"I Have Struggled": Black TV Journalists Talk George Floyd Coverage, Industry Diversity

New - Blayne Alexander (NBC News) Trymaine Lee (MSNBC) Sara Sidner (CNN) Omar Jimenez (CNN) Fredricka Whitfield (CNN) Victor Blackwell (CNN)Antonia Hylton (NBC News) Alex Perez (ABC News) Jericka Duncan (CBS News) Rachel Scott (ABC News)- Publicity - H 20
Courtesy of NBC News; MSNBC; CNN; ABC News; CBS News

Ten Black journalists speak about how they have covered the protests, the hurdles and dilemmas they face, and why their industry still has work to do.

Alex Perez had the N-word yelled at him while filming a television segment in Missouri.

Rachel Scott was confused for a hotel maid (and asked for more towels) while reporting on President Trump's trip to Florida.

Fredricka Whitfield was stopped by a police officer who was suspicious of her high-end loaner car.

And Omar Jimenez was arrested live on the air as the world watched.

Reporting while Black in the United States can mean navigating a daily minefield, and yet the country's top television news journalists of color have persisted, tasked now with covering a country on fire following the police's killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Jericka Duncan was taking a few days off after covering the disparately deadly impact of the novel coronavirus on the Black community when Floyd was killed and she had to go back to work.

Amid nationwide protests, and a broader conversation about inequities in the news industry, The Hollywood Reporter spoke with 10 Black television journalists, representing CNN, MSNBC, NBC News, ABC News and CBS News. (Fox News Channel declined to make a journalist available.) The below interviews have been edited and condensed. 

What has it been like to cover this story?

Victor Blackwell (Anchor, CNN): It has been challenging. Having had some experiences with police, with authority, we are pretty good at governing those emotions, governing those pains and controlling them, suppressing them, and when it comes up, utilizing them in very controlled, limited moments. But I'll have to admit it was a bit challenging for a sustained period, for a couple of weeks, for that to be the main conversation in the country, and balancing that authenticity of knowing exactly what the protestors are out in the streets about — balance that authenticity with the objectivity of being a journalist. ... I think it's important, obviously, for us to control our emotions. I do my best to accomplish that when there are stories like this. ... But I will say this: I understand, from my personal experiences, why people have been out night after night on those streets calling for substantive change.

Alex Perez (Correspondent, ABC News): At the end of the day, as you reflect, as you come home and you take your journalism hat off and you get ready to go to bed and you look at the mirror, you sort of carry a little bit with you of all those people you've talked to or you've encountered that day.

Antonia Hylton (Correspondent, NBC News/Quibi): On a private level, I have struggled, and I talk about that a lot with my friends in the field. ... I wake up and frankly, I'm already anxious in the morning about what's going to happen today, what I might need to cover, how I might need to pivot, and then also just privately worried about what I'm going to have to do to keep my self sane, to keep myself together as I interact with colleagues, and to try to put my reporter hat on and not my personal, private one.

Blayne Alexander (Correspondent, NBC News): It's been a hard few weeks. ... It's taking a toll on so many people. ... It's one of those stories that you almost don't want to break from it, because it's such a moment right now. It's one of those stories that pushes you to keep going.

Fredricka Whitfield (Anchor, CNN): I think this one struck a chord with everyone. Me included. For me as a mother, this is your fear all the time. You can't help but wonder and worry about, 'Is this what my son's going to encounter? Is this why my husband might be taking longer than usual to get home?' These are frightening things. So, we are covering it as journalists, yes, but you can't help but feel pain. Feel worry. Feel fright. 

Omar Jimenez (Correspondent, CNN): Surreal, but also an incredibly wild rollercoaster of emotions, from the intensity of the first week to the sensitivity of the funeral. 

Jericka Duncan (Correspondent, CBS News): It's been emotionally exhausting. It's been emotionally draining, I think. 

