September 21, 2017

Broadcaster Soledad O’Brien talks diversity in Webster speech

The diverse crowd of people that formed the audience of Soledad O’Brien’s speech in the Loretto-Hilton Center reflected the focus of O’Brien’s work throughout her career as an award-winning journalist.

The event was hosted by the Multicultural Center and International Student Association (MCISA).

O’Brien has worked for broadcast networks including CNN and NBC News. She currently hosts the show Matter of Fact on Hearst Television and founded a documentary production company, Starfish Media Group. O’Brien’s works are most notable for their focus on diversity, race and ethnicity. O’Brien explores these themes in her documentary series Black in America. She followed that series with a documentary called Latino in America.

Soledad O'Brien's speech emphasized diversity and conflict in the media / Photo by Andrew McMunn

Soledad O’Brien’s speech emphasized diversity and conflict in the media / Photo by Andrew McMunn

“Stories of diversity make us all strong, and they’re interesting, and they fill in the gaps of history with the voices of the people who are not often heard,” O’Brien said.

Halfway through her speech, the lights dimmed. The projector behind O’Brien changed from the Webster University logo to display a clip from one of her documentaries. The clip concerned an African-American man who was left with longterm injuries after a group of police officers attacked him. She followed the first clip with two more. The first showed a community of American parishioners conflicted about letting people of Hispanic culture and language become a part of their church. The last told the stories of a group of women whose heroic deeds during the 9/11 terrorist attacks went largely unnoticed.

“Controlling your narrative is where the power lies,” O’Brien said. “The media often controls the narrative. Sometimes, they have a bad habit of abusing that power.”

O’Brien first spoke to a group of communications students in the Sverdrup building. In both speeches, she told them about the beginnings of her career as a journalist and the experiences that changed her life.

“As I was climbing the ladder, it never occurred to me that I could cover some of the biggest stories of our time,” O’Brien said.

O’Brien said that her first eye-opening experience as a journalist was when she covered the lasting effect of Fidel Castro’s rule. She said her previous stories lacked character depth until she had to uncover the motives of the people who supported him.

“Why were people lined up mourning a dictator?” O’Brien said. “Up until then, most of my stories lacked context. The poor were always poor. The mother who drowned her children was crazy, and everything was black and white.”

O’Brien said overgeneralization in news reporting is a problem in today’s media.

“There’s no nuance, you’re either good or you’re bad,” O’Brien said.

Other issues that she said persisted include “car crash stories.” She said “car crash stories” require little effort to cover but are highly dramatic and will draw a lot of viewers.

Senior sound design major Marion Ayers agrees with O’Brien on this topic.

“I fully understand how you sometimes have to grab headlines, and that it can cause you to miss good stories,” said Ayers.

O’Brien’s words resonated with sophomore computer science major Jasmin Kenjar. His family had moved from Bosnia to the United States during the Bosnian genocide in the 1990s. They had hoped to avoid persecution by moving to America.

As a Muslim-American, Kenjar shares similar concerns in today’s climate.

“If things keep going the way they are, it could lead to persecution,” Kenjar said. “With Trump as president, it seems like it’s getting worse.”

Seeing O’Brien speak and learning more about what she does has left Kenjar with a more positive outlook of the future.

“When I see people like her doing what she’s doing, it gives me hope in humanity,” Kenjar said.

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