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When my cell rang, an unfamiliar number popped up on the screen. Normally I ignore these calls, certain my service provider has sold my information to half the country's telemarketing companies. This time I picked up.
It was a therapist I had used as a source on a story about mental health. He had watched a couple of my recent appearances on CNN regarding the death of George Floyd and was worried about me. It was not only a kind gesture but one that carried with it a great deal of wisdom.
I was suppressing trauma and anger I didn’t even know I had.
I’ve been so busy covering the unjustifiable deaths, murders, of black and brown people over the years that I had grown accustomed to ignoring the toll it had taken on me as a black journalist. In journalism school they teach you the importance of removing yourself from the story. But there aren’t any courses on managing your mental health when you are repeatedly reflected in gut-wrenching stories.
Or, in the case of CNN’s Omar Jimenez — the black reporter who was arrested while covering the uprising in Minneapolis — you become part of the gut-wrenching story you’re covering.
Yamiche Alcindor of PBS told me on Saturday that she’s noticed a change in her own emotional connection to these particular tragedies over the years, beginning with the murder of Trayvon Martin in 2012.
“I’m from Miami and I have cousins who went to school with him, so I felt empathy," she said. “At the same time, the journalist in me was covering George Zimmerman and his family with objectivity and professionalism. During Ferguson I started getting sadder. This time around, as someone who is married and wants to start a family one day, I feel like I got in a car accident. I survived, but I can see all of the air bag, which is unnerving. Then I get back in the car and get in another car accident, and the airbags go off again. They keep going off."
"I feel this story in my bones. I wake up in the middle of the night crying at times."
"I feel this story in my bones. I wake up in the middle of the night crying at times. I’m experiencing a different me.”
The sleepless nights are a recurring theme among journalists of color who have made deaths of persons of color their unofficial beat. I haven’t slept more than six hours in nearly a week. Suzette Hackney, director of opinion and community engagement for the Indianapolis Star, told me, “I walked six miles today trying to beat back the sorrow and depression.”
“I was on furlough this week,” she continued, citing a company mandate that takes her off the job for one week this month because of the financial shortfall created by the coronavirus. “Imagine being unable to write about this. Honestly, that’s another reason this has hit me so hard. I did some journaling but it’s not the same. My city was insane last night and I had to sit quiet.”
It has been a triple whammy for journalists like Hackney, Alcindor and others— covering a pandemic that is killing black and brown bodies at a disproportionately high rate; dealing with the economic fallout from COVID-19; and another cycle of violence that follows and results in more death to black and brown bodies.
“It is getting very difficult to tell the stories of black people dying on an emotional level,” said John Eligon, a national correspondent covering race for The New York Times. “People who look like me or family members of mine, and the practical weight that the police don’t see you as a journalist but as a black man in the street.
“I was walking around in Minneapolis where the protesters were, and these police floodlights came on. I didn’t know if they were pointing guns at us or not because none of us could see. I was holding my phone and press pass out away from my body hoping they wouldn’t think I was holding a weapon but at the same time I need to be reporting what’s going on. It was a very scary moment.”
I asked John if he had ever been to therapy to work out the lingering effects of covering these stories.
“Not for this," he said. "I don’t know if I have it siloed somewhere in my mind and at some point there will be an explosion. I try decompressing by talking these things out with my wife and unwinding that way.”
It’s a unique balancing act, juggling your humanity with your profession against the backdrop of both being under relentless attack in today’s toxic political environment.
In 2016, when her fiancé proposed to her, Alcindor couldn’t help but think of Sean Bell, the black man New York City police shot and killed ten years earlier on the morning of his wedding.
“My journalism is about emotion and being attached,” Alcindor said. “The moment I cover a story and I don’t think about it nonstop, I need to find another story.”
Still, some topics force her to assume a heavier burden than others. In 2016, when her fiancé proposed to her, she couldn’t help but think of Sean Bell, the black man New York City police shot and killed 10 years earlier on the morning of his wedding. The three detectives charged in the shooting were all acquitted.
“The day he got down on one knee and proposed I started praying he would survive to the wedding day,” she said. “That’s not normal, but that’s what America has become.
“When I saw [Jimenez] getting arrested, my husband was standing in front of the TV with his mouth open. He’s a journalist like me and he couldn’t believe it. It felt very personal … the criminalization of a black journalist. [Jimenez] is an amazing reporter and was very professional, but he didn’t have a choice. In that moment, with all of those officers … it was shocking and scary to watch.”
In these moments, we don’t have a choice. Journalists of color recognize how important, essential, it is that we be there to bear witness. I do not look forward to going back into the streets to hear the cries of a hurting people. In fact, I dread it. But I do it because I recognize the melody. Their song is my song. Their pain is my pain. They have taken to the streets because they feel they have no other choice. So I, and others, follow, because neither do we.