Reporting on Race in a Year of Racial Reckoning

Between Covid-19 and America’s racial reckoning over that past 12 months, there’s never been a more important time to understand how race and racism affect both the reporting and the consumption of news in America. In the lead-up to Juneteenth, Watson held an event exploring these issues with some of the leading voices covering race today: New York Times reporter John Eligon and CNN Senior Correspondent Sara Sidner. They were interviewed by former President of CNN Jon Klein ’80. It was a fascinating event that we thought our listeners at Trending Globally would love, so on this episode we’re broadcasting an edited version of their conversation.

You can watch a video recording of their full conversation here.

You can learn more about Watson’s other podcasts here.


[THEME MUSIC] DAN RICHARDS: From the Watson Institute at Brown University, this is Trending Globally. I'm Dan Richards. We spent a fair amount of time at Watson thinking about the media, as an institution that focuses on politics and public policy, we of course have to. In the lead up to Juneteenth, we had an event at Watson focused on the media with a particularly pressing question in mind, how has race and racism, and our collective experience of the last year affected how news is reported and consumed in America?

JOHN ELIGON: When you're covering traumatic topics, especially when in many ways they can seem very personal to you, there is no playbook to how you deal with the emotions of these things.

SARAH SIDNER: I think before it was just trying to have that sort of stayed, this is what's happening, I'm telling you like it is and this is from their perspective. But sometimes I think it is more honest to say, look, this feels so incredibly powerful, this moment right now, and to explain what it feels like to be there, I think is also good reporting. And there are people that disagree with me, I mean, I even disagree with me maybe 10 years ago, you know.

DAN RICHARDS: Those are two of our guests, John Eligon and Sarah Sidner. John is the New York Times South Africa Bureau chief. Before moving across the Atlantic, he also covered issues of race, inequality and policing in America. Sarah Sidner is a CNN senior correspondent and has among many other things been an essential voice in covering the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement.

They were interviewed by a Brown alum, who understands the media about as well as anyone. John Klein is the former president of CNN, he's also the founder of the sports streaming platform HANG media, and has been on the cutting edge of so many media innovations in the last few decades. Fun fact, he was actually a consultant on the HBO TV show Succession. There was a fascinating conversation and we re-edited it for the podcast, because we thought you all would really enjoy it.

We'll put a link in the show notes to a video of the full discussion if you want to hear more. But anywho, they just jump right into it, so here is John Klein.

JOHN KLEIN: Thank you guys, both of you Sarah and John. And thank you, everybody who is joining us here. You guys have been immersed in such an enormously emotional series of stories, not just this past year, which has been especially a double or triple header between all of the racial and equity stories and COVID, which obviously, plays a big part in that as well. And the capital riots and all of that.

I wanted to ask you both about the personal impact on you of covering those stories. How do you separate your own feelings? Because it's emotional for the viewers and the readers to live through those stories, and we're not there, and you guys are right there. Often having tear gas blown at you, people in your face, putting yourselves in real danger, but you're also invested as human beings and as Black men and women reporting on things that are just front and center in our national consciousness now.

So how do you handle or separate the emotional aspect from the reporting aspect? Do you? Should you? Can you? How is it done?

SARAH SIDNER: We're taught that, in journalism, to keep your personal opinions, your personal emotions, your personal well-being, all of those things, kind of to the side and your job is to reflect what's happening there in front of you to the people who are experiencing these different things. Whether it be a police shooting and the family that has to deal with the horrible emotional fallout of that, and the community as well, or whether it be a war zone where someone's literal home is being torn apart and their government is being torn to shreds.

What I have come to understand over these many years is that I can't separate, completely, my emotional involvement with these stories. And I think I need to make that clear to the audience, because I think it's more honest, I think it is more honest to say, look, this feels so incredibly powerful, this moment right now. And to explain what it feels like to be there, I think is also good reporting.

