Melissa Hellmann — On covering the #BLM protests, pursuing transparency and working as a journalist of color in the US

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Melissa Hellmann is an award-winning journalist with 10 years of experience reporting across the world. Her work has appeared in several publications including the YES! Magazine, The Associated Press, and TIME among others.

Melissa is currently working as the Seattle Times’ South King County reporter with beats ranging from politics, law, health, education, and social issues. Following the recent turn of events in the history of racial justice in the US, Melissa has been covering the Black Lives Matter demonstrations, which took place after the brutal murder of a 46-year-old black man — George Floyd — by a white police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

She began her reporting as the protesters took to the streets in South Seattle to fight for racial justice. While covering these protests on the ground her stories put forth the myriad aspects of this monumental event in the history of the black community. From stories highlighting the Junteenth events in the city to the plight of families who have lost their loved ones to police brutalities, Melissa has been taking note of everything under the sun in South Seattle.

Melissa also serves as the president of the Seattle Association of Black Journalists president and has taken up the whims to revolutionize the contributions of black journalists in the city.

CFWIJ spoke with Melissa to learn about her experience of covering the #BLM protests as a journalist of color and how she views the transformational dynamics of the events unfolding post-demonstrations. We also talked about the challenges she has faced in the journalism industry as a journalist of color and the changes she wishes to see in the industry that actualize the ideas of diversity, inclusion and acceptance of all races within the profession. Read on.

Note: Our conversation with Melissa took place on June 22, 2020. Some of the events she discusses here may not be current at the time of this interview’s publication.

Q: What is the current state of the #BLM protests in Seattle?

The situation at CHOP (the Capitol Hill Occupied Protest) rapidly evolved during its several-week tenure. When the police abandoned the East Precinct, it grew into a space with community gardens, memorials for people killed by the police, teach-ins, a co-op with free food, and an encampment for homeless people. I live in walking distance to the area and regularly reported there; I mostly observed a peaceful protest during the day. Demonstrators often questioned the next steps in the movement and some criticized the space as a distraction from the fight for Black liberation. The police had shared unfounded rumors that the protesters were extorting businesses, which was later debunked. But there was some animosity among businesses about the protesters’ presence. In late June, businesses and residents filed a lawsuit against the city for abandoning CHOP and leaving the area unchecked by law enforcement. Following the lawsuit and a spate of gun violence in the area, the city dismantled CHOP last week. Collectives were born out of the occupied protest, and demonstrations have continued despite its absence.

Q: What are the local dynamics like in terms of the protests, following the closure of businesses (in solidarity with the protesters)?

In CHOP, there are still some buildings that are closed. Honestly, a lot of buildings have been closed for the past few months because of Covid-19. I don’t know necessarily if these buildings have been closed because of the protests. There are some shops around CHOP that are still open, so I don’t know if anything closed down because of the demonstrations, in particular.

Q: How would you describe the participation of the white community in protest taking place in Seattle?

Seattle is mostly a white city. It is almost 60 percent white I believe. A lot of the black community that was in the central district — the historically black area, have moved South because of the gentrification, so there’s not a large black population in Seattle.

Most of the protests are led by people of color but many of the participants are white. They are mostly younger white people, so it’s hard to say that white people as a monolith have had a certain opinion on this. I see a lot of young people who are galvanized by this and who believe that black lives matter and have been out there protesting. I have also been getting emails from older white readers who are very upset. They write that people of different colors have always lived together in harmony and this has not been an issue until now. So there are some people who are blind to their own biases and racism that has continued to persist over hundreds of years.

A few days ago, just a couple of people initiated what they called the Capitol Hill Blackout, so that was just one day where a section of the park, where Capitol Hill occupied protests took place, was just dedicated to black healing. They had an ancestor healing ceremony and a grieving event. It was just a really peaceful place where about 50 black people gathered. A lot of people were really upset about it and they said it was segregation. Meanwhile, it has been occupied by mostly white protesters for the past few weeks and I had not seen the same amount of vitriol that I heard that day.

Q: Is there an aspect of the protests that interested you in particular as a journalist reporting on the ground for Seattle Times? And why?

