As a young journalist, Dion Lim pitched what she thought was an obvious story: A local nursery was running a racial slur on a billboard, shortening one word in their advertising for Japanese maple trees.
“I failed in the way that I pitched this story because I expressed so much anger and displeasure at the owners; I had made it personal,” she said. “Had I presented it differently, perhaps someone else would have championed it and wanted to tell the story.”
She said that early career experience made her think she shouldn’t bring herself to her work, but in 2021, she’s right back to being OK with her emotions. In fact, bringing lessons from your personal experiences into your journalism probably makes you a more empathetic, trustworthy and interesting reporter.
That was the message of a recent OnPoynt webinar, “Diverse Voices and the Future Newsroom,” which explored the evolving intersection of journalism and personal identity.
The session featured Washington Post national political reporter Robert Samuels and Lim, anchor and reporter at ABC7/KGO-TV in San Francisco, in a conversation moderated by Joie Chen, Poynter faculty and senior adviser.
At The Washington Post, Samuels focuses on the intersection of politics, policy and people by chronicling how the political discussion in the nation’s capital impacts the lives of average Americans. One of his pieces, “Racism’s Hidden Toll,” was part of a series that looked at systemic racism through the lens of George Floyd’s experience in life, he said.
“Everyone who saw George Floyd said that when Floyd saw the police, you could tell he knew he was going to die,” Samuels said, “And I thought that was a story that I had never really read in a newspaper before, even though I understood why he looked that way.”
Chen referred to it as a “remarkable piece of writing,” and asked him to read a bit of it.
The Wednesday after Floyd was killed, the men who had gone through recovery at Turning Point gathered for their weekly support group. The people in the room knew they should talk about what happened. But they just did not want to. They were numb, back in the cycle of mourning another Black man gone too soon.
“I was just sick and tired of talking because all of the talking just doesn’t seem to be helping,” said DeKolby Harris, who moved from Chicago. “It just feels like we can’t live. Do you see how they’re shooting people out there? Covid-19 killing Blacks. Police killing Blacks. Blacks killing Blacks. How can you win?”
“There is no coping,” said Andre Cotton, 49, who went through the program with Floyd. “I try not to feel anything because ain’t none of them cops give a damn about my feelings. I’m trying not to keep myself hostage to what happened to my friend. Because the more you hold on to it, the more it consumes you.”
He got emotional as he continued to read on from the passage, which he warned viewers might happen.
“This is one of the more tumultuous assignments that I had ever done,” he said, adding that his goal was to make readers truly understand Floyd. “If I could get them to feel what George Floyd felt when he saw that gun at the window, what a great gift that would be as a journalist.”
Lim said that as Samuels was speaking, she’d recognized parallels in her own journalism life — experiencing and internalizing pain.
“I’ve been there,” she said. “I’ve been at the point of tears and almost breaking down in the middle of the newsroom in the middle of the day because it hits you. It’s that secondary trauma.”
Lim is an Emmy Award-winning journalist and author of a playbook for women communicators, based on her experiences as the first Asian American woman to be at the helm of a weekday newscast in three major markets: Kansas City, Charlotte and Tampa Bay.
She recalled an incident involving an Asian man who looked “exceptionally like” her father. “I saw him be humiliated and beaten and called slurs for collecting cans in a neighborhood,” Lim said. “And I just watched it on a loop thinking to myself, ‘My God, this could so easily be my own father.’
“When you see something that looks like you, it’s almost impossible not to relate.”
She said that led her to the realization, “I had a purpose to infuse part of me and my perspective into the storytelling — against everything that I had been taught.”
Chen wondered about the journalistic tradition of taking yourself out of the story.
“Is there a conflict in your mind about how this isn’t what the tradition might have been in journalism and what your responsibility is?” she asked the two panelists.
Lim said, “I think in the beginning, certainly I felt a little bit like, am I going rogue here by expressing my pain?”
She said it felt wrong not to infuse some of that pain to her professional self, and quickly found that it made her a better, more trustworthy journalist — and gave her purpose.
“You know, the talk about keeping yourself out of it, I think was perhaps more relevant when everyone in the room looked the same,” he said. “But that’s not the case anymore.”
Chen said there’s a lot of talk about diversifying newsrooms, but still hears multiple complaints about journalists of color being limited because they were “too close” to the issue.
“What do you say to the news organizations who have somehow limited their people from really fulfilling that role?” Chen asked.
Samuels said news managers need to consider having a broader conversation about what makes a journalist qualified to cover anything.
“One of the things that we also have to note is that even if you say, ‘I might not be qualified to deal with something,’ well, the people who you’re sending, should they be qualified?” he asked back. “Or should they be disqualified for their lack of familiarity with issues, and for their discomfort walking into certain communities?”
Chen asked Samuels for his response to a recent memo issued by leadership at The Washington Post, where Samuels works, outlining reporters’ ability to gather around issues.
“I think there is an evolving conversation about where the lines are for journalists to express their identities, particularly because identity politics has become political,” he said. “From my personal perspective, I thought the guidance seemed fair. It seemed like a way to express that, you know, you can go out and be a member of the community, but there is a line to be drawn between a journalist and an advocate.
“But I do think that conversation is changing and continuing to change.”
Chen wondered at what point putting up a “Stop AAPI Hate” or “Black Lives Matter” sign might be perceived as political.
“Do we know what that line is?” she asked. “And is it a good idea for news organizations to try to draw that?”
Samuels said there’s a lot of hairsplitting because of the way the politics have moved into the discussion.
“I think the solution is actually more, better journalism,” he said. “If you had that, you wouldn’t have to have these sorts of debates about whether or not your company’s on the right side. The stories would tell the tale.”
Editor’s note: In this special four-part special series, On Poynt teamed up with Poynter’s “Locally” to consider — through live conversations and reported storytelling — the newsroom of the future and the challenges ahead as more journalists are able to return to in-person work. These sessions address critical questions for news organizations and journalists in the months ahead, such as: what’s been lost and gained, how workplace culture has changed, potential funding models and the fate of the physical newsroom. The next OnPoynt will be announced soon.