Four-Leafed Clovers: Finding Black Women in Journalism

Story by Taylor Pittman, junior at McDonough 35 High School.

Anderson Cooper, Barbara Walters, Diane Sawyer, Hunter S. Thompson, and Bob Woodward—all names that pop up when you Google “popular journalist in the United States.”

Among Black people, there are many greats and many heroes. But to have to search the depths of Wikipedia for just one female Black journalist is disappointing and disheartening.

Imagine growing up in a regular suburban area, with diversity all around—you even go to a very diverse school—and then you finally find your true path in life. You know you enjoy writing and love discovering new things, so you decide to pursue journalism. 

Then say (and I haven’t reached this part yet, because I’m still in high school) you search for a job after majoring in journalism at a prestigious university, but you aren’t able to get an internships after you graduate.

Or you can’t take the journalism jobs you find because they don’t pay the bills. Then you are forced into a subpar career that you can fail at, compared to the career that you want. After many interviews and much research, I discovered that this is too frequently the experience of a Black female journalist. 

Mary Ann Shadd Cary, Marvel Jackson Cooke, Evelyn Cunningham, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Alice Allison Dunnigan, Lillian Thomas Fox, Nancy Hicks Maynard, Gertude Bustill Mossel, Ethel Payne, and Ida B. Wells are some of the pioneer Black female journalists that broke barriers. They all went through their own struggles and they have paved the way for many contemporary journalists such as Jemele Hill, Taron Hall, April Ryan, and many more.

Even though those pioneer journalists have passed away and none are from New Orleans, I have amazing examples and role models to look up to right here in the Crescent City. For example: Nicondra Norwood (who is president of the New Orleans chapter of the National Association of Black Journalists [NABJ]), Christina Watkins (a member of NABJ), Kristi Coleman, Liz Reyes, Sabrina Wilson, Shan Bailey, and many more. These and many more amazing ladies find stories and articulate them for the rest of the world.

“I realized that there are many people out there, especially women and people in rural areas, whose stories are not being heard and I wanted to become that medium to facilitate this,”  Keishel A. Williams said.

Williams is a young Black journalist who advocates for not just Black women but also for Caribbean Black women.

“I am also a Caribbean woman and a lot of my early struggles stemmed from working primarily in the Caribbean space and being boxed in as a ‘Caribbean’ journalist.” 

Williams had a long journey on her career path with two different contrasting experiences growing up in Trinidad and Tobago and then Crown Heights, Brooklyn.

When mainstream editors started to recognize her potential beyond her coverage in the Caribbean region, she felt they still boxed her in as a “Black writer.” Her editors expected her to produce only Black content even though she was able to write about an extensive range of topics such as fashion, culture, and current events. She is an active member in the NABJ and is proud and feels accepted when she’s around her other members. 

Linda Villarosa is an American author and journalist who is a former executive editor of Essence magazine. She’s worked on health coverage for Science Times and has also authored several books; her first novel, “Passing for Black”, was nominated for a Lambda Literary Award in 2008. “Right after college, I started my first journalism job at a national magazine,” Villarosa said.

“Before my first day, the woman who was my boss—behind my back—announced that I was an affirmative action hire. She later told other editors that I had no talent and shouldn’t be encouraged to write. Now when I write stories for the NYT Magazine, which I know she reads, I honor my own struggles, resilience, and ability to overcome oppression. And laugh at her,” she said with a smile on her face.

For Black women in journalism, there are many expectations and assumptions that hurt their overall perception of their work. 

I also got to speak with New Orleans’ very own Christina Watkins. Watkins works for WDSU News in New Orleans, Louisiana. Before WDSU she worked for three years in Charlotte, NC, at Spectrum News. Throughout our interview, she talked about her path to WDSU and how it was a completely different feel from the all-white newsroom she experienced in Charlotte. 

“Trying to voice my opinion in an all-white newsroom and not be [seen as] the angry Black woman was difficult. Both as a Black person in the workplace, and as a role model for younger employees or upcoming journalists. We have to always remain level-headed,” she lamented. 

Watkins made it clear that throughout her struggles she is still a go-getter and wants everything that life has to offer. She also mentioned that her white co-workers took everything she said literally and made her feel like the “bad guy” in many situations. 

“I remember my first job, this was when everybody was on call and there was a story, what they thought was breaking news. I knew it wasn’t breaking, but they had me drive like 40 minutes out to the scene and I told them before I went out there that it was probably nothing, but I went anyway. And so when I got back to the newsroom, I, what I thought was a joke, jokingly said, ‘don’t call me out again unless somebody’s dead.’ My white coworkers took that in bold. Everybody else in the newsroom said, ‘Christina got so mad last night that we sent her out!’”

She told me that day felt like a typical day for a Black woman in a newsroom of white peers.

A young college student named Deja Harrison also motivated me to keep an open mind when in a majority white newsroom.

“Always keep your head on straight and don’t let any distractions get to your head and do what you love to do,” Harrison said.

Harrison is looking forward to her future career and opportunities coming from sports journalism and anywhere she can get the job she trained for. 

In 2019, 12 percent of TV news employees in the U.S. are Black, which is a decrease from the previous year. Though the U.S. population of Black people is around 12 percent, TV news represents a face in front of a byline. And that doesn’t take gender identity into consideration. Not to mention that writers are another situation. 

Meanwhile, the amount of Hispanic journalists is still lower than the number recorded in 2017. White employees still make up the vast majority of the local TV news workforce. 

To summarize: there is not enough representation in media from Black women in the United States.

The world needs different perspectives on stories—whether it be from a different race or a different gender or a different person altogether. But one of the voices missing right now is certainly, especially, and specifically Black women.

After doing interviews and having conversations with the amazing women in the Black journalist community, I felt that change is coming and everyone should be a part of it.

Like the famous journalist, activist, and politician Shirley Chisholm once said, “Tremendous amounts of talent are lost to our society just because that talent wears a skirt.” And that doesn’t even take race into account.

Even though I don’t typically wear skirts—I won’t let my talent go to waste. Because even if society doesn’t want me to succeed in my goal to become a wonderful journalist, I. will. persevere.