Kathleen McElroy was tapped to lead a new journalism program at her alma mater—Texas A&M, a university that boasts the largest student body in the entire country. Her experience included decades at the New York Times and a reputation for promoting diversity in the workplace. With fanfare usually reserved for college coaches and athletes, McElroy's signing ceremony took place in the center of the campus not too far from a prominent former Confederate general's statue—Lawrence Sullivan Ross. But the university buckled under backlash. A watered down job offer fell apart and was ultimately rejected after powerful individuals close to A&M expressed opposition over her previous work in diversity. Consequently, a forthcoming state law banning diversity measures at public colleges has only added more political fuel to a controversial fire. So did it take a million dollar settlement for regents to get the result they eventually wanted all along? Join us as I SEE U host Eddie Robinson talks candidly with UT-Austin's Journalism Professor, Dr. Kathleen McElroy. She opens up about her quest for encouraging young students to pursue journalism in helping them find their own unique voice in becoming accurate, unbiased storytellers. McElroy also explores how growing up in Third Ward, Houston provided a sense of empowerment that would essentially shape her into the celebrated woman she is today.
[00:00:00] Eddie Robinson: She was tapped to lead a new journalism program at her alma mater, Texas A& M, a college with the largest student body in the country. But the job offer fell apart and the university buckled under backlash when powerful individuals close to Texas A& M expressed opposition over her past work in diversity.
[00:00:22] Kathleen McElroy: Black journalists wouldn’t be sent to Africa because how could they be objective? There have been women who’ve not been allowed to cover women’s rights. Well, because they’re women, they can’t be objective. No one would question a white reporter covering Timothy McVeigh or anything.
[00:00:36] Eddie Robinson: I’m Eddie Robinson and stay tuned for a candid conversation with journalism professor Kathleen McElroy as a new state law banning diversity measures goes into effect at public universities.
[00:00:47] Eddie Robinson: What does this mean for journalists of color in tomorrow’s newsrooms? Oh yeah, I feel you. We hear you. I SEE U.
[00:01:02] Eddie Robinson: You’re listening to I SEE U. I’m your host, Eddie Robinson. It was a cruel summer of 2023. But it’s yielded a 1 million settlement to a celebrated journalism professor by the name of Kathleen McElroy. She worked as an editor for nearly 30 years, 20 of which were at the New York Times. She then went into the world of academia to study the intersection of race and news media, and eventually becoming the director of the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin between 2018 and 2022.
[00:01:35] Eddie Robinson: So it was no surprise when earlier this year in 2023, Her alma mater, Texas A& M, tapped her to revive its journalism program. It was a pageantry signing event with what the Texas Tribune described as fanfare usually reserved for college coaches and athletes.
[00:02:04] Eddie Robinson: But her hiring was sabotaged by a backlash over her past work promoting and improving diversity and inclusion in newsrooms. Keep in mind that a new state law will eventually limit measures of diversity and inclusion on college campuses in 2024.
[00:02:20] Eddie Robinson: McElroy soon learned and was even warned by colleagues at A& M. of an active campaign from unidentified individuals at Texas A& M at the time to remove her from this new journalism post. The initial offer of a tenured track position was reduced to a five year post and then reduced again to a one year position from which she could be fired at any time.
[00:02:46] Eddie Robinson: McElroy turned to the media. The Texas Tribune, to be exact, and speculated that all of this happened because of her race, maybe even her gender, and others would face the same bars or challenges. She ultimately rejected the offer and withdrew her resignation from UT Austin as a journalism professor. The scandal also led to the resignation of the president of Texas A& M and the nation’s largest public schools institution’s board of regents approved negotiating a 1 million settlement with the professor. But was this settlement a simple way of just swatting away a bigger problem?
[00:03:26] Eddie Robinson: And will this incident make professors and administrators at Texas colleges fearful of setting off diversity red flags? That they may censor themselves and avoid mentioning or naming communication dealing with diversity, equity, and inclusion with their own students or in the public. I see you as we’re truly grateful and excited to have with us a special guest on our show, Dr. Kathleen McElroy. Professor, thank you enormously for being a guest on I SEE U.
[00:03:59] Kathleen McElroy: Well, thank you for having me.
[00:04:01] Eddie Robinson: Dr. McElroy informed us prior to the start of our chat that she’s not at liberty to speak about the botched hiring at A& M, but you can certainly read more about the resulting investigation, a widely reported formal apology, and what all happened during this incident by viewing links on our web article at I SEE Ushow. org.
[00:04:22] Eddie Robinson: Yeah, it’s really an understatement to say that you’ve experienced some trials and tribulations in your life recently, even literally, you know, um, but before we dive deep into everything, my first question to you is, how are you feeling? Despite all that’s happened and what you’ve had to endure over what my 80s pop group Bananarama called a Cruel Summer.
[00:04:48] Eddie Robinson: How are you doing, professor?