And there are people that disagree with me, I mean, I even disagree with me maybe 10 years ago, you know. But it wasn't my business to tell people what I felt like in this moment. But as we go forward in this world where people are curious about the people who are telling them the stories, that you have to be a little bit more honest with the public.

JOHN KLEIN: And sometimes I guess you just can't help it either. I mean, my wife Jen and I were watching you a couple of months ago in the morning, and you did that really powerful report on the impact of COVID on minority communities. And they came out of the tape piece and you were sobbing.


JOHN KLEIN: And that wasn't a performance, that was you having to do that.

SARAH SIDNER: Yeah. Seeing a family bury their mother in a parking lot with an open casket, that I wasn't prepared for. I can't even describe what that felt like. To see a daughter standing over her mother's body in a parking lot outside of a funeral home, where I know that the hospital just down the road is filled with people on the verge of dying. Seeing that in Los Angeles was, it was almost too much to take, and I think when I tried to do my reporter thing where I was explaining the numbers, I just couldn't get it out.

Because I had literally sat and watched that piece right before I was about to go on, and sometimes I watch it as a very critical reporter, and this time I let myself just watch it as a viewer and I surprised myself with all the emotions that just had been sitting there that I hadn't let out and they just came out on TV. And I was frankly embarrassed to be honest, because I couldn't compose myself.

But it turns out from the reaction from people everybody was feeling that way about COVID at that time. We were all just overwhelmed.

JOHN KLEIN: Yeah. It was very moving. John, are you able to? Can you? Should you separate your emotional feelings about what you're covering from the job of reporting?

JOHN ELIGON: Yeah. I think one advantage I have over Sarah is that I don't have to be put together and have to be on TV all the time like she does. So to that extent, I think, and coming from the world in which I'm writing, I do get that space in which I can reflect and then, take a step back and process whatever emotions I have. It's funny, I get asked this question a lot and I feel like I never have a really good answer, because I think that there is no playbook, honestly, to how you deal with the emotions of these things, that when you're covering such traumatic topics.

Especially when in many ways they can seem very personal to you. I don't think I can realistically expect to not have my own emotions and my feelings about something. I think that's OK, that's perfectly fine for any journalist. I think measure is whether you do your job fairly and accurate, right? So regardless of how I feel about a certain police shooting or whether it was totally out of bounds or not, I can have my own opinion about that, I should have my own opinion about that because I'm a human being, right?

But how is that going to affect my reporting? That's the question. Right? And one thing that I always do when it gets tough and you might feel like you don't want to do it, I keep my eye on why I got into this profession. And part of it is to be able to tell stories of folks who don't often get people who are approaching them for their stories. Who are not giving them that megaphone, people who don't have that power, that access. I get to help give them a platform to share their stories.

JOHN KLEIN: You've done a really good job, I think, in you highlight these individual stories and it really helps to take the subject of race out of the abstract and make it a very real palpable human thing. I'm thinking about a story like in Oregon, where they pass targeted relief aimed at the Black community, which was hit especially hard by COVID and that's become an issue.

And I thought that you handled that story right down the middle. I mean, you presented all sides of it and a reader could come at it however or could take away whatever they wanted from it. Is that in the forefront of your mind all the time?

JOHN ELIGON: I think as journalists we have a duty to not only search for the truth but tell the truth. At its surface you could look at that thing there, and the Oregon story just for people who didn't know about Oregon, they received their federal COVID-19 relief money, and they created a fund just for Black individuals and Black businesses. So of their COVID-19 relief money they got from the federal government, they had a fund for-- just a slice of it, that was only going to Black communities.

And it was based on several things. One of them being that because of systemic structures that we have in place, Black businesses we're not able to tap some of the other relief funds at the same rate that white owned businesses were. So that was one of the reasons. And so that's something where you can, at its face, you can say, oh, look this is reverse racism.

Just putting it just for Black people, right? But I think as journalists it's very much my job to understand the people, because there was a lawsuit, people were suing the State because of that. Whilst it's important to get their side out and help people understand why they're suing, there's also an unobjective truth of why that was created. And a system that disadvantaged Black businesses, that was a key part of that.

