February 22, 2022


‘Completing the narrative’: Training the next generation of journalists to cover diverse communities

Reducing gun violence in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood, coping with the trauma of incarceration by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and building a hospitality worker unionization movement–these are the stories young and early-career journalists are sharing on the Change Agents podcast. Award-winning producer Judith McCray leads the project, which pairs journalists with activists from the communities they’re covering. It’s work that connects to her own experiences as a Chicago journalist of color—and her efforts to nurture the next generation of diverse journalists as the Diversity Faculty Fellow at DePaul’s Center for Communication Engagement. McCray joins the podcast to talk about this unique reporting technique, training reporters to build relationships and trust, and the evolving discussion of objectivity in journalism.



JUDITH MCCRAY: We weren't teaching new journalism skills. We were expanding upon the skills by showing and guiding our young journalists of basically how do you develop a relationship based on trust, that is not promotional, that is not advocacy in the negative use of the word that there's going to be some bias in the reporting.

LINDA BLAKLEY: Welcome to DePaul Download. I'm your host Linda Blakley.

"Too often, the actions of real people of color, making real change in their neighborhoods and lives are ignored in the media." This premise is at the heart of the Change Agents podcast.

Young and early-career journalists in Chicago, including a few DePaul students and graduates, teamed up with activists from across the city to tell stories of the improvements they're making in their communities.

Award-winning documentary filmmaker and producer Judith McCray co-leads the project. It's work that connects to her own experiences as a Chicago journalist of color and to her efforts to nurture the next generation of diverse journalists as the diversity Faculty Fellow at DePaul's Center for Communication Engagement.

Judith McCray joins me today to talk about telling stories with authenticity, training reporters to build relationships and trust, and the evolving discussion of objectivity in journalism. Welcome, Judith.

JUDITH MCCRAY: Hi, Linda. Thank you very much for having me.

LINDA BLAKLEY: Let's begin with the Change Agents podcast. In one episode, DePaul grad, Kortni Smyers-Jones, teamed up with an activist in Chicago's Austin neighborhood and interviewed longtime residents about how their neighborhood has changed.

Artimmeo: I knew of Benny Lee by the stories my family had told me about him. He grew up in the neighborhood, had run-ins with the law. But he came home and transformed his life. I'm Artimmeo, but everybody called me Maine because they say my name too hard. I grew up in Austin, too. But I came along 20 years after Benny. He knew a different Austin than what I came up in.

Kortni Smyers-Jones: I met Benny Lee through a mutual friend. And much like you, I only heard great things. I was told he was the godfather of Austin. He's a true historian by experience really.

Benny Lee: You had lounges going down like from Harrison and Cicero, you had the New Natural Club, then a block over you had the Bird Cage right at Van Buren and Cicero. Across the street, you had the Holiday Inn lounge, and then a block over on Gladys, you had the Twinkling Star. So that was an era where we had a lot of activities going on.

LINDA BLAKLEY: What is different about how this story is told from other stories we hear about Austin in the news?

JUDITH MCCRAY: Well, Linda, I think one of the main differences in terms of how this story was told and what we necessarily hear in conventional media or conventional journalism, is that our journalist Kortni Smyers-Jones teamed up with a community activist Maine, who works for the organization Institute for Non-violence Chicago, working with helping get people off the streets that are involved in violence in the Austin area. Or if someone is shot, he's the one that goes to the hospital with them. So they're very much on the street intervenors. And these are the people you don't hear from. Or if we hear from in the media, it's because they've been shot, or they're being arrested, or there's spoken at.

And what we were very intentional about with a Change Agents podcast series, when we created it, was this was an opportunity to collaborate with community organizations that were on the ground doing the type of work that Maine and his organization are doing in Austin, so that there's an authenticity to what's really going on, who's really doing the work. But also that opportunity to hear from people that normally journalists are intimidated or don't know to look for because we're always looking for the quote unquote, experts, which tend to be those who've gotten media attention, or the police or the mayor. And this was an opportunity to do some grassroots journalism, and looking at an organization to give us an inside look at being on the ground, living in Austin.

LINDA BLAKLEY: What do you hope your students learn from the experience of working with activists on the podcast?