This was an all-team effort. I just started a new beat covering Seattle and South King County, and this is an area where there are a lot of people of color, as well as the immigrant communities. Also, it has not received much media coverage over the years, so I felt it was an important coverage area. But basically as soon as I started this, Covid-19 was underway and then the protests started, so I have mostly been covering the protests the past couple of weeks.

It was something that I felt moved to do because it is literally right outside my window. During the initial days, I wasn’t covering it and saw thousands of people walk by outside. But just being at the epicenter for all these demonstrations, I felt like I was missing out by not contributing and not documenting history because it’s my job. So I asked to become more involved in the past couple of weeks.

It has also been very empowering to watch it, especially as a mixed-race black person — I’m half black and half white. It was important for me to be able to engage in this, otherwise, it would just have been very depressing to watch it from the sidelines.

Q: As a journalist of color, what was it like for you to report on the brutalities against the black community and the protests that followed? What is challenging for you to stay neutral when covering the protests?

I take issue with the term neutrality and objectivity in journalism because it is a very coded term and is usually directed at people who belong to marginalized communities. The most important to me is transparency and accountability in reporting — that’s something that I always pursue. It is something that I pursue when I’m talking with activists. I don’t just take their word for it and (reach out to) at least a couple of other voices that can back it up. The same goes for the police as well — I don’t just take their word for it.

That is where some reporters have gotten themselves in trouble in the past where they’ve just had maybe taken the police’s word without realizing that they have their own vested interests in this as well.

Sometimes they don’t tell the truth, so it is important to me that I fact check everyone whom I speak with. I’d say that I brought my own lens into it which enriched the stories that I have worked on. As far as neutrality is concerned, I’d say that I did my job by being transparent and accountable.

Q: Have you been to the autonomous zone? What is that like? And b) Given the history of Tulsa and Rosewood I am sure it brought back memories for many. Do you think things would have been different back then if there was an active media presence?

Yes, I live just a few blocks away from the Capitol Hill Occupied Protests, so I have covered it. I don’t know if there was a lot of media presence at Rosewood but there definitely was in Tulsa.

Actually, one of the inciting incidents for the massacre in Tulsa was a newspaper article that basically was a call to action for white residents to seek justice for what they believed was an attack on a white woman. But throughout history, especially during that time, journalism has been used to bolster white supremist agenda, so I don’t have faith that the media would have done it diligently; that it would have done it justice and prevented those attacks or others after it from happening.

Now that technology is more pervasive and people have greater access to information, it has helped with our awareness. But still, there were so many reporters out there in Ferguson and there were still so many other shootings of black men after that, so it did not necessarily prevent it. It raised awareness and made more people angry.

But part of what has caused this civil unrest right now is partial because of Covid-19. A lot of people were feeling disheartened by the government in general and felt disenfranchised because of the systems that are in place. Also, having a lack of connection for so many months made people really want to seek that and to be part of something that was larger than themselves.

Seeing those seven minutes and 45 seconds of George Floyd being killed by the cop, who had his knee pressed on his neck, really galvanized people into taking action.

I do, obviously, see journalism having a purpose and moving these movements forward, but it has also contributed to biases. I hope that marginalized communities will be better represented in the newsroom and also in our coverage so that we are able to inform people in a way that pursues racial justice more.

Q: We have seen in our work with women journalists, particularly those of color, that they tend to face immense discrimination within newsrooms and in the field when doing their job. Have you experienced anything similar? How would you describe your own experience, given your work as a journalist for various news outlets, throughout your career?

Yes, it definitely has happened — with my sources and in newsrooms. It often is not very overt; it often happens on my microaggressions with a lot of coded terms. I have been told throughout my career that I don’t have enough experience for a position, although I have a master’s degree from UC Berkeley in journalism and also have 10 years of journalism experience around the world. I have been told that as recently as a couple of years ago and this is something that I’m continuously told.

People believe that I am younger than I actually am or that I’m an intern. This was something I was asked when working for the AP in Kansas. I was working at the State House as a reporter at the Capitol Hill and when I would walk into senate rooms or go to hearings, politicians would sometimes ask me if I was an intern — they didn’t believe that I was a reporter.

Something that I’ve also come up against was with sources, where they’ve been very disrespectful. I talked with someone a couple of years ago and as soon as I started asking my question, he immediately started cutting me off and told me to shut up for about a minute. When I called him out, he was very offended and later tried to get me fired from that job. He kept pestering my boss saying that I was a terrible reporter. Luckily, my boss stood up for me.

