Robert Samuels, a Black journalist who graduated from Northwestern in 2006, said he remembers when the N-word was scribbled on the dorm room doors of several Black students. The act inspired him to join the Daily Northwestern and cover issues relating to diversity on campus.
“Racism being America’s original sin, it just sort of follows you. It began following me when I was a student at Northwestern,” he said. “As time has gone on, this has become a continuing issue.”
Samuels, a national political enterprise reporter for the Washington Post, joined three other Black journalists who cover race – John Eligon, a national correspondent for the New York Times; Will Jones, a reporter for ABC 7 Chicago Eyewitness News; and Natalie Moore, an author and reporter for WBEZ Radio in Chicago – on a panel, “The Race Beat: Covering Race and Social Justice Today,” Wednesday night. The panel was hosted by Medill Dean Charles Whitaker for Black History Month.
When Whitaker asked the panel what they bring to the table at their news organizations as Black reporters, Jones mentioned his coverage of a Black Lives Matter protest in Chicago from this summer.
“I was placed in this position at this moment for a reason,” Jones said. “I have a responsibility to bring that perspective to the viewers.”
Moore also connected her coverage to Chicago as she is a Black woman from the South Side. She said the best compliment she has received from a listener was: “This is my story. I just didn’t have the language for it.”
Eligon brought up a completely different perspective since he is from Trinidad.
“There is this sense of Blackness in America that you don’t get from other places,” he said. “If you’re an immigrant from Ghana, if you’re from Trinidad, if you’re from wherever, you are automatically within the tenants of Blackness. But within that tenant there’s many different experiences and backgrounds.”
Whitaker turned the conversation to the question of objectivity in journalism, and Moore jumped in.
“There’s no such thing as objectivity so let’s just stop with that conversation,” Moore said. “There’s accuracy, there’s truth, there’s fairness but we should embrace our subjectivity.”
As talk of objectivity continued, the panelists began to discuss coverage of the “other side” when it comes to race: racists. Eligon objected to giving these people a voice. He said racist voices should only be included to show these people exist, not to validate racism.
Samuels, however, was more inclined to show the “other side.” He talked about covering race in Ferguson, Missouri after the police killed teenager Michael Brown in 2014.
“Ferguson, Missouri is a third white,” Samuels said. “When I told my bosses I wanted to go and talk to white people about Ferguson and Michael Brown, they thought I was crazy.”
Regardless, Samuels wrote a story about a pizza shop in Ferguson that was thought to have a racist owner by Black members of the community. The owner tried to “end racism” by giving out free pizza, but it was not well-received.
“When we talk about people who have different perspectives, folks we would not want to sit in a church pew with, I think it’s really important to be able to see them in motion,” Samuels said. “That doesn’t excuse the behavior. You find avenues to tell that story and contrast it.”
Whitaker ended the event with a question from the audience: is race coverage just the “flavor of the month” or will it last?
“We’re really just talking about good journalism here,” Samuels answered. “The idea of looking at systemic problems, accountability, trying to get sources that think differently than you - these are the fundamental things that come with our obligations with the first amendment.”
Article Thumbnail courtesy of Jenna Anderson / North By Northwestern