JUDITH MCCRAY: Well, I'd like to share with you in terms of what this particular former student Kortni shared when we did kind of a post-session of what all of our journalists got from the session, and just let me read a couple of her words that she wrote. She said, "What I love most about Austin is how they have each other's back. One code, One Austin represents unity. They help each other out. They're there for each other at their lowest. They're loyal to their city and actually care to fight for its name. I've never met a stronger community. It felt good being on out there and witnessing that bond. Learning from community members rather than news stations or bias sources created a new awareness for me, you step into someone else's shoes for a second, and can genuinely feel what they're saying. That makes me want to fight harder for them, advocate for them, and make sure their stories are told."

That is an example I think of -- we weren't teaching new journalism skills. We were expanding upon the skills by showing and guiding our young journalists of basically how do you develop a relationship based on trust, that is not promotional, that is not advocacy in the negative use of the word that there's going to be some bias in the reporting. But to talk with people that Kortni might never necessarily have met coming from Oakland, California, working downtown, to be in a neighborhood, be in Austin, and work with people who not only grew up there, but are actually working actively to make a change to improve the lives and quality of lives of the residents of Austin.

LINDA BLAKLEY: It's expanding the notion of just who are the experts.

JUDITH MCCRAY: Exactly, exactly.

LINDA BLAKLEY: The episodes begin with the journalist describing a bit about their background and connection to the stories they're telling. Here's Jesus Montero, who reported a story on immigrants who spent time in detention centers.

Jesus Montero: Growing up in the early morning, as the sun was rising, coming home from his overnight shift at the factory he still works out today, my father would tell me 'Mijo, today, echale ganas.' Translated from Spanish, 'echale ganas' means to give it your best, or to do something with feeling. My father is an immigrant from Mexico, who risked his life swimming across the Rio Grande in search for a better life. At a young age of 17, my father left the only world he knew to one day provided me the land of freedom and opportunity. I often think about that ultimate sacrifice and how the young age is 17 years old, my father was more of a man than I am today, risking it all just for a chance at a better life. Many live in the shadows out of fear that they'll be taken from that chance, taken from the place they call their home, taken from their family, taken from everything they know and everything they love.

LINDA BLAKLEY: Many journalists shy away from being a part of the story. Tell me about the choice to have the journalists share about themselves first.

JUDITH MCCRAY: Thank you for that question. We were again intentional in giving our journalists the room, the creative room, to not just do straight news reporting, or even feature reporting, but to be more storytelling. And think of in terms of three acts, a beginning, middle and end, some conflict. But also, where do they fit into this.

And, Jesus, his relationship with his father had made him connect more deeply with the activist he worked paired with Alex, who is an immigrant who had been detained for 18 months. So adding that personal element, we felt made a story more compelling because it takes off the veneer that journalists are not people too, and that we don't have experiences as well. But it also gave an indication of the bond that Jesus created with Alex in order for Alex to be able to share a story that he had not brought up publicly. there was a lot of shame, there was a lot of pain. There was a lot of fear associated with how he had been detained by ICE, and not been told by anybody where he was for a long period of time, even though his court cases kept winning, ICE continued to detain him while they did the appeals. So this was really the first time that he came out and told as deeply the story of what it was like to be on these long-term detentions and the conditions under which he was put. It felt natural to Jesus to connect himself to this story, because that was a critical point of his reporting, was to create this relationship, person to person between himself and Alex.

LINDA BLAKLEY: I think they shared points of reference do give it an added measure of authenticity, very compelling.

JUDITH MCCRAY: And I'd like to share just like I did about Kortni's. This is a short response in our post-evaluation that Jesus had written, saying, "This workshop (because we did the series, we produced it as part of a production workshop), this workshop stretched me in ways that I was prepared for and other ways that caught me a bit off guard. But the growth that occurred because of those experiences with these change agents has left an indelible mark that I'll carry to all my future stories. These stories are important and I better understand my responsibility to them, my sources and the audience."