So telling that story in that way that is honest and true, could it be like advocacy? Yes, it could feel like advocacy. But I think I would say it's more so honesty, and I think as long as we're honest and we stick to the truth and context, I think that that's ultimately what we should be doing regardless of whether people feel like it's an advocacy thing or not.

JOHN KLEIN: Yeah, what you're hitting on is the nuance and the layers in these stories. It's seldom super clear cut. When you watch other media covering the stories that you have covered hands on, up close and personal, how do you feel in general, media organizations, you don't have to name names or you can if you want, but how do they tend to do it Sarah, do they tend to get it right, do they oversimplify, are they missing the nuance or where do you think-- how would you score them?

SARAH SIDNER: John gets it right.


JOHN ELIGON: Thank you.

SARAH SIDNER: I think. I like to look across a slice, a spectrum of media organizations at times and go back and look at the way in which stories are told. And I look at it with the critical eye, partly because I'm also doing that to myself. I think I'm more self-critical than looking at everyone else's work. But I do think that over the years, I know I have changed in my reporting. I used to be in local news I covered Night Beat, which was every crime you could imagine in local news. Often it was crime, sometimes it was city council, but mostly it was often something horrible had happened.

And I've been looking at police reports more now than I ever have before, because of what we learned from what happened with the initial reporting from the police to the media of what happened to George Floyd. Being a little more critical in our reporting of the authority figures who we have come to rely on for information, that sometimes that information is incorrect, but that's the first rung that gets put out there.

And so, I think we haven't done a good enough job in questioning the authorities narrative on different things, and I'm not just talking about the police narrative. The other thing that I think we as a group of individuals, particularly the television side, we have to be careful of groupthink and we have to be careful of not having the nuance. Because like John is just mentioning, his article about what was happening in Oregon with the COVID relief, if you did not put something about the fact that Black owners of businesses can't get loans, generally speaking, they have a much harder time getting a bank to give them money, even when it has nothing to do with whether they're done well or not.

Redlining where people live and where you're allowed to live still happens. And so I think without the nuance, a story can actually be wrong, because you don't get to start history where you want to start history.

JOHN KLEIN: News, whether it's TV news or print or audio has an inherent bias toward the new, toward the episodic rather than the ongoing, look at the lack of climate change coverage, for how many years? Because it's just always there. And you'd see it in the israeli-palestinian conflict, you see it in 100 different ways. When you've been in charge of the Race Beat at The Times for several years up until your recent move to Johannesburg, how can news organizations orient themselves to an ongoing story like systemic inequities, if they've got that predisposition toward the new?

JOHN ELIGON: Well I think if you're talking about systemic inequities and orienting yourself toward that, I think first of all, you have to make sure that your own shop is in order. And by that I mean the way we cover the world and these nuances, these inequities, is by having a staff that reflects the world. So first, we have to hire people for whom their perspective and the things they've seen, the things that they've experienced growing up, because everyone has their own prism growing up, everyone has their communities that they live in, everyone has their relatives who something happen to and you heard about that. And then that gets passed into the newsroom somehow.

So if we have a staff that reflects the world, we're automatically going to be covering, whether it be inequities that Black people face, it would be inequities that certain farmers might face, whatever that is. So if you have a staff that, first of all, reflects the world I think when it comes to covering those sort of inequities and things like that, it's something that should definitely be done in a very natural way.

The other thing I would say is that also making sure that your staff has an understanding that issues of race and inequity and disparity is in every beat, like yes, it's good to have maybe a race reporter like I was, to really focus on it. But the business reporter should definitely be focusing on it, the education reporter certainly, the health reporters as we've seen with COVID should be certainly focusing on it.

So I think that's the way you kind of keep this story and you really are on it. And you're not always waiting for the new fresh thing like a police shooting or like a pandemic. This is stuff that you should be covering periodically and frequently because of the nature of how this world is. And if you're an expert in any field, you have to be expert in everything within that field and disparity often plays into a lot of these fields.

