Empathize, brace yourself, and other advice for journalists of color on hostile turf

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Before she covered a “White Lives Matter” rally for Nashville Public Radio, Julieta Martinelli felt that reporters of color shouldn’t be scared of such events.

“You can’t go into it with fear because that governs how you move, how you talk to people, how you do your job,” said Martinelli, who is Latina.

Being harassed at the Oct. 28 rally her changed her mind.

“Fear is natural, and you can’t force yourself not to be afraid,” Martinelli said. “You can only choose to work from there.”

It isn’t easy for journalists of color to interview racists or report on events where they may be discriminated against because of their skin color. While reporting this story on journalists’ experiences, Current also asked journalists and safety experts to offer advice about staying safe and mentally healthy in situations where a reporter may be verbally or physically harassed. Here’s what they said:

1. Know who you’re dealing with

Phillip Martin, a senior investigative reporter with Boston’s WGBH, has covered white nationalists in the U.S. and Europe. Martin said some white-nationalist groups are media-savvy and will use any microphone to amplify their message, even if the reporter holding the mic isn’t white.

“The difference in covering neo-Nazis, for example, and an opportunist Klansman like David Duke is David Duke will talk to you … because he wants the publicity,” Martin said. But “a lot of Nazis, there’s no way they’re going to talk to you,” he said. “The notion of a black person in your face with a microphone is anathema. It’s so important to know who these people are.”

2. Stick to the basics

Several journalists said that reporters should remember that their role at such events is to observe and capture the moment, not to try to convince anyone that they’re wrong.

“People are … going to try and trick you,” said John Sepulvado, morning host of KQED’s The California Report, and try to “make you look stupid. Stick to your fundamentals. Remember you belong there and by doing the best possible job, that’s the best way to show them that their ideology is cancer and your reporting is the antidote.”

3. Show empathy and remember it’s not about you

Sepulvado said that when he encounters people with racist beliefs in his reporting, he tries to empathize with why they might have those views and to set his own feelings aside.

“Even though they may fail to see the humanity in others, I’m not going to fail to see the humanity in them, for better or worse,” he said. “If you refuse to feed their inability to see humanity, you retain a lot of power in the situation. And that’s very helpful for people of color.”

4. Have your follow-ups prepared

Al Letson, host of Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting, has interviewed several white nationalists, including Richard Spencer on the day after President Trump was elected. Letson has always maintained his cool.

The host said it helps to be prepared with arguments and follow-up questions. “When you’re dealing with these people, the facts are not on their side,” he said.

5. Brace yourself before and during the event

Before entering a hostile environment, reporters can prepare for the environment. “I brace myself for any potential racist shouts or chants I might hear,” said KQED reporter Erika Aguilar.

Once she arrives, Aguilar said she tries not to focus on her emotional reactions to racist statements by interviewees. “I go numb,” Aguilar said. “I rip my emotions out of my brain so I can be as neutral and impartial as possible when I’m reporting.”

6. Interview yourself

Aguilar unloads frustration on friends in a group chat, talks to other reporters and asks herself, “How and why do I feel this? Are my personal beliefs seeping into this story? Am I showing no emotion, and is this an odd way to respond? Could that also be affecting my reporting?”

Working through emotions this way can be difficult, Aguilar said, but reporting is a unique job that brings with it a lot of responsibility. “I think with that kind of response and weight on the job, you have to do all these extra things, too, to make sure you’re serving the public,” Aguilar said.

What did we miss? Let us know in the comments section below.

9 thoughts on “Empathize, brace yourself, and other advice for journalists of color on hostile turf

  1. Most pro-whites that have been interviewed by journalists can tell you COUNTLESS stories about how journalists have lied about their beliefs, manufactured fake quotes, or (at best) picked out only one quote that they deliberately twist into a context to make the person sound bad.

    There is no reason to speak to journalists, they pathologically lie, and they are outdated now that social media is around.

  2. I am seriously considering cancelling my subscription to Current precisely because their comments sections are little more than cesspools of hatred, bigotry and general stupidity…like Phelps below.

      • I appreciate the (well done, I must admit) attempt at humor, but really that’s even more depressing. These comments are what’s left AFTER you’ve deleted the bulk of the horrible ones? That’s not a cause for optimism.

          • Very well, I’ll be specific: end the comments. NPR did so, with good reason, and it’s improved the quality of the online experience of npr.org immeasurably.

            I think the loss of valuable discussion is far, far outweighed by the elimination of the massive trollage…especially as seen on the Brian Mann commentary. Christ what a mess that’s become.

          • I was actually surprised it didn’t get worse on the Mann thread — I thought there was some decent and thoughtful conversation going on there. Maybe I’m delusional. I did delete a number of vulgar and off-topic comments from the thread.

            Anyway, we certainly have a variety of views within Current about whether having comments on the site is productive and useful. I don’t really have a strong opinion either way. I think I’ve pretty much heard only from you the sentiment that the comments are actively a drag on the website and should be ended. (I find it ironic that you both want the comments to end and are one of our most active commenters!)

            I get the sense that most people within public media have other places where they would prefer to discuss industry news, such as Twitter, Facebook groups, listservs, etc. Which is why we don’t see much active conversation among people in the business on our posts. But that’s just a hunch, really.

          • Mike,
            Count me among those who advocate eliminating Comments or, at a minimum, shutting them down after a few days.

            As a 25-year Current reader who is pleased with the changes that have happened under Julie’s leadership and AU’s stewardship, I feel the best value to the greater pubmedia community lies in giving you and your colleagues MORE time to gather and report news, and that means spending LESS time refereeing keyboard gladiators and trolls of all political stripes who flood the Comments inbox with ignorance and hate.

            God knows there is no shortage of that sort of thing these days for those who crave it.

          • It actually takes up very little of my time to moderate our comments. If it were a major time commitment, I probably would have ended them some time ago. But we just don’t get a whole lot of volume, except for occasional posts like Brian Mann’s.

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