The activist Alex... When this first season, the activists were as equally involved as the journalists were. He took his new enthusiasm for developing stories and interviewing and crafting on the production side that he then went back to OCAD, the organization he was with, to pitch doing a podcast with them. And I think the last time we talked with them that they were developing their own podcast series, which was our hope and prayer too. That we aren't the only ones out here. But this would trigger a whole series of podcasts or other media that have a deeper dive into what's going on in marginalized and communities of color not being reported, but needing to be told.

LINDA BLAKLEY: I want to take a deeper dive at this point into the discussion around objectivity in journalism, what do most news organizations and by extension us, as an audience get wrong about objectivity? What harm does that cause?

JUDITH MCCRAY: I think what most news organizations or quote unquote, traditional journalism training, has gotten wrong about objectivity, and as certainly in my 30-some year career as a journalist and a filmmaker and media maker, is the implication that unless you go to known sources, like academics as experts, like elected officials, like people who have been written up in the New York Times, or went to Harvard, and conventionally that tended lean towards white Americans, white males, that unless those are your sources, there's something wrong or less than credible about your story, or advocacy.

And like objectivity, in journalism, we've used the word advocate and advocacy journalism erroneously as well. Because we can tell a story about injustice or changes to make a towards a social justice issue. And look at those individuals, organizations that are actively working on that, and not be biased in the storytelling. Where at the same time, for decades, we've accepted as journalism police reports at face value, even though those who often were incarcerated or detained by the police had a different story. And nicely that is becoming more known that the police are one source, the mayor is one source, the academic at Harvard, or even DePaul is one source. But there are other perspectives, experiences, and expertise that are equally valid. So nicely, I think we're finally broadening out the word objectivity to be what it was intended to be in journalism in terms of vetting the source to know that that person, or that institution is accurate and factual and the telling, but also recognizing there are a variety of perspectives and viewpoints that aren't just the police departments, or the mayor, or the white patriarchy that still guides much of our leadership and leadership and the culture for journalism.

As well as I think there's a much greater appreciation for these new branches, considered new branches that I just consider better journalism, called collaborative journalism or engagement journalism or movement journalism or hyperlocal journalism. All of which is going out and talking to the people who have formerly been overlooked or whose lives and experience have been extricated for a story as opposed to a fuller understanding of the culture, the racial distinctions, the sexual orientation and gender understanding that is all about doing a better job of being journalist.

And I'd like to add, you know, because I went back as I was thinking about our discussion today, and I pulled up the Society of Professional Journalists' Code of Ethics. And two areas in the seek truth, there's three main four main areas that probably know seek truth and report it, minimize harm, act independently and be accountable and transparent. So, under the different codes, under seek truth and report it, one is "boldly tell the story of the diversity and magnitude of the human experience, seek sources whose voices we seldom hear." Right there, right, that should ruled out this debate about objectivity. Another is "Avoid stereotyping. Journalists should examine the ways their values and experiences may shape their reporting." Again there and then under "minimize harm," one of the codes is "consider cultural differences in approach and treatment."

So, if we were all following the code of ethics, we would already be doing what we're attempting to do with Change Agents and what organizations like The Tribe and City Bureau and Free Spirit Media, and Southside Weekly, and Block Club Chicago all have been doing successfully for a number of years, and not look at that necessarily as new journalism. But basically, I feel we're like correcting the narrative, completing the narrative.

LINDA BLAKLEY: Completing the narrative. And what are we hearing... What do you hear from students about how they understand objectivity, and its role in news reporting?

JUDITH MCCRAY: Both the former students who are Change Agents journalists, and the students I teach in my classes, most are a little confused right now. Because what I really admire about young people who I'm teaching is they have a much more willingness to challenge what they see around them and to, across racial and class differences, or differences, to want to know about, to demand gender and sexual orientation justice, and speak very openly about white supremacy and the white patriarchy and privilege.

They seemed confused about what do we mean by objectivity? And I see it more intensely, not intensely, more immediately in their practice, when we're talking about how do you listen to somebody to be prepared for an interview? And they will each say, this just happened just a couple of weeks ago in a class we were practicing interviewing, "I'm so used to going in with a set of questions, and trying to get an interview and waiting for that person to get back to me on email, that here, I'm actually hearing and I'm having a conversation, and I've got so much more out of this conversation than if I was just relying on my set of questions, or just going to that one source who I was told to that was ignoring my email."

