PAYING DUES
Climbing the corporate ladder requires hard work and passion

He was a soft-spoken, 60-year-old African American man, chronicling his life of slights and insults in segregated Durham, N.C. It was the conversation that changed the course of my paper — and my life.

Robin Hamilton
Photo courtesy of Robin Hamilton
That’s when I knew.

My senior year in college, we had to pick a topic about social change. I chose the desegregation of Durham. The state was one of the first where sit-ins were used as a peaceful and effective form of demonstration. But what began as a typical research paper changed when I saw that the names I researched had current addresses, right around the corner.

One particular activist wanted me to meet him at his shop. I was confused when he had given me the address. My earlier studies told me this was the old ice cream parlor run by an Italian owner who refused to allow blacks to sit at the counter. When I met my contact, the place was, in fact, his. But the menu had changed from ice cream to soul food.

He proudly gave me a quick tour, but wistfully pointed to the rear door, once the only door he could enter. We sat at the same counter where he and his friends had staged a sit-in more than 30 years prior. He was a living piece of history, and my academic paper became a journalistic essay.

Weaving together a person’s story and explaining the course of social change led me to pursue journalism. But more than witnessing change, a journalist can expose a problem, person or phenomenon that can create change as well. This fuels my curiosity, and motivates me in my work.

You have to ask yourself: What would inspire you to pursue this field? Are you curious? Passionate? Interested in talking to people, and truly hearing what they have to say? More importantly, do you feel that the people whose stories you want to hear, stories like your own, are being fairly represented in the media? Are they being represented at all?

Answering these questions honestly will give you what you need to endure the long but rewarding road through a career in broadcast journalism.

What I saw on television, read in the paper and experienced in other forms of media did not necessarily reflect all that was going on in the world, and it still doesn’t. People of color are often misrepresented in the media, and that often comes from who is in charge of disseminating that information to the public.

According to the 2006 Radio-Television News Directors Association/Ball State University Annual Survey, the number of African Americans in television newsrooms fell by 0.8 percent in 2005 from the previous year. This may not sound significant, but journalists of color only make up 22.2 percent of the population in those newsrooms. For people in power, the ones making the decisions, the figures are even more disturbing. Ninety-three percent of general managers in newsrooms are white, and only 4.2 percent of blacks held the position of news director in organizations across the country.

Who is in power determines what is on the air, and what stories have significance. When the numbers are that out of whack, this presents a problem.

My determination to tell the important stories that are often forgotten carried me throughout my career, even when it meant doing the unglamorous jobs. I took my first real job at a television station in Jacksonville, Fla., immediately after college. I worked as a studio camera operator, pushing the heavy equipment across the floor when an angle needed to be changed during the station’s “Daybreak” show. I would rise at 3 a.m. to get to the studio by 3:45; the position paid minimum wage.

To a lot of people, this may seem crazy. But if you believe in what you want — and I did — you will do whatever it takes to get there.

Ready for a change after eight months in Jacksonville, I applied and was accepted into the master’s degree program in journalism at New York University. While in Manhattan, I worked as an intern at Bloomberg Television. I wrote stories for anchors about the change in business markets, working to make them relatable to the layperson. While my stories would be read on the air by other people, I befriended the photographers and would go out and make the stories my own after work. Re-taping my pieces, I sent them out all over the country, ready to get on TV.

Eventually, someone bit. My first on-air job brought me back to Florida, this time in Fort Myers. I had to report on everything from crime to car accidents. Again, it was unglamorous, but a necessary part of paying my dues and learning about the industry. I made many mistakes, as will you, but they are worth making, the cost of pursuing your dream.

From there, I reported in Washington, D.C., and that eventually led me to Boston.

For the next several years, I worked as a street reporter, covering more crime, more accidents, but also trying to find ways to cover stories that reflected diversity.

The hours were difficult; the stories were sometimes tedious; other times, they were confrontational. There were doors slammed in my face and snow storms and hurricanes that left me drenched and drained. But those feelings were outweighed when I could offer another perspective to a story that otherwise would be brushed under the rug. If there was a story of a homicide, specifically in an African American neighborhood, I would take the opportunity to tell the story of a mother who turned her child’s death into a mission for peace and a lesson in perseverance.

There have been incredibly fun stories, too. How many people can say they had the chance to go to watch the Red Sox win the World Series after an 86-year drought? To see history — and watch grown men cry over it — was a moment I will never forget.

My best job came when I was promoted to co-host the “UPN 38 Morning Show” in Boston. The morning news program covered a range of topics and allowed us to highlight more positive aspects of life. I was thrilled. My first day in the position — Martin Luther King Day — was significant, as very few people of color had been put in the position to headline a show. The experience allowed me to have more say and input in what stories were important, and to truly be a leader. I felt like I was finally where I always wanted to be.

You have to ask yourself if this is your destination. Maybe you know now. Perhaps you won’t realize it until you have that conversation with an elderly neighbor who was once an activist. Maybe you will find yourself angry over the media’s coverage of an event. That desire to make a change will let you know that the road is yours to take, and your passion will be your guide.

My determination to tell the important
stories that are often forgotten carried
me throughout my career, even when
it meant doing the unglamorous jobs.