This past week I was assigned to do the lead piece for a half-hour special about race in America. I pitched an idea about the city I call home, Atlanta, and how it has seen massive race success yet continues to have a massive race problem. I intended to write a new post for this blog about the experience, but I found it mirrored my previous experience in this arena 18 months earlier.
I continue to be heartened with people’s willingness to talk about race. The topic seems taboo to discuss with friends and family, but it shouldn’t be. Experiences like mine prove it can be done, even with complete strangers in an on-camera setting.
My story from last week is embedded here; the post that follows refers to a story I did in January 2015 for an hour-long special called “A Conversation Across America”.
I was expecting 25%.
Typically I try to avoid person-on-the-street assignments — the kind that involve humble reporters like yourself asking “regular” people to opine on a certain issue. I prefer to hear from experts or the newsmakers themselves; I dislike the concept of 2-3 random interviewees somehow speaking for a whole community.
I also despise the rejection.
People are often, understandably, reluctant to speak on-camera about a potentially controversial issue. Look at the situation from their eyes: a reporter, who you likely have never met or even seen on TV, approaches you with a camera and microphone. You don’t know where your words — with your face attached — will wind up. Will you be edited? Almost certainly. Taken out of context? Possibly. And even if the reporter represents your words perfectly, can you trust yourself to say exactly what you think without somehow garbling the message? Think of how many conversations or arguments where you thought afterward, “If only I had said …” Do you want to stand by recorded answers to questions you have not yet heard?
It’s a tough sell.
Throw in the potential land mine of race, and you have my recent assignment.
My station, WXIA-TV in Atlanta, was planning an hour-long town hall called “A Conversation Across America”, about race relations in the aftermath of the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner at the hands of police. I was tasked with the introductory piece, setting up a panel discussion that examined numerous difficult questions facing white and black America moving forward.
Here, in an atypical moment, I advocated for a person-on-the-street approach.
My rationale? The hour-long special would be filled with experts, from protesters to retired police officers to a political pundit. It would even include a taped interview with Charles Barkley. But it would not feature a component that included the rest of us.
What kind of conversation could we promote without hearing from the audience we wished to reach?
So I championed an introductory piece that focused less on the events themselves — the Brown and Garner deaths, the subsequent lack of indictments of the officers responsible, and the many protests that took place throughout — and looked more at how we, as a society, discuss race.
Usually we simply don’t.
I thought of a study that had made news late last year when it claimed that 75% of white people have zero black friends, and 65% of black people have zero white friends. I thought of the competing stories and columns that had developed out of Ferguson and New York, interpretations that often differed based on the background of whoever wrote them.
I wanted to produce a piece that encapsulated that disconnect, and I decided to dedicate a day to simply hitting the streets and asking people to share their thoughts on where we stand, as a nation, on race relations in 2015.
But I expected a low success rate.
On most subjects, when I ask people for their thoughts, I get a “Yes” response maybe a third of the time. With a less threatening subject that still breeds opinions — say, the performance of the local football team — my success rate jumps closer to 50%.
With a subject like race? I braced myself for a steady diet of rejection.
I received the exact opposite.
Nearly everyone I approached agreed to an on-camera interview, from a diner in downtown Atlanta to a panini shop in the suburbs. I asked people of different races, ages, and genders, and I heard a lot of yeses.
And those responses paved the way to powerful conversations.
I spoke with more than a dozen people, and I used nearly everyone’s words in the resulting story. I found their thoughts compelling and varied; many remarked how they had rarely discussed such weighty matters — particularly race — in their day-to-day lives.
What made them open up here?
I credit two things: my approach, and my station’s intentions.
Every time I approached someone, I laid out the request in as sincere and thoughtful a manner as possible. I described the hour-long special and pressed the importance of hearing numerous voices; I spoke about our desire as a station to promote conversation, and I never rushed or tried to push anyone who might not be sure. My story required honesty and openness; I needed to display both if I wished to receive it.
But I also felt heartened by the fact that so many people held such deep, poignant thoughts about race. We tend to only see the most polarizing, often offensive, comments in matters like these. This story reminded me how many people remain in the middle.
A few months ago, legendary KARE-TV reporter Boyd Huppert and KING-TV photographer Jeff Christian did a similar story in Ferguson that asked, “Why can’t we talk?” I called it my favorite TV piece of 2014, mainly because Huppert and Christian took a seemingly taboo, volatile subject and made it immediately accessible.
I tried to do that here, and I am proud of the result: both my story, and my “Yes” success rate.
Not bad at all.
Matt Pearl is the author of the Telling the Story blog and podcast. Feel free to comment below or e-mail Matt at firstname.lastname@example.org.