I'm observing that their experience with not being afraid to go off the traditional path is as objective, and it is credible, and holds that and they're using the same set of skill sets. But they're also allowing themselves to be more vulnerable about what they don't know, more transparent, in terms of talking to a potential source about what the story is about. And not feeling, kind of removing this line of elitism that I think we often bring to our sources, as a journalist in terms of I have a deadline, I need this done, I need to talk to this person, almost a sense of I'm doing your favorite to talk to you. And I'm finding with my students, there's much more respect and concern for the conversations and with the people that they're having, and in their approach.

I think in terms of objectivity they are experiencing, seeing and experiencing that, who you get to talk to is very broad. But the skill set in terms of what makes it objective is I'm not just going to talk to one person, I'm not taking his or her experience or his or her work as my only source. I'm going to go do some data research, I'm going to go look for the contextual terms of who's in the community, and how is this issue impacted others than this person or this organization that I'm working with to have access to people that have never been interviewed before, have never been recorded or film before? Who's the right grandmother on the porch to talk to? It's not every grandmother.

Those research skills, those, checking your source and checking the secondary sources, they're finding, those are the same. It's just we're now being able to talk to… it's allowed or accepted to talk to more people who traditionally have been looked at as well, if we talk to the grandmother on the porch, there's a bias there. Well, how is that any more of a bias than talking to the police chief or the mayor? If it's about a situation going on in her neighborhood, or in her community?

LINDA BLAKLEY: It sounds to me like a formula for more accurate context and fact finding when you approach it that way. So, let's turn now to a related topic, activism and journalism. Nikole Hannah-Jones, the New York Times reporter behind the 1619 Project, has said all journalism is activism. What do you think of that view? And do you share it?

JUDITH MCCRAY: You know, I do. It's interesting. I do share what Nikole Hannah-Jones has said about all journalism is activism. I remember when I was in graduate school and decided to go back into journalism, that I wanted to be an advocate for social justice and never thought of that as being that I was going to be biased in terms of supporting one the organization's work as being the end all, be all. And I think it's refreshing that she has gotten the platform to be able to say this in a credible way, given her background, that we all can adhere to that. Because first and foremost journalism to me as a public service. I mean, we are the voices for those who don't have a voice. And it is in the code of ethics, right. So to shy away from the word activism? I've long thought of myself as a media activist. And that way to shy away from that, I think is a disservice to why we are journalists, and why are we reporting on the stories that we are reporting on? Because it is these actions that we are covering that is for the public's right to know, in the public's interest, even if it's a segment of the public. But yeah, I think it's wonderful that she's made that statement out loud in public on a platform where more and more people can hear her and not have her voice shut down.

LINDA BLAKLEY: And say it loudly and proudly. As it is Black History Month, I couldn't end our conversation without talking about legendary journalist and civil rights activist, Ida B. Wells. What can we learn from her legacy that is still relevant today?

JUDITH MCCRAY: I like many journalists, I'm sure you too, Ida B. Wells is like my beacon of keeping me honest and keeping me going forward. Because she would have been considered an activist in this day this day, right. And all she did was report on this horrific crime of lynching that was not being addressed and not being covered across the United States. So if that's activism, I'm all for it. The fact that she suffered so much, threats and threats to her life and her family and stayed in the cut when nobody else was covering it, and stayed vigilant about that, and did that with the accuracy, counting how many lynchings are going on. To me, it's one to show that nothing is ever really over, injustice, and that we have to stay vigilant at covering it and staying on it. But I see being a journalist is equally as important to the people who march and the people who get up and speak and present laws. I mean, we're the communicators. We're the vehicles for showing the good and the bad and the hope, and who's doing the work to give the rest of us, to inspire the rest of us to stay in the work of improving our lives and society, and making it more just for everyone else.

LINDA BLAKLEY: I'll be thinking about our discussion as I continue to watch, read and listen to the news. Thank you so much for joining me today, Judith.

JUDITH MCCRAY: Thank you, Linda for having me. I've really enjoyed our conversation.

LINDA BLAKLEY: I'm your host, Linda Blakley. Thank you for listening to DePaul Download presented by DePaul’s Division of University Marketing and Communications.