JOHN KLEIN: Yes, Sarah, I know you have said that you never wanted to be the Black story reporter anywhere you went, right? I mean, you--


JOHN KLEIN: --just wanted to bring who you were to whatever story you were covering, right?

SARAH SIDNER: Yeah, and that made also, as John was talking about, lead into the fact that I come from a mixed race family. And so my interest and one of my family members is an immigrant to this country. And so it was very difficult for me early on in my first few jobs to say to the bosses, because they saw me a certain way, I can cover anything. Like, I will sit at a city hall meeting or I will sit at a-- and I did many-- school board meeting, or I will go into the richest part of town, I also go into the poorest part of town.

And I think sometimes there's this pigeonholing of people who have a great depth to themselves that won't be seen because of the color of your skin. That's the experience that I've had. And I think going abroad for me was as much selfish as it was wanting to give voice to those who really didn't have access to much. And it was an incredible education for myself to also see our world, because when I came back to the United States, gosh, six years ago now I guess or seven years ago, my eyes were opened in a very different way, because I hadn't thought about my race for seven years while I was abroad, it really hardly ever came up.

Now granted, I was in a country where we were all Brown, generally speaking, and people would mistake me for everything else. And mostly, I was just the American. And then I came back to the States, and all of a sudden it slapped me in the face, that we still have this huge problem with race, that somehow in my head had kind of gone away because of where I was and I was concentrating on other things.

And then, here I am covering this very story that I've been running from in local news. But I realized I had my own reckoning where I was like this is part of the fabric of America, and it is a huge part of our stumbling blocks, and the part that needs to be examined, and the part that needs to be truly looked at from an honest perspective, and that's what I started doing. But it took me leaving to really see just how much race and socioeconomic level can play in this country.

JOHN KLEIN: John, you've said you had an experience of coming to this country at age six, what was your perception of race before and after you got here?

JOHN ELIGON: In coming from Trinidad, I didn't think about it quite as much I think. When I first got to the US, I thought about that my family was that from that history of segregation of Jim Crow and all that stuff. My family didn't come from that experience, so we didn't have those stories to share, those things to share. But as I grew older in the US, I went to mostly white schools and there was this like innate sense for me, that of difference of being Black. I definitely identified very strongly with being a Black person.

I went to Northwestern, which is only like 5% Black, but like all the Black folks, and I'm sure this is intentional, are kind of close proximity to each other, I should say, when you're freshman. And so from there on, basically from college on, most of my friends are Black since then. And it's really this big awakening, and it's interesting as I talk to other Black Americans who grew up in mostly white spaces in America, and then came to college and then kind of had their own sort of awakening in some ways.

And then I saw where our stories kind of intersected there. And I've spent time in Germany, I studied abroad in Germany. When I go to Germany, and there's again, the Black folks there, yeah, they're all Black, but they're all Nigerian, Ghanaian, Cameroonian that's how they identify. But in America, while yes, there are these strong diaspora communities and while there is that [INAUDIBLE], you still get lumped in, everyone is Black when you here, everyone gets lumped into Black African-American sort of label when you're here. Regardless whether you want to or not.

So I think for me it was that earliest awakening and really learning what it means to be Black in America, but also how my history and my fortune and fate as a Black person might be different than my African-American friends whose family come from a different tradition, and also, may have had a different trajectory because of the racism that they experienced in this country.

JOHN KLEIN: So here's a question from one of our audience members. They're asking, I've often wondered if the media focused on the good present in society rather than the negative, whether that would, over time, have a positive impact on our society. How can media best encourage respect and equality, diminishing systemic inequities? Thoughts, Sarah Sidner?

SARAH SIDNER: Mm, you know, I thought about that a lot too, and I don't know, I'm not a social scientist, but from my own experience, it certainly has an impact on me when I see, especially stories of sort of triumph, somebody going through something and they come out the other end. And I don't think we do that enough. And if we were to do that more, I don't know what kind of an effect it would have on society, but I certainly don't think it would depress people.

