Nashville Public Radio reporter Julieta Martinelli was covering a rally of white nationalists in Shelbyville, Tenn., last month when two young men began pushing her deeper into the crowd.
“You fucking cockroach, you need to move,” they said to Martinelli.
Speakers were riling up the crowd and screaming for media to leave, but the hostility also felt personal. Martinelli, 29, came to the U.S. from Argentina 20 years ago and was undocumented for most of her life. “I’m one of the people they were protesting against,” Martinelli said.
Martinelli kept her shotgun microphone hoisted and didn’t make eye contact with the men. The 5-foot-1-inch reporter said she felt intimidated but didn’t show emotion and stood her ground. “We’re talking to you, you fucking cockroach,” the men said.
“I stood for a second longer, but I decided that was the time for me to step back,” Martinelli said.
White nationalists and rowdy Trump supporters have targeted all kinds of media figures at rallies, but journalists of color like Martinelli say they encounter particular challenges when encountering racist attitudes face to face.
“I feel like I did a very good job of putting my biases aside,” Martinelli said. “I walked in, I was polite, and even then I was shut down. It’s difficult to feel like you’re doing your best to be kind and be professional, and no matter what you do, people aren’t going to respect you.”
Though journalists of color are attuned to racial discrimination, they say that as reporters encountering racism, they try to separate their feelings from their work. But some disagree about whether they should avoid situations where they may be singled out because of their race or ethnicity.
Quincy J. Walters, a reporter and host for WGCU in Fort Myers, Fla., said he thinks reporters of color should only be sent into such situations if they volunteer or if no one else can attend.
“As a reporter, you have to be objective,” said Walters, who is black. “But where does that objectivity end when my existence is under attack?”
Going into “a lion’s den”
Gus Contreras, a digital producer and reporter with KERA in Dallas, Texas, is a first-generation American from El Paso. In his hometown, 82 percent of the population is Hispanic or Latino, according to 2016 U.S. Census figures.
Covering Trump rallies in North Texas where attendees yelled at him and other Latinos to “go back home” was “shocking,” Contreras said. A woman asked whether he is an “anchor baby” because “a lot of people take advantage of the system,” Contreras said. “I was kind of mad after, but I just put it to the side and went on to the other interview,” he said.
Contreras acknowledged that doing such work isn’t easy. “It’s a double-edged sword,” he said. “It’s good because it shows people that you’re just there to do the news, but just on the personal side, it kind of rips you apart a little bit.”
But Contreras, whose father was deported to Mexico in 2015, said he can still cover immigration and Latino issues objectively, though editors outside of his station have told him he can’t. He wonders whether people would ask NPR host Ari Shapiro, who is gay, whether he could objectively cover the shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla., or if white reporters can cover the opioid epidemic, which largely affects whites.
“You should use the reporter’s life experiences to the benefit of the coverage without blurring the lines between objectivity and real-life experiences,” Contreras said.
WGCU’s Walters has a different view. Reporters of color should avoid that emotional impact and stay away from such situations, he said, because it’s tiresome and traumatic.
As a public radio journalist, “… you have an obligation to your audience, to your public,” Walters said. But he added: “I think ultimately, you have an obligation to yourself for self-care.”
Walters covered a Trump rally in Sarasota, Fla., earlier this year for WUSF in Tampa. Some attendees he encountered subjected him to offensive but subtle actions and remarks. “I felt like I was thrown into a lion’s den,” he said.
One man started talking about the Black Lives Matter movement. “He says, ‘Sure, black lives matter,’ and then widens his eyes for the punchline,” Walters said. “‘But all lives matter, too.’ And then he goes on and rants that Black Lives Matter are just pissed off black people who need to get jobs. He says he knows black people who work three to four jobs, but they’re happy. And then he taps my shoulder, which made me uncomfortable, and says, ‘They’re happier than pigs in poo.’’’
Walters also interviewed a woman who questioned whether “liberal” public media could cover the rally fairly and why a Congressional Black Caucus isn’t racist but a Congressional White Caucus would be. Prior to the rally in March, President Trump had asked a longtime black White House correspondent to set up a meeting between him and the CBC.
“I didn’t know how to react after she wanted me to answer that,” Walters said. “I told her, ‘I don’t think I’m qualified to answer that seeing that I’m not in the CBC.’”
