Black Journalists, Respectability and Responsibility

Leandra Abbott and Don Lemon

A Washington, D.C. based news station recently ran a story about an awful home invasion and hostage situation. As police try to connect the dots as to what exactly happened and what was the motive, the situation got worse when a journalist investigating the case became a news story himself.  In a neighborhood that is struggling to eliminate drugs and violence, it shouldn't come as a surprise that many of the neighbors didn’t want to speak about the incident on camera.  One particular neighbor (who may have been a victim of the home invasion incident) asked the crew to leave. When they refuse, she then leaves her house and confronts them, spraying pepper spray and striking the reporter and cameraperson.

The reporter says the news team has no interest in pressing charges. Good for him! I’m glad he isn’t going to press charges in an incident he could have avoided. I don’t think the young woman’s behavior was acceptable at all, but it should give us some pause to think about the responsibility of a journalist, particularly a Black journalist.

One should not be in the business of trying to publicly shame or embarrass anyone, namely not someone who may have been victimized by a brutal home invasion that police say involved physical and sexual assault. Once the reporter saw the situation escalate, the first thing they should have done was turn off the camera and let the woman know that he and his crew were not there to exploit the community, but instead, to get important information needed for public safety.

Black journalists have long struggled to find the space between agitating and objective informing. Undoubtedly, one has to choose their own path, but if there is anyone struggling with this false dichotomy. let me to clear things up. It is not a violation of your position to be an advocate for right. You can also be that advocate while being honest, fair and objective. Pioneering journalist Leandra Abbott said she saw her job as a cause not a career. Freedom fighter, abolitionist and journalist Frederick Douglass famously told a young man to “Agitate, agitate, agitate”. Despite this history, there are some Black journalists who may feel it is not their job to agitate or advocate for a cause. Although I may disagree with this position, I would hope Black journalists would at least make the same commitment as doctors: “Do no harm.”

This footage is at best salacious and sensational and at worst, a malicious attempt at humiliating and embarrassing this young lady and ostensibly, a community and a people. Either one of those are irresponsible and don’t represent the best in Black journalism. In many ways, it also reeks of the “Black respectability” crusade being waged by Don Lemon and Don Lemon and Don Lemon. The journalist seems to be saying “look how those Negroes behave” but without realizing that, in the eyes of many, he is “those negroes."

We all have a job to do. I would never ask a journalist to compromise their responsibility to their work to present a good image of black people. What I will ask of a journalist is to be a human being---one who respects the humanity of a person. If doing that means they don’t get a particular story, then so be it. Although I rarely take life philosophies from a fictional character, one exchange is particular useful here. On the show Law and Order a former assistant district attorney played by actor Richard Brooks quipped  “I’d have to decide if I was a Black man who was a lawyer or a lawyer who was Black. All these years I thought I was the latter. All these years I was wrong.”

I caution Black journalist to never be unclear on which they are.