Black Journalists Reflect on Covering Race, Policing and Death

In the year since the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, NPR's Gene Demby, like many of his black colleagues, has reported tirelessly on race and policing. In a 4,000 word piece for NPR's Code Switch, he reflected on the tremendous toll this work has had on him and on fellow black reporters, and explained why he came close to resigning.

"As calls for newsroom diversity get louder and louder — and rightly so — we might do well to consider what it means that there's an emerging, highly valued professional class of black reporters at boldface publications reporting on the shortchanging of black life in this country," writes Demby. "What it means — for the reporting we do, for the brands we represent, and for our own mental health — that we don't stop being black people when we're working as black reporters. That we quite literally have skin in the game."

Referring to others doing similar work, he writes, “We’ve all become part-time cops reporters and part-time criminal justice reporters. We’ve interviewed weeping family members, scrutinized dash cam footage and witnesses’ YouTube uploads, and wrestled with the long-term political implications of what this moment might mean," writes Demby, who also appeared on "Morning Edition" Friday:

Demby concedes that “It’s everything you want in a story — consequential, evolving, complicated. This work will matter in a way that so many other stories don’t or won’t.” But he also writes about how difficult it has been to cover: “This beat has also been distressing and unrelenting. I’ve come uncomfortably close to handing in my resignation, asking to cover anything but this. I can’t even remember which case or video got me to that point, but I just didn’t want to do it anymore.”

And he's not alone. Over the past year, Demby has spoken to dozens of other black reporters who have also wrestled with this trauma. They all have at times felt contradictory impulses when a new tragedy presents itself: "torn between wanting to jump on a plane — or start sketching out a long essay, as the case may be — and wanting to log out of Twitter and block out emails from my editors."

"If nothing else, talking to other black journalists on the race and policing beat for this story has been a huge relief. Nearly everyone brought up a sense of responsibility toward the rest of the folks out here on these stories," he concludes. "Hopefully these ranks will keep on growing. In the meantime, we'll keep checking up on each other."

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