name starts trending on Twitter, the guilty avoidance of watching the latest video of a black person losing his life, the flashes of resentment and irritation at well-meaning tweets and emails sent by readers asking me to weigh in on the latest development in the latest case. The folks I talked to for this story share many of the same, contradictory impulses I wrestle with when a new case comes to light, torn between wanting to jump on a plane — or start sketching out a long essay, as the case may be — and wanting to log out of Twitter and block out emails from my editors.
Every black Ferguson resident I interviewed last year had his own story about an unfair encounter with local cops. And, unsurprisingly, nearly all black journalists I've talked to mentioned a similar story from their off-the-clock lives. Joel at BuzzFeed told me he's been stopped three times a year by the police since he started driving two decades ago. Charles Blow of the New York Times wrote earlier this year about how his son, a Yale student, had a gun pulled on him by campus police who thought he didn't belong at the school's library. And so on.
I have my own stories along these lines. These stories, these moments, pushed many of us into journalism in the first place. Today, a lot of us occupy desks in national newsrooms at a time when questions about policing and race have become arguably the biggest story in the country. At the same time, many of us are puzzling out what it means to be black reporters reporting on black death in an industry that's traditionally operated like this: Some people tell the tough stories (white, upper middle class, mostly male), and other people have tough stories happen to them. It's an industry that's long boasted a nebulous ideal of "objectivity" without considering that the glaring homogeneity of its ranks helps make that claim believable.
As calls for newsroom diversity get louder and louder — and rightly so — we might do well to consider what it means that there's an emerging, highly valued professional class of black reporters at boldface publications reporting on the shortchanging of black life in this country. They're investigating police killings and segregated schools and racist housing policies and ballooning petty fines while their loved ones, or people who look like their loved ones, are out there living those stories. What it means — for the reporting we do, for the brands we represent, and for our own mental health — that we don't stop being black people when we're working as black reporters. That we quite literally have skin in the game.
"At some point, it feels like pornography," Trymaine Lee, a friend and a reporter at MSNBC, told me a couple of weeks ago, when I asked him if he ever struggled to watch one of those gruesome videos. We were sitting on a bench in downtown Minneapolis, taking a break from this year's gathering of the National Association of Black Journalists, which happened to take place the same weekend as the first anniversary of Brown's death. Trymaine and I used to work together at the New York Times and at the Huffington Post, where we covered the Trayvon Martin story. The last time we had seen each other was in Ferguson 12 months ago; we ran into each other one night while tensions were starting to rise. ("You OK?" "I'm good. You OK?")
Trymaine, who's 36, is a gregarious, self-assured cat, and he sees this work as his calling. So I was surprised to hear that the Ferguson story ate at him so much. "Day after day, not just dealing with the heat on the ground, but also the physical heat and emotional heat of Ferguson," he recalled. "It was a lot."
And it wasn't just Ferguson. Within days of Brown's death, the grim roster expanded: John Crawford. Ezell Ford. Kajieme Powell. "It was just one after another after another," said Trymaine. "Being a journalist, you have to keep some emotional distance from it. That whole process takes a lot out of you."
Trymaine went back and forth to St. Louis County in the months after Brown's death, as locals nervously waited to learn whether Darren Wilson would face charges. "The night [the decision came down], before everything exploded, you could feel it in the air," he said. And then everything did explode. Trymaine said he felt a deep sadness, not over the grand jury's decision, but over the hopelessness he saw in the young men gathered around fires on West Florissant. " 'My goodness, look where we are,' " he recalled thinking. "I felt like I wanted to cry for the next three weeks."
It wasn't the first time a big story left him shaken. During Hurricane Katrina, Trymaine was a cub reporter at the New Orleans Times-Picayune; his team won a Pulitzer for its coverage. But he also remembered being on edge for months later. His nerves were frayed. He would blow up at people close to him. At the time, he didn't know what was going on. No one had ever warned him about the psychic residue of paddling through a lake of floating corpses.
