Gayle King is a journalist. This is not a defense; just a statement of fact.
If you are a journalist, and you aren’t prepared for people to hate you, even violently so, because of the questions you dare to ask, you are in the wrong profession. You also must be prepared for the organization that employs you (in King’s case, CBS), to market the questions you ask and responses they elicit with the goal of drawing maximum attention to the content it is dedicated to monetizing via the generation of ratings (or readership or web traffic) and ad revenue. Journalists rarely have input, less rarely have control, and almost never have final say, over where, when and how this is done, and in what context.
This life is not for those who need to be liked or popular. The best of my profession know that we have to be willing to put it on the line—and know that we will often pay a price (in some cases, our lives, and more often, our livelihoods) for doing so. We know that we will be targets of criticism and blame especially when we are wrong, but also, even when we are not.
This is what we sign up for when we accept work as a journalist. This is the job. Here are a few things that are not:
Avoiding the question out of “respect”
If you are a serious journalist, you cannot avoid the painful questions and topics. King’s interview with Lisa Leslie was about Kobe Bryant’s life and legacy; a good journalist knows you can’t just leave out the parts we don’t like. The charges he faced and the settlement are facts of his life, and far from minor ones. King was practicing journalism, not hosting a memoriam, tribute or eulogy for Bryant.
It is not the job of a journalist to make people (including family, friends and fans) feel good or avoid hurting their feelings.We cannot do our jobs if we only ask polite questions, and report only uplifting and flattering stories, with a nice bow on top. It is not our job to make people (including ourselves) look good.
It is our job to tell stories as accurately and thoroughly as possible, including the painful, ugly, upsetting, controversial, disputed and sad parts. That means asking the questions that most people can’t or won’t ask, may not want to answer or even want to think about. Once a journalist can no longer do this, it’s time to get out of the game.
Waiting for the “right time” to ask the question
There is virtually no such thing as “too soon” for a journalist to ask a question. (An exception: Allowing the interview subject to get comfortable with easier, lighter questions before introducing the difficult ones.) There is such a thing as too late, though—delayed questions too often never get asked, and therefore never get answered. It is not the job of journalist to leave the hard questions for somebody else to ask at the “right time.”
Accepting the initial response to the question and moving on
Good journalists are trained to press beyond the initial response to a question, especially with respect to difficult and complex topics. This is another reason not to wait too long to ask the difficult questions; you need to leave time for follow-up questions. A journalist who accepts the first answer to every question is either inexperienced, afraid or lazy.
Somebody’s got to do it
With rare exception, journalists are either taken for granted, or hated. Very few people appreciate or even recognize good journalism, but almost everyone feels qualified to call out and judge a piece of journalism as “bad,” including those with hardly a layperson’s understanding of the profession.
My intention here is not to defend King or her career. She’s a grown woman; she can take care of herself. As I said, the heat she is taking—including veiled and not-so-veiled threats—is an occupational hazard of our profession. My purpose here is bringing light to the realities—and the real risks (as the reaction to King’s reporting illustrates)—of choosing journalism as a profession.
It is far easier and safer to be a journalism critic than it is to be a journalist. This is exactly why most people will not do this work, and precious few will dedicate their lives to it. However, somebody must. I thank God for those who will.
Alfred Edmond Jr. is a senior vice president and executive editor at Black Enterprise, with nearly four decades of experience as an award-winning journalist and editor, including 13 years as editor-in-chief of Black Enterprise magazine. He’s also taught journalism as an adjunct professor at his alma mater, Rutgers University, and served for five years as an instructor for the New York Association of Black Journalists High School Journalism Workshop at Long Island University’s Brooklyn campus.