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‘The terror of wearing both a press badge and black skin’: Black journalists are carrying unique burdens

From left, Branden Hunter of the Detroit Free Press in the gas mask he’s started wearing to cover protests; Yamiche Alcindor of “PBS NewsHour” covering a White House press briefing; and CNN’s Omar Jimenez, in an image taken from the live broadcast during which he was arrested in Minneapolis. (From left: Courtesy of Branden Hunter; Mark Wilson/Getty Images; CNN/Reuters TV)

For black journalists, the civil unrest in cities across America isn’t just a big story. It’s personal.

This was underscored for Branden Hunter in Detroit Saturday night. A rifle-toting police officer walked up to a group of reporters covering a chaotic night of demonstrations. As they all yelled “press” and held up their credentials, he made a beeline to one in particular.

It was Hunter — one of the few black news reporters at the Detroit Free Press and the only one on that sidewalk — who drew the officer’s attention, though he also showed his press badge. “He’s with us!” a white colleague shouted, panic in her voice. And only then did the officer walk away.

“I’ve always had a hard time fitting in,” Hunter, 30, said in an interview Monday. “We know this field is dominated by white men. . . . For people to actually believe you’re a journalist — even cops last night were saying, ‘You’re not media.’ ”

While the unrest sparked by the Minneapolis death of George Floyd in police custody is posing challenges for all reporters, black journalists are laboring under extra complications — from the fear of police racially profiling them as demonstrators to the psychic toll of covering yet another black death captured on bystander video.

“It feels like a weight because then you are tasked also with explaining and extrapolating on black pain for oftentimes a white audience,” said MSNBC correspondent and “Into America” podcast host Trymaine Lee. “And you’re not fully sure anyone even truly understands. . . . And you still have to be objective, and you have to make sure that you’re being clear-eyed and honest and sober for the people, because the people also rely on us to tell the truth, to tell the story. And that’s a weight that I’m not sure if other journalists just carry.”

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The impassioned backlash to police violence has arrived in the middle of a pandemic that has also disproportionately affected black people. And Floyd’s death came hours after social media exploded over video of a white woman in New York’s Central Park telling a black birdwatcher with whom she had quarreled that she would tell police “there’s an African American man threatening my life.”

After a black CNN correspondent, Omar Jimenez, was arrested on live television while covering Minneapolis protests Friday morning, many journalists praised him for his poise during that moment. PBS White House correspondent Yamiche Alcindor did the same — but “did he really have a choice?” she wondered ruefully.

“Do most black folks have a choice in moments like that?” she wrote on Twitter. “Is it safe to voice even justified concern when authority figures have decided you are a problem?”

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For Dorothy Tucker, an investigative reporter for Chicago’s CBS-2, reporting this story is complicated by thinking of the risks that her husband, her children and her community suffer “for simply being born with darker skin.”

It doesn’t keep her from doing her job. “But at the end of the day, I think we all go home and weep, and pray, and hope, and deal with the anger and disappointment,” said Tucker, who is also president of the National Association of Black Journalists. “The attack on press freedom is disheartening on its own — but imagine the terror of wearing both a press badge and black skin in this country at the same time.”

“You watch those videos [of police killings] and you think it could be your brother, your father, your daughter or yourself,” said Wesley Lowery, a reporter who was at The Washington Post and now reports for a new digital version of CBS’s “60 Minutes.” “You feel it in a real way. You feel it could be your loved one. Then you take on the responsibility to explain it to the world. It’s miserable.”

Lowery, who spent three months in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014 covering the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement after the police shooting of Michael Brown, said he often feels a rush of adrenaline when called to cover another such incident, and stress-related pains in his leg. One night in 2016, he was in The Post’s newsroom to write a story about the fatal police shooting of Alton Sterling, 37, in Baton Rogue. Then he saw video of Philando Castile, a 32-year-old African American man killed by police in Minnesota.

Lowery went to a bathroom and threw up. Then he returned to his desk to write a story.

The NABJ has started asking African American reporters to share stories of mistreatment in the field during these protests, while also encouraging news managers to be sensitive to the additional stress their black employees are experiencing.

Informal networks exist for journalists to support one another, and new ones have emerged on social media; a freelancer started a GoFundMe to pay for black journalists’ mental health costs. Some newspaper employee unions have also issued statements acknowledging the acute pain felt by black colleagues. Lee said he spent the past week reaching out to younger black journalists that he mentors, just to see how they’re doing.

Trump has sown hatred of the press for years. Now journalists are under assault from police and protesters alike.

While the work can be challenging, many black journalists say it’s necessary for them to be involved in covering this story. One of the galvanizing moments for minority journalists was the publication of the federal Kerner Commission report in 1968, which explored the underlying causes of urban unrest. Among its findings: that newsrooms were “shockingly backward” in hiring journalists of color, and that the white-dominated media had failed to cover the social and economic conditions that had led to unrest.

“The press has too long basked in a white world looking out of it, if at all, with white men’s eyes and white perspective,” the report said. “That is no longer good enough. The painful process of readjustment that is required of the American news media must begin now.”

Black journalists can help “tell the story in an honest way with emotional access, historical access and physical access that many of the other journalists don’t have,” Lee said.

The Kerner report spurred hiring efforts at many news organizations. Still, non-Hispanic whites make up 77 percent of all employees in newspapers, broadcasting and Internet publishing, according to a 2018 analysis of Census Bureau data by the Pew Research Center. (This compares with 65 percent of all U.S. workers who are non-Hispanic whites.)

As African American journalists prepare to cover more demonstrations, they say there is only so much they can to mitigate the dangers they face. Since Saturday, Hunter has made a point of always working with a partner and being careful about the clothes he choose to wear.

But does it matter? He recently ran into a friend at a demonstration, and they both had on the same kind of Nike Air 1s.

“He said, ‘You know what, Branden? It don’t matter what you wear, they’re only going to [judge you] based on the color of your skin.’ ” Hunter said. “What do I do? Wear a pair of khakis to blend in with the other reporters? There’s nothing I can do about it — it’s just the color of my skin that makes them think I’m not a reporter.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article transposed the incidents that Wesley Lowery was reporting. He was writing a story about Alton Sterling when he heard about the fatal police shooting of Philando Castile. The story has been updated.