Issue 5
Sept. 5, 2019

CNN's Devan Cole: Reporting while Black

Newsroom employees are more likely to be white and male than U.S. workers overall. To learn more about the state of journalism we spoke with CNN Breaking News reporter Devan Cole.

by Lincoln Mondy

This piece originally appeared in Issue #5. Subscribe to get our monthly newsletter! - Amina and Lincoln

Earlier this summer, the President went on a rant targeting four American Congresswomen, all women of color. He tweeted that the women should "go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came." Outlets like Reuters reported that the tweets were "racially charged" and "racially loaded." Reuters wasn't alone ⁠— mainstream media rushed to use words that got them out of calling out racism plainly, under the cloak of objectivity. Shortly after, the President described the predominantly black Baltimore as a city no human being would want to live in. You could play bingo with all the words outlets chose to use instead of "racist."

These two news cycles occurred at a time when newsroom employees are more likely to be white and male than U.S. workers overall. Context that helps illustrate a massive blindspot in journalism, one that has lingering effects on public discourse. To learn more about the state of journalism, especially for black journalists, we spoke with CNN Breaking News reporter Devan Cole.

As a young black boy, Cole, who is 23, was surrounded by news aficionados. The matriarchs of his family, his grandmother and great aunt, were always trading opinions and reviews of their favorite anchors. Cole's description of how his family viewed TV anchors and correspondents with the same regard as athletes or politicians rings true to many black families, including my own. My grandmother was always watching the news. I started cracking jokes about how her TV was going to permanently freeze on CNN if she didn't let me watch something else. I remember my grandmother explaining how she never imagined she would have the right to vote. Now that she does, keeping tabs on current events is something she takes very seriously. So, that Disney Channel movie can wait until Brian Williams signs off.

These stories are not just anecdotes — black adults actually stand out for their relationship with news media. Pew found that black adults have more trust in local news and are more likely to feel connected to their primary source of news. Pew also found that black adults are less concerned about made-up news than other national issues.

For Devan, his family's relationship with news and the anchors he grew up watching helped him realize a career in journalism. "I did have a collection of reporters I saw daily on TV that looked like me. Among them were NBC's Lester Holt, Al Roker, Soledad O'Brien, TJ Holmes, CNN's Don Lemon; and local black reporters," Cole added.

As Devan went to college to prepare for a career in journalism, he noticed a severe lack of black journalism professors. He sought out fellowships and mentors to fill in this gap, finding supplemental education and community like the Black on Campus initiative. Cole went on to say that these opportunities meant the world to him. "Black on Campus brought together a group of young black journalists from colleges across the country to be mentored by two black journalists who would help them with reporting projects that would be published in The Nation. The journalists, Professor Sherri Williams of American University, and Melissa Harris-Perry, the former MSNBC host, passed on countless skills to the group. They provided an honest look at the industry from a black perspective."

There's been a lot of back and forth recently regarding objectivity, especially during the current political landscape. There seems to be a disconnect between the longtime gatekeepers of these journalistic standards (again, mostly white men), and a younger, more diverse media landscape. Objectivity strengthens the fallacy that reporters of color simply cannot be objective when reporting on race or the current political climate. To that, Devan argued that there is an inherent strength in a reporter covering issues and communities they're familiar with. He added that reporters can do so objectively — and remember that they may serve as a gateway into that community or story, but they're not a voice for it.

As Devan Cole and other young black kids watched people like Lester Holt serve as trusted and credible voices, that representation gave way to imagination and new possibilities. This impact wasn't lost on the black anchors, reporters, and media workers who were opening up these doors. In an interview, Lester Holt reflected on his career, saying "I started getting notes from people and photographs of little children of color watching me, and it really began to sweep over me what the impact is." Holt, who was the first black person to anchor a weekday nightly newscast on any major network, added that "Kids can look up and say, 'I can do that.' It's another door we passed through." Like Holt, Devan Cole understands that more doors need to be slammed open if we want journalism to reflect our vibrant communities. For future black journalists, Cole hopes that they can walk into any editorial meeting, newsroom or TV set and see faces that look like their own and hear voices that they can relate to.