Soledad O’Brien speaks on the importance of diversity in the media

O’Brien has earned two Peabody Awards, several Emmys and the NAACP President’s Award for her groundbreaking news coverage.

Broadcast journalist Soledad O’Brien drew a diverse crowd of MU students, faculty and community members to Jesse Auditorium on Thursday, Dec. 3, where she spoke about both her work in journalism and her personal background.

O’Brien, whose mother is black and Cuban and father is white and American, talked about her family’s and her own experiences with diversity, standing up for one’s views and the importance of allowing one’s voice to be heard.

“I think it’s great that she’s here because she is speaking from personal experience,” senior Radiance Williams said.

In 1958, O’Brien’s parents drove to Washington D.C. to get married because interracial marriage was illegal in their hometown of Baltimore, Maryland.

“‘Whatever you do,’ a friend said to my parents, ‘don’t have children because biracial children won’t really have a place in this world,’” O’Brien said during her speech.

After O’Brien’s parents married, they returned to Baltimore where they had six children, two boys and four girls, all of whom attended Harvard University and grew up to have successful careers, she said.

O’Brien is known for her work with NBC and CNN, as well as for her documentaries “Gay in America,” “Muslim in America,” “Latino in America” and “Black in America.”

When she was younger, she asked her mother what it was like to raise biracial children in the 1960’s. Her mother replied, “People used to spit on us, but we knew America was better than that.”

“That has really framed how I think about reporting,” O’Brien said. “These emotional, complicated, difficult stories that drain you, I always go back to that because we can get through this. America is better than that. If we can remember to think of heading in that direction, we as journalists can really have an impact. I think there’s a special bravery in deciding you are going to sit firmly on the right side of history.”

She has covered major stories such as the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, Hurricane Katrina, the BP oil spill and the Sandy Hook school shooting.

“These were important because they weren’t just national conversations, but international conversations,” O’Brien said. “As a journalist, it offered an opportunity to have a conversation that we as a country, to this day, still struggle to have: How do we tell an in-depth and granular, nuanced story of a community when we are leaving out large swaths of voices in that community? To me, it was an opportunity to continue a discussion that in some ways I had been born into.”

O’Brien also spoke about her disappointment with the national media coverage of the Concerned Student 1950 protests. She said the national media shaped the students’ stories with a narrative about college protesters being coddled and whiny instead of delving in further to find out who the protesters were as individuals and what their stories were.

“One of Soledad’s platforms is that she is a minority in her field,” senior Chloe Cameron said. “There has been strife on our campus because of a lack of diversity. I think her coming and talking about the importance of diversity sends a powerful message to Mizzou. Being an African-American woman, she was always someone for me to look toward in the industry.”

O’Brien has received numerous awards for her contributions to the field of journalism, including two Peabody Awards for her coverage of Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill, several Emmys and the NAACP President’s Award. She was also named Journalist of the Year in 2010 by the National Association of Black Journalists.

“Journalism can be very powerful if you leverage it the right way,” O’Brien said. “Leadership is about taking a stand for justice for people whose voices aren’t heard. It’s a great gig for a journalist to be someone who says, ‘I will record these voices, I will leverage these voices, I will make sure that the story that is emerging is a story that exists for all of us.’”

The MSA/GPC Speaker’s Committee, the Multicultural Center, the MU Speaker’s Series and the MU Chapter of the National Association of Black Journalists sponsored the event.

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