How do you maintain journalistic distance when you're covering stories about people in pain, particularly when the stories are about the Black community? Should that be the objective?

Sara Sidner (Correspondent, CNN): It's always been hard. I've never been a journalist who has been able to properly separate the emotional side of talking to other human beings going through hell and my own feelings about how hard that it is. It is a lifelong struggle for me to try and be able to work while also getting hit with all of the range of emotions that one gets hit with when you're covering anything that is part of the human experience and the human drama. It's learned, because it isn't natural to not react in an emotional way to things. It is both taught, to keep that distance, but it's also a survival mechanism. ... It's impossible to survive this without trying to have some separation, because it's heavy, seeing people go through some of the hardest moments of their life.

Trymaine Lee (Correspondent, MSNBC): I think Black journalists, Black people, have to find their own way to move through America. We have the agency to make that a central part of who you are, and allow that to drive you, or you can set that to the side, because we have to survive, and you have to make it in a society that often doesn't want you to.

Hylton: I think you can open up in the field often. I think that that's a strength of mine, actually. But there is a battle there and lines that you try to keep drawn. ... [Journalism] school is going to drill certain notions of objectivity into your head. That's all good and fine. But you can still be a human being and you can still go into your work with kindness and honesty about who you are. ... I think that a lot of Black journalists experience burnout because they've forced themselves to hide a lot of who they are and what they're experiencing because they're afraid of the consequences of that.

Whitfield: I think we all still are taxed very much to work hard so that our reporting is not colored by that kind of worry, fright, empathy. But, from an intellectual standpoint, our experiences do help drive the kinds of questions that we're asking of people involved in this story. ... We have to work, I think, emotionally even harder so that our personal experiences and our personal points of view don't supersede and don't stand in the way of good, strong, unbiased reporting. 

Jimenez: This was the first story I've covered where even if I tried to [have distance], I was pulled into the story. The conversations that this story has sparked about race and relations between communities and police are conversations I've had within my family for years. And now all of a sudden, white friends that I've had for 15, almost 20 years, we're now talking about race for the first time, openly, and they don't feel scared to ask questions. I don't feel scared to answer questions.

Do you try to separate your identity from your coverage?

Blackwell: I have been a Black man long before I was an anchor at CNN. And there would be no reason to hire people with diverse life experiences or backgrounds if they don't bring that to the table or to the conversation. And I think it is my duty, it's my responsibility, to bring that to the conversation. And it's not something that I think we should shy away from. I think it's something that we need to inject carefully, tactfully, but I absolutely think it is our job to include that life experience to the conversation. It informs the questions. 

Lee: For me, there is no way that I can imagine separating who I am from what I do. To me, it is a point of pride, and it's also part of my fuel. ... I don't think it diminishes my ability to be fair and to be honest. I think the idea of an unbiased journalist is foolish. ... As long we're telling the truth, I don't think bringing your whole self to that truth diminishes the journalism in any way. 

Alexander: When I go into a story, I'm a Black woman. Period. When I go into the world, I'm a Black woman. Period. And so I can't, nor would I want to, separate my identity from my profession and what I do. I don't believe in any way that that compromises my impartiality. I think that that informs my perspective.

Has covering these protests and the unrest changed your stance on the traditional notion of journalistic impartiality?

Sidner: I have evolved. And not just on this story, but this is the most I have emoted on the air, but I have definitely evolved over my time as a journalist. It's actually more honest to not be completely devoid of all of the feelings, if you will. To be devoid of all the emotional turmoil that is going on within you as well as the population and the people that you're covering. I think it's a more honest way of reporting. It is very uncomfortable because of the way that I was trained as a journalist. ... People do have biases, and I think letting people see that this actually is affecting you as a human being is just more honest, because it affects every journalist as they're doing their work.

Hylton: I think that there is a higher tolerance now for allowing journalists to be honest about who they are as human beings. That just means being honest about who they are when they show up. Trying too hard to pretend to be something that you're not ultimately harms your reporting and probably makes it hard for a reporter to develop deep and honest relationships with people in the field because no matter how I tried, if I wanted to try, my blackness seeps into my reporting.

