Q&A: Callie Crossley on fake news and being a black woman in journalism

Emmy award-winning journalist Callie Crossley.

Callie Crossley is an Emmy award-winning journalist who is currently the host of Under the Radar with Callie Crossley on WGBH 89.7FM. Crossley frequently appears on WGBH TV's Beat the Press and Fox 25 Boston's Morning Show where she provides commentary, often about people and communities of color. The former ABC News 20/20 producer spoke with PublicSource about her speech at the upcoming event at Chatham University. The Women's Institute at Chatham is hosting the event to discuss journalism in the era of fake news. Her lecture starts at 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 5, at the Eddy Theater on Chatham’s campus. The event is free and open to the public. You can register at www.chatham.edu/cwi/events.

*This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.

PublicSource: You’ve been in the field a long time. So just to start off, what got you interested in journalism?

Callie Crossley: All along, I’ve been a big reader and writer. I grew up in a house where there was a lot of news, read and discussed. There were two newspapers in the town where I grew up, in Memphis, Tenn. And my parents really talked about it and my mother especially was quite keen to make certain that we really understood the difference between the coverage and what our lives were really like. As portrayed in the paper, most of the time black people were portrayed as committing a crime and nothing else. So that’s where it began and it continued from there.

PS: What are some of the major changes that you have seen in the field over time?

Crossley: Certainly we have moved from a time when print was the be all and end all and now we have moved to digital. And that’s where most news organizations are finding their place, if they have not already found their place. There’s just many different platforms. Now you can actually create information. I am struggling between saying news and information because they are two different things. So really, I’m speaking about journalism, which is really a very small part of all media. Even within the context of journalism, there’s been a huge move to the digital space.

PS: Do you think that the move to digital space has affected journalism negatively or positively?

Crossley: I think that technology always has a double-sided impact no matter where it is. So it’s not fair to say that digital space is totally negative for journalism, nor is it totally positive. I think it’s a mix of both. Because what happens is technology is introduced and we have to use it and see how it works. ... There are all these other byproducts of the use which we did not anticipate, and possibly could not have been anticipated. So in the case of the news field and the journalism field, it never would have occurred to anybody that we would be at a time where we’d be talking about fake news. Where people would actually use the platform to deliberately, not just accidently, create something that ends up being fake or wrong.

PS: What should people expect to hear from you on fake news at the April 5 event?

Crossley: How did it come to be? How are we assessing it? Who is best able to assess it? The answer is not many people because we are not news literate and that’s not because we’re ignorant. ... It’s because we in this country have grown up with passive acceptance of information coming our way, certainly journalistic information. And we had all the reason in the world to trust that and no reason not to trust it. Of course people make mistakes; human beings create journalism. ... But not enough to make people say, “Oh they’re really trying to trick me or fool me.” Now you have a situation where people are very suspicious [and] have lost trust. … So how does journalism operate in that scenario? How do we go forward? That’s some of what I’ll be talking about.

PS: Is there anything that journalists themselves can do to combat the fake news?

Crossley: It doesn’t mean that everything is going to be massively affected but I think there’s going to be a variety of protocol that’s going to be set up. And that’s what’s happening now, we are starting to see that. But again, remember we are in a moment where it has become clear that there is a movement and intention to be fake. And it doesn’t help that we also have a president in the White House who is ascribing fake news to all journalism. Which is wrong. So now people really don’t know. If the president says it’s all fake, well isn’t it?

PS: You spoke a little bit about people not being media literate. How does one become media literate?

Crossley: Well, you can’t get your information from one source. I think if you tap most people right now, just randomly, you’d find that most people are getting their information from one source. I’m not even, at this moment, assessing what the sources are. Just the fact that you’re getting it from one source is a problem. ... Most people do not bother to ask the question about whether or not news information coming to them is credible. They don’t ask the question, “Who’s telling you this story?”, “Where is the story coming from?”, “What is the real source of this?” Not “It was passed to me from my friend on Facebook.” … You need to know what the source of the information is in order to assess whether it’s credible. We haven’t done any of that. We haven’t tested the information that comes our way because we are passively accepting it. To be an informed person now, a news-informed person, you really have to become literate about this. That means being intentional about how you approach and how you receive the information that’s coming to you.

PS: Here at PublicSource, we just launched a project focused on black girlhood in the Pittsburgh region. It talks about the inequalities that black girls face here and have to overcome. I know you talk about people on the margins a lot on your radio show and on TV as well, so I have a few questions related to that.

One prompt we’ve been using to capture the personalities and aspirations of many black girls is, “I am a black girl and…” As a woman, what would you say?

Crossley: I am a black woman and I am a successful award-winning journalist.

PS: What would you tell black girls who want to be a journalist?