And I hear this a lot from people, they'll say to me, especially younger people they'll say, oh I don't watch the news, it's too depressing. And I don't know what to sometimes do with that, because I'm like you know that it reflects the issues in society. But we are taught to shine a light on a problem, not to shine a light necessarily on a solution. And that may need to change, because if you constantly shine a light on the problem, what that ends up doing is just making people feel bad about everything and maybe hopeless as well.

I think that we have a very hard time shifting gears into solution oriented reporting. And I know it's done as a niche, and I know that it's done in newspapers, it's done as what we call a kicker in news, where you see something incredible that someone is doing that's good, but yeah, I thought about that a lot.

JOHN KLEIN: John, do they kick this issue around at The Times much?

JOHN ELIGON: Yeah. One thing that one of my former editors when I was [INAUDIBLE] told me, which I think was a really good piece of advice. And I think I was marginally successful at it sometimes not successful other times, because it's really hard. But he said, try to think about stories about race that kind of upend the sometimes true, sometimes important, but typical narratives that we always hear.

So talking about Black people in the context of segregation, talking about Latinos in the context of immigration, talk about Native Americans in the context of land dispossession or alcoholism. These are all very important stories that we should be telling, but what are those stories about race that you can tell, that are going to be surprising to someone? That are going to make that feel different? To me that is a huge thing.

So I don't know if it's necessarily the positive aspect, but it's doing something that's surprising, that upends people's assumptions. And the last thing I'd say about that is that, in my current job covering southern Africa, that is a big thing that I think about, because the narrative of Africa, of the continent of Africa, is one of deficit. Right? That's all we know about, is like poverty and colonialism and what's been dispossession and things like that.

But there are stories as I've been digging in, I've only been here a week, but I am itching to tell these stories where I see folks where they find that either their governments or just like their circumstances won't help them out or provide the basic necessities for them. They've kind of taking the reins for themselves and doing their own things. Just one quick example, there's big water issues in South Africa.

So there's a town that took over its own water system, and said, we'll do it ourselves. That innovation, that creativity, I think that's something I'm really going to have to think a lot about when I cover this continent.

JOHN KLEIN: Somebody once told me that surprise is the most important element in making a story interesting.


JOHN KLEIN: You can tell any kind of story, just surprise us. I do remember in Minneapolis the stories about the cleanup crews that would come in and just get rid of all that-- that really jumped out in a sea of despair as a viewer to hear that kind of thing.

SARAH SIDNER: What's happening at George Floyd squares is fascinating. And there's controversy there, there always is. Right? But what happened there and some of the people that I know that John and I both met, Jay the Gardener, he calls himself, he's this 6'7" former basketball player who went abroad to play ball, and he literally created this garden in the middle of the intersection.

Now there has been plenty of controversy over having those roads shut down, but when I saw him out there, randomly, I didn't plan it, I've never met him before, it's that kind of thing where I was surprised. I was like, who is this towering man digging in the dirt? Like when he stood up and I saw him digging, and when he stood up I was like, I need to know what is going on here and who this guy is, and what's he all about?

And it turned out that he had created this garden, the community garden that was in the intersection that made it a roundabout, as opposed to being able to go straight through. And so just a fascinating deeply thoughtful human being who also happen to be African-American, and happened to be very tall and played basketball. Sometimes I think about those stories and I think, I've just met an extraordinary person, the country should meet this person.

JOHN KLEIN: Somebody is asking, could you address the importance of having equity in the executive levels of news and media companies?

SARAH SIDNER: I'm sort of two minded about this, because I do think that representation is important in management. But I also want someone who listens, someone who is capable of coming out of their own world and listens to people who are in the field. And you're going to hear this from a lot of reporters that like, they're not listening to the stories I'm pitching, these are important.

And that's going to be an ongoing battle, because there's only so much time and almost so much space at a newspaper right? But I do think-- and I've had bosses who are like this, where they may not be the same color I am, we might not be the same religion, you know, all of the things, but they'd listen when you say, look, this is a really good story and I think we need to go tell this.