What are the challenges and advantages of being a Black journalist, both when covering stories about police violence and more broadly?

Sidner: As a Black journalist, when you're walking down the street within the protest, I feel that I am probably more welcomed by those who are protesting, and more of a target for police. And I've seen that play out here. I look like many of the people protesting. My colleagues who are white can often feel the opposite, where the protesters are more suspicious of them and the police are more accepting of them.

Lee: We go to places that others don't want to go. We have access to communities and experiences that many others don't, even our most well-meaning counterparts. We're mission-driven, in a certain way, and I think we've done the job we've always done, which is — sometimes with our nerves and emotions raw — going into these conversations and really offering the nuance that others don't often get. ... Now that we're examining race and wrestling with racism, I think Black journalists have shown themselves to be bright lights in the darkness.

Hylton: Being Black, in many cases, it helps me build trust, without any real effort on my part. ... When you cover Black stories, being Black often allows you to go deeper.

Alexander: I think that in covering a story like this, it really brings home just how important it is to have diversity in a newsroom. I think that so much of covering this story is really what it's like to be Black in America.

Rachel Scott (Reporter, ABC News): I'm often confused as a protestor, along with my Black producer, who is out in the field with me. You have these moments where you are making sure you are either slowly reaching for your press ID that's on your belt, or communicating in a way that doesn't cause or raise any tension.

How would you assess the level of diversity in the TV news business?

Sidner: In the television world, that diversity needs to improve, I think, but there have been great strides. I also am not a person that believes that only Black people and Black reporters can tell the story. I think that's wrongheaded. ... Our definition of diversity in journalism needs to be widened out. Where are journalists who live in rural America? Where are journalists who come from low socioeconomic families? I did, and it was hard. ... We need to reflect the society that we are in, and that includes people who did not grow up and go to the best schools and have the best things, because this business can be very expensive, especially the television side.

Blackwell: I think that we need a more diverse conversation, to bring more diverse life experiences to our audience, and to better reflect those who watch us. I can tell you that my voice has been welcomed, and I use it at CNN. I have a diverse team that writes for our show and produces for our show, and I make sure that their voices are heard as we put together our shows every week. But I think there's always more that we can do.

Perez: It's much more reflective now of what I see and the people I know, particularly at the network I call home. ... Trying to sort of even out, compensate for years, decades of inequities, it doesn't happen overnight, and I think we all know that.

How is your network doing in terms of racial diversity?

Lee: MSNBC and NBC do a better job than most, and I've been around the block — in print, digital, now in broadcast and audio. You look around and there are people of color, but there's still not enough. So even if we're doing it better than most, our viewers and our listeners and our news would all be better for having more diversity. And I call for it any opportunity than I can.

Perez: We have a good balance and make efforts to have a balance, because we do want to reflect what we see across America and what people see in front of them.

Hylton: I think NBC is better than others. ... I can tell you, every producer I've worked with so far has been non-white.

Alexander: I think that NBC, MSNBC has done better than some. Better than most. I do feel that my voice has been valued.

Duncan: I think we've gotten better. I think there's still room to grow at every network, and I think this is a time where as a Black journalist, you definitely feel like if there was ever a time to speak up, it's now. ... It has forced newsrooms to lean in and lean on African-Americans to help them figure out what do we do next, and where we have possibly been lacking in how we're covering stories that deal with people of color. So, I'm encouraged by that.

Jimenez: I feel like CNN has been doing an amazing job trying to get better every single day in this aspect. They're not perfect, but I am encouraged by the fact that we are trying to get better, in terms of diversity of race, of thought, of any sort factor you can think of — trying to figure out, from a race perspective: what are we doing right, what are we doing wrong, what can we get better at. There's still a ways to go, but we're on our way.