Longstanding journalistic maxims would have a reporter remain disengaged while gathering the facts. But pursuing the whole truth means considering the humanity of one’s subjects—and of oneself. Lived experience can help a reporter empathize and deepen their work in the service of telling stories that accurately reflect the world. After an intense year of reporting on stories about the struggles endured by people who share their identities, TIME journalists reflect on the lessons they will carry forward in their work.
Learning by example
Jenna Caldwell, production associate
I graduated from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in May 2020 and started working for TIME the following month—my first big-girl job—during a pandemic, amid the protests for Black lives.
In graduate school, especially at a predominantly white, elite institution, there’s this pressure, fueled by a sense of competition, to go out, find your story and file it, just get it done. In hindsight, I realize that pressure was traumatizing. Less than four weeks in, I was covering an attempted double homicide in the housing projects in Far Rockaway, Queens, with no one checking in on how I was doing, even as I hung around outside of one of the victim’s hospital rooms desperate to get a quote from his mother so as not to return to class empty-handed.
That semester, I also covered the murder of a Black man by his brother—where I had to sit through the horrific details in court—the brutal and fatal attacks of Black trans women, the conditions that Black and brown housing-project tenents were subject to, the impact of the Newark Water Crisis on its poor, Black residents and so much more. At every corner, I was confronted with a new trauma and at every corner I was critiqued—I should have found a better subject, I should have gotten a better quote. I felt like a shell of myself, someone going through the motions, operating on the hum of anxiety. In the same vein that Black people, and their humanity, are disregarded when their murders become viral, or when the only reflection they see of themselves in the media involves pain and suffering for the sake of storytelling, I was expected to become desensitized to the subjects I covered. I eventually broke down. I called my mom, crying to her that I didn’t have what it took to be a journalist, if this is what journalism entailed. I wanted to drop out.
It didn’t help that I was discouraged from reporting on the things I wanted to cover—I was told that identity and culture weren’t beats, and if I wanted to be taken seriously, I couldn’t write about things like colorism or the natural-hair movement. When I made a complaint about treatment by a faculty member, I was told that the journalism world wasn’t “soft and fluffy” and I would have to get over it.
So I came to TIME thinking that to be good at my job, I could not be vulnerable. I second-guessed my pitches and my work, worried that my ideas for culture stories and profiles would be dismissed as “fluff.” I was so relieved to be wrong. My mentor, matched with me through the BIPOC employee resource group, is one of our staff writers, and she not only helps me with the mechanics of crafting culture pitches, but she also understands the significance of the people I put forward for consideration. After one of my ideas was declined, despite our best efforts to make the case, she encouraged me to keep trying, and now I’m thrilled to be working on a profile of a South American artist for one of our biggest franchises.
Advocating on behalf of yourself isn’t something you learn in school— frankly, in my experience, it was discouraged. It’s something you can only truly learn by witnessing how it’s done up close. I’ve seen the way my colleagues speak up no matter what, whether it’s to demand better working conditions through the union or to convince the higher-ups of a story’s merits. They have inspired me to advocate not only for my work, but also for myself. Over the past year, I’ve fought to become a full-time employee and to be paid a higher salary. My peers have made me a better video producer, a better journalist and, ultimately, a stronger person.
So at 23 years old, as a young Black woman, I can’t say it’s been easy to cover the news. I am still faced with emotionally trying assignments; I was asked to produce a profile of Sybrina Fulton, Trayvon Martin’s mother, in August, the week Jacob Blakewas shot. And I may always have to oversell a pitch and explain the value of telling Black stories that aren’t reduced to pain or suffering. But my peers have given me a community to lean on, and a model to ensure that my voice is heard.