In the decade since, he's learned — on his own — how to pace himself, to know when he needs to step back from a big, consuming, emotionally distressing story. "This time around, I could identify it," he told me. "Ten years later, 10 years wiser." Of course, dealing with uncomfortable assignments is what you sign up for as a reporter, he said. "We can't live in any bubble. We're trying to pop the bubbles. As part of our jobs, we have to confront this stuff in a way that other people don't." But in the case of someone like Trymaine covering the death of someone like Freddie Gray or Walter Scott — men who might resemble an uncle, a cousin, a brother — it's easy to see him requiring an additional set of cognitive gymnastics to get through. "We're in a position as journalists, but also as black journalists, where we're constantly aware of and wrestling with these things," he said.
We got to talking about the case of Sandra Bland, who died after several days in jail following a dubious police stop. Trymaine recounted how, back in college, he was regularly stopped by police in South Jersey whenever he'd drive out to see a then-girlfriend. You could argue that since Trymaine has endured what he sees as a whole slew of bogus police encounters, he can't fairly report on a story like Bland's. But there's another way to look at it: that the growing call for newsroom diversity is aimed at pulling in reporters who look at the world through different sets of lenses and bring differently textured sets of experiences to the table, with the promise that it'll lead to better journalism.
Rarely do newsroom executives spell out what "better" means. But Trymaine's lens on race and policing, one that's sharpened by his own experiences, could ultimately help him deliver a more complete set of truths than a reporter with a narrower imagination of all the ways that a police encounter could go down. He might push his editors toward investigations they might not have otherwise prioritized. Sources might open up more easily to him.
But if "diverse" reporters help newsrooms do better journalism, are newsrooms doing enough to make sure someone like Trymaine has the support and backup he needs to not burn out or even break down in the process? We ask journalists to keep some critical, dispassionate distance from their stories. But what happens when the stories they're covering are not abstractions, not just things that happen to other people? What happens when echoes of those stories keep sounding off in their own lives?
I was left with that question when Trymaine and I wrapped up our conversation and headed to lunch. I looked at my phone and realized that in the short time we'd been talking on the bench, the hashtag #ChristianTaylor had been trending on Twitter, named for a black college football player shot and killed by police in Arlington, Texas.
Last summer, Wesley Lowery, a young reporter at the Washington Post (and another personal acquaintance), found himself becoming part of the story when he was arrested for trespassing in Ferguson. Some police officers had asked him to leave a McDonald's where he and other journalists were hunkered down, and they decided he wasn't moving quickly enough. They threw him against a soda machine and handcuffed him. (Fittingly for this genre, his encounter was captured on video.) Just last week, as Wesley returned to Ferguson for the anniversary coverage, the city filed charges against him for trespassing and interfering with a police officer, related to the previous year's encounter. "I was anxious and stressed because I have to deal with all this again," Wesley told me later that night. He'd just gotten off the phone, trying to calm his mom down. "It's going to be a big distraction for a while."
Wesley, who's 25, has been one of highest-profile reporters on this beat since Ferguson, where he attracted attention both for the volume of his tweets about the protests and for their tenor. More than most other journalists on the ground affiliated with a major news outlet, Wesley tweeted direct quotes from angry residents and seemed to channel the voice and emotion of the protests. That felt unmediated and refreshing to some, and slanted and politically charged to others. He's become a lightning rod for anti-Black Lives Matter sentiment across the country, at one point earning the ire of notorious right-wing troll Chuck Johnson, who tweeted out Wesley's parents' home address in a way that many read as an attempt to intimidate and silence him.
For the past year, Wesley's been essentially on call on the racial inequality beat, which, as you can imagine, isn't easy. "I didn't want to go to North Charleston for Walter Scott," referring to the unarmed man in South Carolina who was shot in the back while running from a cop after a traffic stop. "Retrospectively, I'm glad I did, but it's so taxing. It's not even about the stories you do — it's about the stories you don't do. There's this need to constantly know about everything." That is, even if he doesn't end up writing about, say, the death of Sandra Bland, he needs to have a handle on the particulars. "There's this never-ending research. I have to read every hashtag. I have to read about every single case."
