I’m USA TODAY editor-in-chief Nicole Carroll, and this is The Backstory, insights into our biggest stories of the week. If you’d like to get The Backstory in your inbox every week, sign up here.
Fatima Farha was painting a flower in her kindergarten class, waiting for lunch, when the teacher suddenly announced that the class was going home early. Parents were on the way.
At home, her dad was watching the news. A building was burning. Sirens were blaring.
It was Sept. 11, 2001.
That 5-year-old kindergartner is now a 25-year-old audience editor at USA TODAY.
Farha says that day – and the Islamophobia and anti-Muslim sentiment that followed – continues to shape her life as a Muslim woman.
She wanted to tell her story. The suspicion of strangers. Her family’s fear. And she wanted to hear from other young people who had stories to tell about what their cultures and identities truly mean and what they’ve experienced as a result.
Farha spoke about her idea with USA TODAY’s Diversity Committee, and the result was “This is America” – a newsletter about race and identity, and how they shape our lives. It is anchored by a group of younger journalists: Farha, N’Dea Yancey-Bragg, Rasha Ali, Mabinty Quarshie, Claire Thornton and Lokela Blanc, andedited by Josh Rivera, Cristina Silva and Lindsay Deutsch.
This group has tackled gender expression during the pandemic, how ignorance of Black history fuels resentment toward civil rights activism, and how Black women dying in childbirth 2.5 times more often than white women made one author rethink having kids.
Last week, for Black History Month, Blanc wrote a poem. It starts:
“I’ve never felt comfortable in predominantly white spaces / Scared to have my Black face seen in a sea of white faces. / Scared to have to part my full lips and / give half-assed explanations about / who I am, where I come from and answer questions like / ‘you’re not Haitian?…right?’”
“I wanted to write a poem about ‘Blackness,’ ” said Blanc, a social visuals producer. “How I’ve felt I’ve had to navigate my Blackness in predominately white spaces and the feeling of needing to legitimize my Blackness in predominately Black spaces.
“I hope it serves as an inspiration for others who may have gone through similar situations.”
That’s the ultimate goal of this group, and this newsletter. Have younger people of color and those part of the LGBTQ community share experiences that can connect with others.
“We were very intentional because a lot of times the media talks down to Gen Z,” said Quarshie. “And this is about talking with Gen Z and millennials.”
Efforts like this newsletter flourish when news organizations welcome and encourage diverse voices to speak out, to create, to lead.
And those voices can come from within – and outside – our newsrooms.
Seventeen Black women leaders recently joined USA TODAY for a call to discuss how they were feeling, and what they wanted the media to know, as we come upon the one-year anniversary of Breonna Taylor’s death.
Taylor was shot by three Louisville, Kentucky, plainclothes officers trying to serve a no-knock search warrant at her apartment after midnight on March 13. Taylor’s boyfriend did not hear anyone say they were police. Thinking it was an intruder, he fired one shot, striking an officer in the leg. Officers returned fire, more than 20 rounds, striking Taylor. She died in her hallway.
Dozens of USA TODAY editors and reporters listened in as the women talked about the trauma they feel as they see Black women killed, their anger that it keeps happening, and mistakes they see the media make.
Too often, they said, the media doesn’t know or doesn’t tell the full stories of those killed. We don’t show the humanity behind the hashtag.
This month, USA TODAY Network reporter Shaylah Brown of the Bergen (New Jersey) Record interviewed Ju’Niyah Palmer about her sister, Breonna Taylor. Palmer described Taylor as lovely and caring.
She told Brown about the summers she and Taylor spent with their grandmother in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and a road trip that went comically bad.
“To Palmer,” Brown wrote, “Taylor was playful, yet vulnerable – in other words very much like any other young Black woman.”
The call was organized by a group of Black women journalists at the USA TODAY Network. Enterprise editor Nichelle Smith moderated the call with Brown. It came about after the women were discussing ways to cover the tragic anniversary.
As a Black woman, Smith says, she can’t separate her identify from her role in the newsroom. “I live daily with a prayer that these things will not happen to somebody that I know and love,” she said.
“We felt that our voices needed to be leading the charge. We needed to be in the middle of it.”
It’s important not just to have diverse voices around the table, says Veda Morgan, a senior director at the Louisville Courier Journal, “but to also create an environment where those voices are free to share and to speak out.”
“Even when they have difficult things to say, even when people in the room may disagree, they need the freedom to say, ‘Look, that’s not necessarily the best way to tell this story,’ or ‘That’s just one side of the issue.’
“The women in our conversation, they spoke freely, they spoke powerfully, they spoke from the heart, and I really feel like we need that in our newsrooms.”
Morgan brought up an example at The Courier Journal, part of the USA TODAY Network, which has led the nation in coverage of Taylor’s death. After the shooting, there were protests that turned violent. That was important to cover.
However, “after awhile, as a Black woman, I started feeling like, OK, I know we have to cover this aspect of it, but I don’t want to miss the movement,” she said. “We weren’t focusing as much on the movement.”
So Morgan spoke up to her boss, who assigned regular reporters to cover the protesters and why they showed up night after night.
“And we began to hear and to report the stories that others were not reporting,” she said. “That made a difference.”
And that’s the “great importance” of diversity, she said. “To see the things that we might not otherwise see and to have the perspective we might not otherwise have.”
We are better journalists when we see and understand one another’s lives. That’s the promise of the “This is America” newsletter.
We are a better newsroom when we hear and share the perspectives of those affected by the news. We are grateful to the women who trusted us with their stories.
For more stories on how we move forward together, see this year’s Black History Month special edition, on newsstands and in USA TODAY’s online store.
Nicole Carroll is editor-in-chief of USA TODAY. Reach her at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter here. Thank you for supporting our journalism. You can subscribe to our print edition, ad-free experience or electronic newspaper replica here.
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