“When I was finished asking her questions, she said, ‘I’m not racist. I’m not Islamophobic,’” Walters said.
Walters said he’s glad that he hasn’t had to cover anything like that rally since. “I know it makes for a good story,” Walters said. “‘Look at this intrepid journalist who’s a person of color and is going into the lion’s den.’ It makes for good cinema, but maybe not real life.”
“The guidance and training is the same”
Most journalists interviewed for this story agreed that people of color don’t need special training to cover events where they may be targeted because of their race. They say they have had the training already as racial minorities navigating predominantly white workplaces and professional environments. (Here are some safety tips for journalists of color.)
“Most reporters of color have had to learn to code switch from a really early age,” said Al Letson, host of the Center for Investigative Reporting’s Reveal. “You don’t get into this business if you don’t know how to do that, so I would think most of them would be more prepared than a lot of white people would be.”
Letson, who is black, grew up in Jacksonville, Fla., once a hotbed for the Ku Klux Klan. Growing up in the South was “tough,” he said. He interacted with whites who didn’t consider themselves white supremacists, but by helping to maintain the status quo, “they were acting as agents of white supremacy.”
“I grew up in a place where I wasn’t seen, or if I was seen, it was as a second-class citizen, so to speak,” said Letson, who has interviewed several white nationalists, though rarely in person. “I just learned how to navigate those waters. I think it totally prepared me for how I speak to these people and how I work through things along with what I’m thinking about, as far as race is concerned.”
Besides growing up in the south, WUNC race and southern culture reporter Leoneda Inge has learned to interview racists on the job. “There’s something to be said to also be thrown into a pack of wolves and people won’t talk to you; you’ll train yourself,” Inge said. “You’ll figure out how to ask questions that are respectful on both sides.”
John Sepulvado, morning host of The California Report on KQED in San Francisco, said an outsider’s perspective can come in handy and that journalists of color have to be resilient. “I don’t know if people of color would benefit from extra training; I do know that these events benefit from people of color,” said Sepulvado, a Latino who has profiled a white nationalist leader and covered the movement in the Bay Area and Ireland. “People of color can help remind everyone who’s at these types of events — that just by our presence, we belong here.”
Reporters must be aware that their race, gender, age or appearance might trigger reactions, said David Sweeney, NPR managing editor for news operations and security, who oversees reporter safety in the U.S. and abroad. “But the guidance and training is the same for everyone: Be aware. Be careful. Don’t take unnecessary risks,” Sweeney said.
Staying safe when covering racism
Martinelli, the Nashville Public Radio reporter, said that after she chose to cover the white nationalist rally, her co-workers who have been in Nashville longer expressed concerns to management about her safety.
“My coworkers are all white,” she said. “I’m the minority in the newsroom, and I hadn’t thought about how safe this might be.”
Martinelli and her colleagues heard other outlets were sending teams of reporters to the Oct. 28 “White Lives Matter” rally, organized by the white-nationalist League of the South. With its small news staff, Nashville Public Radio couldn’t follow suit, but management assigned a white male reporter to team up with Martinelli. Initially, the male reporter covered the white nationalists while Martinelli covered counter-protesters. When they switched roles later on, Martinelli was harassed and couldn’t gather good sound or interviews while her co-worker didn’t have that problem.
Reporters say editors can help by discussing the situation they’re entering, the challenges they may face and possible outcomes. Prior to the anti-hate rally in Berkeley, reporter Erika Aguilar’s editor at KQED told her that as a person of color, “there’s potential for a lot of things that can happen to you” at such events, Aguilar said. The editor gave Aguilar the option to decline the assignment. Aguilar said she appreciated that the editor recognized and acknowledged the potential danger.
Jeff w/Bay Area Surge (last name not given): "We chased the Nazis out of this park. We claimed this park … We are declaring victory."
— Erika Aguilar (@erikaaaguilar) August 27, 2017
“I’m lucky to have people around me who care,” Aguilar said.
Like Aguilar’s editor, others should show compassion for their staffs, reporters said. They should understand if reporters hesitate to enter hostile situations and should show mercy if a reporter doesn’t return with desired tape.
Growing the ranks of editors of color would also help, Contreras said. “There need to be more editors who are people of color to be able to understand these situations and the real story behind what’s going on in the community,” he said.