As opposed to just saying, OK, if you're this race, you're going to agree because we're not a monolith. We are not a monolith. I think that story of Black folks and Latino folks and from whatever background you are, white folks, not a monolith. And we've got to stop thinking of each other that way. But I do think that without any representation in a management position, that it's harder to get someone to see you and also to see a story that they just may not be familiar with or know how important it is at the time. So I do think representation is important.

But I also think no matter what color you are, no matter what background you have, if you are in management and you can listen to people who differ from your opinion and who have something to share and value that, that is very important as well.

JOHN KLEIN: Another question from a professor at a Midwest University, who's concerned that after speaking with some of our journalism students, they feel they don't know how to cover issues that address racial inequity and injustice. Even on campus. So he's asking or she is asking, what teaching tools could you impart to take back to the faculty who teach these students?

SARAH SIDNER: One of the things that I try not to do is go into a story with a whole bunch of assumptions. You have to have a few, because of the nature of what you do, you have to have some idea of what's going on. But I think talking to as many people and taking yourself out of it a bit and trying to understand, and saying to somebody, I am trying to understand what is happening here in this community, can you help me understand what is happening here in this community?

Regardless of your color is a very good way to let people understand that you are willing to listen to what they're going to say, but I think ultimately, there is this sense that people need to be taught, but you're going to be uncomfortable. It is not comforting to delve into this, the truth of the matter is, if you sit some two different people down, you start talking about race, there's going to be a moment, most likely, there's going to be a moment where it becomes really uncomfortable.

Because someone says something that you go, oh boy no, we no, mm-mm no, we're going to have to talk about that. Because that's not how I see it, and that's not how I see things, and that's not how it is for me. It's feeling uncomfortable and being OK with that, which is really hard.

JOHN KLEIN: John, tools?

JOHN ELIGON: The thing that I would say is think about this, 18 months ago, who knew what COVID-19 was? Now, I'm sure we all know all these things about particles and social distancing and all this stuff, and I say that to say, we learned that, because we just went out and reported. Asked questions, we read, we researched, we talked to experts. And I would say the same thing applies with race, that when it comes to race, all of a sudden we feel like, oh my goodness, well I'm not Black, I'm not Latino, I'm not a Native American, how can I cover it? How am I supposed to know that?

It's reporting anything else, I mean, think about all the stories I've written, most of the stuff I go into-- the reason I became a reporter is because I don't a lot, and so I go in and I just learn something every day. So that's what I like about it. So I would say approach race coverage the way that encourages students, and teach them how to report race coverage the way they'll report anything, it's all reporting.

Because I think sometimes there's this tendency to want to say that race coverage is more about opinion and feeling. But as we said earlier, there's facts, right? There's facts about Black businesses not being able to get access to loans, to the PPE loans, that were put out for COVID-19 relief. There's facts about that. So race reporting is a lot of fact based stuff too. So I guess my main point would be, just teach them that it's reporting, just like reporting on COVID-19 which you knew nothing about 18 months ago, but you probably know a lot about now.

JOHN KLEIN: So great. Those are wonderful observations, both of you. I want to thank John Elegon and Sarah Sidner so, so much for sharing. We could go on for quite a long time. So keep it up, both of you stay safe and I hope we can have another discussion like this down the road.

JOHN ELIGON: Thank you.

SARAH SIDNER: Thank you.

JOHN KLEIN: Thank you everyone for coming.

DAN RICHARDS: This episode of Trending Globally was produced by me Dan Richards and Alina Coleman. Our theme music is by Henry Bloomfield. Additional music by the Blue Dot Sessions. If you want to hear John, Sarah and John's full conversation, we'll put a link to it in the show notes. And if you want to learn more about Watson's other podcasts, check out our website, we'll put a link to that in the show notes too.

And if you haven't yet, please leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts, it really helps others find us. We'll be back soon with another episode of Trending Globally Thanks.

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