These stories come at such a rapid pace that they snowball into each other, carrying with them the accumulated mass of all the grim stories that came before. Wait, was that the guy who was killed while cosplaying? No, not that guy shot by the cop in South Carolina; the other guy who was. No, not that college football player killed by the police; the other one. Wesley told me that the moment he turned in a story about the Ferguson anniversary a couple of weekends ago, an editor peppered him with questions about the latest in the Christian Taylor case.
His email is a constant deluge of tips. "It's like, 'Here's this video of my mom being killed by the police five years ago.' 'I need you to tell my story.' 'Can I drop off these documents to you?' " Wes gets that people reach out to him because he's a reporter with an enormous national platform writing about cases that, up until very recently, might not register more than a local blip. "You become someone who people go to," he said. "You're a way to have their story be told, and you know you can't do all of them."
A couple of other reporters I talked to for this story expressed that concern: not being able to do justice to every story, every hashtag, every lost life. "In terms of taking care of myself," Wes told me, "we're one year in, I need to take some time off, and I haven't." Part of the fatigue he described was similar to something Trymaine told me: dealing with the double vision of seeing yourself or someone you love in the story of woe you're out there reporting. Wes grew up in suburban Cleveland, and he and his brothers hung out near the park where 12-year-old Tamir Rice was killed by a cop last winter. He remembers first dealing with that double vision during the Trayvon Martin case. "I was a light-skinned black man walking around in a hoodie buying candy from convenience stores in a sketchy suburban neighborhood every single day of my upbringing," he said. "How many nights was I dressed the exact same he was, doing the exact same thing he was doing?"
"Trayvon Martin's story really resonated with me because I grew up at the high school where he went," Yamiche Alcindor told me. "I knew that area, and I knew what 17-year-olds in Miami were like."
Yamiche, who's 28, was one of the reporters who helped put the story of Martin's death on the nation's radar. She's been covering breaking news for USA Today for the past few years. We caught up by phone last week as she was deplaning from her latest trip to Ferguson; she, like a lot of the folks on this detail, was on anniversary duty. I wanted to talk with Yamiche because despite her age, she'd already gotten in more reps than those of us who were newer to this thing. Didn't this grind, all of this running around in the wake of people dying, ever get to be too much?
Maybe more than most of us, Yamiche has given a lot of thought to what well-being looks like on a beat like hers. "While I loved covering Ferguson, and I loved covering all the cases, and all the conversations that came with that, I definitely take time to myself," she told me.
Yamiche had recently heard a veteran war reporter's talk on the need for reporters who cover traumatic stories to find balance in their lives. The parallel he drew to the stories that have surfaced in the long tail of Ferguson stuck with her. "We're covering the Black Lives Matter movement, but this need to calm yourself, this need to step away, is true of a lot of other beats," she said, like war reporting. "It's not beat fatigue" — when you're just itching for something new — "so much as much emotional fatigue, because you're really pouring yourself into these stories," she said.
Yamiche said she has always thought of herself as a crime reporter — she told me about her first byline, on a story about a school rape case while she was interning at a newspaper as a teenager — and she's pushed through tough stories ever since. She says she took a moment to cry in her car while covering the mass school shooting in Newtown, Conn. She said she's learned to recognize strong feelings about her stories as a sign that she's fully tuned in. "I don't ever want to stop completely being emotional," she said. "I feel like my humanity strengthens my reporting. I don't want my reporting to be cold."