Crossley: Do a lot of reading, read good writers and do a lot of writing; [it’s] the only way to become a good writer. I don’t care what platform you’re doing. I know people think that if it’s online, somehow you don’t have to write. Nope! And by the way, the writing that people are doing in texting, that’s not writing. Really learn how to write, hone those skills, and you can take that anywhere and any profession. But certainly it is the backbone of journalism. ... Then you build and learn how to have good judgment about which parts of the story are central to what my audience needs to know and which parts would be nice if they knew but are not central. It just comes from working in the field. … When I was starting in the business and trying to improve my skills as a reporter, I could write but [not like] some of these network correspondents. And I knew that. I could tell the difference between what I wrote and what they wrote. I would make it my business when [other news correspondents] came to town or I had any kind of access to them to follow them around. And then at the end of the day, when they’d go to write their story, I would write mine and then I’d compare it to what they wrote and take notes for myself. ... But mostly, if you’re interested in being a journalist, you’ve got to pay attention to journalism and know what’s going on.

PS: Being an African-American women covering race and diversity in a predominantly white field, what has your experience been like?

Crossley: It depends on how you’re defining experience. I’m at a point in my career where I can say more things that other people might not be able to say ... because I have earned the right to be able to say it. And I have put myself in the position to say it. I also have a very specific job that allows me the platform to do it. I write commentaries every week and a commentary is my opinion based on the facts. And often, as I did this past week, I come from my perspective as a black woman. So I wrote about how mad I was that President Trump has not apologized and accused President Obama for wiretapping him and it was a lie. And that’s very direct. Now, I’ll get messages from people who support that and messages from people who do not. Some won’t have anything to do with race. Some, because President Obama is black and President Trump is white, will have something to do with [race]. … I do get hate mail; that’s not unusual. And some of it’s clear that it’s racial hate mail. And other ones it’s clear that it’s hate mail because, “I don’t like what you said,” which is OK. Someone who is writing opinions needs to understand that that’s what you’re going to get. … I’m happy to have a platform which I can be very real in expressing my opinion about something. And I’m very clear that most times the way I approach a topic is not the way that anybody else would because I am a black woman and that’s the perspective I’m bringing. Somebody else will have another perspective.

PS: What can news outlets do to promote diversity within journalism?

Crossley: Well this is an ongoing problem that has been discussed for years and years and years. There are, you may not know, organizations of journalists of color. There is the National Association of Black Journalists of which I am a member. There are [associations for] Asian American journalists, Native American journalists and Hispanic journalists. And all of them work toward one goal, which is to increase the level of diversity from their own groups and commonly across. And it’s still not anywhere close to equitable. There was just a note by an organization called ProPublica, a richly funded nonprofit news organization, and they announced that they were going to be more aggressive [about diverse hiring]. … So there are organizations that are working toward improving the numbers but it takes work. There are many, many factors that play into it. ... If you go to the National Association of Black Journalists meeting now, you can see the progression of the 40-some years of our organization. But prior to that, there weren’t even those numbers. We have about 3,000 potential members coming to the conferences. And that of itself can sound large but, if you spread that around many, many newsrooms, it doesn’t stretch that far. There are still newsrooms that have nobody [of color]. There are still newsrooms that never had anybody. … The recession didn’t help anybody in any business. And because journalists of color are often the person hired most recently, by that I mean within the last couple of decades, if it comes to a layoff situation, they’re likely to be the first to go. …

Again, let me use the word intentionality. It really requires the folks at the top. Not only are we going to say we’re doing it, not only are we going to be open to doing it, we’re going to ask every time an opening comes up, “Is there someone we can hire here who has the requisite skills but is a person of color?” ...And it just doesn’t happen at many places. And I don’t need to tell you, if I enter a room and look around, I count how many people of color are in the room and so do you. But that’s not a normal response for most white people. They don’t think about it. It just looks like a room.

PS: What do you think we can do to promote diversity within the actual news coverage? As you’ve mentioned previously, and as we both know, when minorities are covered it’s usually a negative portrayal. Is it as simple as finding better stories? Or is there something more?

Crossley: Well, no. Somebody has to make a decision about what stories. And ‘who’ are the people who are senior in those organizations, right? … I had a situation when I was at 20/20, one of my colleagues came up to me and said, “I’m kind of embarrassed.” … He said, “I was looking at your story last night and I realized you do something that I just don’t do regularly and I should.” And I said, “What is that?” He said, “You are very clear about the makeup of the people who are portrayed in the stories.” Meaning, sometimes you have stories as a journalist where you have to interview certain people because they are the story or they are the central part of the story. The [assignment could] be go to Pittsburgh and do a story about efforts to increase the self-esteem of women. Now I didn’t say black women, I said women. Now it becomes a question of how is the story framed, what is the context, what do you see and hear when you hear that as a direction? And what gets signed off as a good story? In that context, maybe somebody would cover your organization and effort but maybe somebody else would cover something different. ... It’s all decisionmaking made by the people who are there. If the people who are there are not reflective of the entire community, you’re back at square one.

Maia Ervin is a PublicSource intern. She is a student at Washington & Jefferson College. She can be reached at maia@publicsource.org.