Things like that have happened before. I’ve had sources trying to hit on me and not taking me seriously. I’ve also had people try to pay less than the median wage for a newsroom. It is also something I’ve had to talk to the union representatives about before and try to figure out how much the rest of the newsroom is making, to ensure that I was making the same amount.

Q: You’ve been serving as the president of the Seattle Association of Black Journalists as well. How does the association support journalists, especially women journalists, within the community?

I have just been the president for about a year now. We actually restarted the chapter after it was dormant for two years, so we have had to start from the scratch as an organization. It has been slightly challenging but I have great board members — about 20 people — who come regularly, so there is obviously a lot of interest in this. Right now, we have been focusing on trying to restructure the chapter. We are going to work on our strategic statement that is going to guide us in how to create some new board roles and we’ve been involved in different communities by being affiliated with other organizations such as the Asian American Journalist Association. We put on a couple of events with them right before quarantine in early March.

The association also held a speed mentoring event where we had about 20 established journalists and 20 students, who were mentored for about six minutes each. We’ve also had happy hours for journalists of color and had a holiday party back in early January where we had about 100 people. We sold tickets and donated most of that money to the Globalist, a local publication that hires journalists of color. It was struggling financially at the time, so it was important for us to ensure that they continued to have jobs, get paid and that their voice remained a part of the community.

Right now we’re trying to focus on our own chapter and bolstering it, getting up our general funds, so that we can hold professional development opportunities for our members and do conferences. We have a lot of plans that we hope to accomplish in the future — holding more mentoring events, having opportunities for members to learn how to negotiate, how to become managers, and how to advocate for themselves in the newsrooms.

We’re pretty well represented within women and men in the chapter. We don’t have anything specific that has been catered towards women. However, this is something I’m going to think about in the future to support women journalists or the LGBTQ+ community better.

Q: As a journalist of color what sort of changes would you like to see in the industry?

I would like to see more journalists of color in the newsrooms. I would like newsrooms to take diversity and inclusion seriously. There has been this call to diversify newsrooms, but oftentimes it is not something that the newsrooms truly believe and what they are actively pursuing.

When they do hire journalists of color, they are often tokenized and are asked to just cover news based on whatever community they belong to. I would like newsrooms and media, in general, to not think of people of color as a monolith. They should think of us as individuals. Each of us comes with our own lens and own background that only enriches stories, it doesn’t take away from it or spin a certain agenda.

I would also like journalists of color to get paid as much as our white counterparts and to not have to fight for it. I want that to just be something on the table as soon as we start negotiating.

I would also like newsrooms to take a chance on young journalists of color, even if they don’t have as much experience as they maybe would want for a position. Oftentimes, it’s because of institutionalized racism that they haven’t had the same opportunities as their white counterparts, so it is important for newsrooms to take that into consideration when they’re hiring.

I would also like us to go out into marginalized communities more to gain their trust. I would like all journalists, not just those of color, to feel the need to represent the communities of color, because a negative portrayal of black people — especially in the media — has contributed to this narrative of black people that has led to their killings. It is very important for us to think very carefully about how to cover race in America.

Q: What role do you think media giants can play in making this possible?

I think that they could come out with a strategic statement that prioritizes diversity and inclusion. They could also hire some consultants to help them with this, because oftentimes, journalists of color have the unpaid job of being diversity and inclusion experts. It is unfair because it takes away from our reporting. We should be paid for any advice that we give them. They can actively pursue that.

Media organizations can expand their coverage by creating new beats or roles that focus on race and marginalized communities, which really prioritise it and do not think of it as some niche beat. It needs to be front-centered and indifferent reporting — arts and culture, sports, crime coverage. There needs to be more inclusivity, because not highlighting race in these stories takes away the nuance of people’s stories.

Large newsrooms can also prioritize having BIPOCS and other members of marginalized communities in leadership positions so they have a role in hiring, coverage, and the direction of the organization. It’s important that the makeup of newsrooms reflects our increasingly diverse nation.

This interview was originally written for Women In Journalism Magazine by The Coalition For Women In Journalism

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