Yamiche wasn't the only reporter who brought up war reporting when we talked about this beat. I asked David Gilkey, a staff photographer at NPR who's won a slew of awards for coverage in war and conflict-ridden corners of the globe — Afghanistan, Haiti, the Balkans, Somalia — about that comparison. "I think the difference for you guys," Gilkey said, "is that you got caught covering a story that became really gruesome and no one really checked to see if you were OK." In newsrooms that house war correspondents, he explained, there's an editorial tradition of checking in on those who parachute into the front lines. He wondered if the scattershot nature of race and policing stories makes it harder to psychically prepare. That is, huge geopolitical conflicts usually come with some sort of buildup, while working the race and policing beat means whiplashing from one horrible incident to another at lightning speed. I'd barely surfaced from a deep dive into the history of racial segregation at pools following an incident in McKinney, Texas, where a teenage black girl was manhandled by a white cop at a pool party, before plunging into data on millennial attitudes toward race after 21-year-old Dylann Roof allegedly shot up a black church in Charleston, S.C.
None of the conversations I had for this story suggest that newsrooms on the whole are seeing reporters on this beat in the same light as reporters covering wars or other deadly conflicts. (We do talk about these issues here on the Code Switch team — a team that's staffed entirely by black and brown people — but we're a pretty unusual outfit.) To be sure, none of the reporters I spoke to said they feel neglected or exploited by their editors; this is work they want to do. But it was also clear that it comes with real emotional costs, and in the meantime, this huge, expanding story doesn't show any signs of slowing down — the deaths keep coming. As we've already seen in the lead-up to the 2016 election, issues of race, policing, and broader racial inequalities will be major themes of the campaign season. A year from now, there figures to be even more of us doing this job.
Those of us on the black death beat have to make it to next November, and beyond, without burning out. So how are we going to do it? While the industry writ large has yet to take on that question, the beat has given rise to its own informal support network — folks emailing and Google chatting and texting to check on whoever's heading out to the latest conflagration or sure to be on the hook for a long essay. Running into MSNBC's Lee that night on West Florissant — "You OK?" "I'm good. You OK?" — a few hours before the tear gas started popping off helped calm my nerves, at least for a while.
"One of the reasons I think so many of us are close," said Washington Post's Lowery, "is that we know the dual stressors: the stress of the job, but also the stress of a black person constantly reading about black death." Just hearing Wes, Trymaine, and Yamiche say this stuff has made me feel substantially less crazy.
"It is with no pleasure that I have dipped my hands in the corruption here exposed," wrote the 19th century investigative journalist Ida B. Wells, a black woman born in Holly Springs, Miss., in 1862, in the preface to Southern Horrors: Lynch Law In All Its Phases, her incredibly well-researched pamphlet on hundreds of lynching cases. "It seems to have fallen upon me to do so."
There's no question that Wells couldn't separate her work from her personal life; her reporting took on a new sense of urgency when three black friends of hers were murdered by white vigilantes; one ran a successful grocery store and had drawn the ire of a white competitor. Wells made it her mission to disprove the fabricated justification of lynchings as a form of payback for a mythical epidemic of rapes of white women by black men.
"If this work can contribute in any way toward proving this, and at the same time arouse the conscience of the American people to a demand for justice to every citizen, and punishment by law for the lawless, I shall feel I have done my race a service. Other considerations are of minor importance."
Other considerations are of minor importance. I can't help but take that to mean Wells' own well-being — physical and emotional — in the face of the enormous responsibility she had taken on. She at one point broke down in tears at a lectern while speaking in New York about her findings and her life experiences as a young black woman. She was mortified to have cracked in public, but a few folks in the audience told her the display of emotion made the story she was struggling to tell all the more real and pressing to the well-connected crowd.
I've written about the problem of being The Only One in the Room — the unwanted burden of representing the concerns of an entire group of people, coupled with the anxious desire to do a good job of it. It does seem there's one good way of preventing black journalists who cover black death from burning out, or relegating their own well-being to "minor importance" status, one that was far less available in Wells' time: Hire enough of us that no one black reporter or editor in a newsroom has to feel like it's entirely "fallen upon him" to tell these stories.
If nothing else, talking to other black journalists on the race and policing beat for this story has been a huge relief. Nearly everyone brought up a sense of responsibility toward the rest of the folks out here on these stories. Hopefully these ranks will keep on growing. In the meantime, we'll keep checking up on each other.
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