[00:04:50] Kathleen McElroy: Well, you know, um, I’m a Bananarama fan, so I get that. But, you know, what I have experienced is so minor, so insignificant. I think that I am doing fine, and I really, really am more interested in people who don’t get to tell their stories. So, I, if, this was not a cruel summer for me. It was an eye opener, I would say, more an eye opener.
[00:05:28] Eddie Robinson: We’ll find out more about that eye opening summer later in our discussion. Look, you know, we’re conducting this interview at a radio and TV station, Houston Public Media, that sits in an area of Houston, a community of Houston, that many consider to be the city’s most diverse Black neighborhood located southeast of downtown.
[00:05:50] Eddie Robinson: It has a history unlike any other. Kathleen, and it too, the Trey has had its fair share of trials and tribulations with this community being known as the epicenter of Houston’s fight for racial equality. Just ask those brave men and women of the sixties, right? Just ask William Lawson and a number of Black college students who sat down at segregated lunch counters to protest discriminatory policies back then.
[00:06:16] Eddie Robinson: It’s where more seasoned. Saints, if you will experience the power of the blues genre, you know, we’re talking third ward here, a community in and of itself with such adversity, developed some truly amazing and remarkable people. For instance, Pat Parker, Garnett Coleman, Beyoncé , Solange, powerhouse blues performers, Sam Lightnin’ Hopkins, Arnett Cobb, Albert Collins, the list goes on.
[00:06:43] Eddie Robinson: And we cannot omit from this list. Kathleen McElroy.
[00:06:48] Kathleen McElroy: Oh, no. The person you can’t omit is my father.
[00:06:52] Eddie Robinson: Your father. I was going to say that. I was going to say that. The contributions your family has made, the contributions your father has made truly outstanding. So describe for us your childhood. That’s what I’m getting at here.
[00:07:06] Eddie Robinson: What was it like growing up in The Trey third ward, Texas go?
[00:07:12] Kathleen McElroy: Well, it’s interesting because I was just looking at passages in the book. His name is George Floyd because they talk about. Parts of Third Ward and that and in fact, the Cuney Homes where my parents and all their friends first raised their families in the Cuney Homes and like their friends, I ended up getting a, you know, a starter home and then another home.
[00:07:37] Kathleen McElroy: So, when I read about how Third Ward in the 70s was this decaying thing, it’s like, Oh, I didn’t know we were decaying. You know, the, it’s almost like when people talk about how they, I didn’t realize quote unquote how poor I was, but we weren’t poor, not by any means. We were decidedly middle class, or maybe that’s my imagination.
[00:07:59] Kathleen McElroy: Maybe we were poor and I just didn’t. Didn’t realize it, but my parents both attended the Texas State School for Negroes, you know They get out of the military. My mom outranked my dad. They were in different branches.
[00:08:14] Eddie Robinson: Wow.
[00:08:15] Kathleen McElroy: Yeah, so, you know, this is how yeah you sort of and my dad was a sports writer. It’s the first Black journalist for a daily newspaper in Texas.
[00:08:24] Kathleen McElroy: He was hired by the Houston Post In fact, my middle name is Oveta because Oveta Culp Hobby signed off on his being hired. So I have this, this history of journalism, but my dad’s a sports writer, but my mom was a bigger sports fan. So and I say that because I think in one sense, I’m empowered by the fact that I’m, I’m, you know, come from a very, very strong mother who grew up in Clarksdale, Mississippi, in the heart of the Mississippi Delta, which was Color Purple type circumstances. So anything that I, yeah, I, you know, I cannot complain. I can only praise them. for what I got as a child, but to me, Third Ward was hearing the Texas Southern Band practice at night because we grew up around the corner from Texas Southern and Archie Bell and the Drells was from Fifth Ward, not from Third Ward, I think, um, doing Tighten Up.
[00:09:27] Kathleen McElroy: So I’m like, Tighten Up, I’m like, you know, five or six or something. Hi, everybody! I’m Archie Bell in the trails of Houston, Texas, and we not only sing, but we dance just as good as we want. And in Houston, so like, to have the word Houston out like that, okay? And I didn’t even realize it was a national hit. I just knew this is a song about Houston. And then, you know, less than a year later, the first word said on the moon is Houston.
[00:10:17] Kathleen McElroy: So, I, um, first went to Black Catholic school. So growing up, I thought everybody in Third Ward was Black and Catholic. And then I ended up going to, uh, public school. They’re like, you mean Black people, all Black people aren’t Catholic. What? And then you find out they’re, they’re white people and they’re brown people.
[00:10:40] Kathleen McElroy: And that’s, so my thing is that third ward was this entity in and of itself and didn’t grow up in the richest neighborhoods that would have been McGregor. But what’s interesting to me is. When you’re a real estate fantasy and when you’re young, you don’t call it a real estate fantasy, but when your dream of living large is within your same neighborhood, how empowering is that?
[00:11:08] Kathleen McElroy: You don’t dream of moving out to the suburbs. If I even understood what the suburbs were that I knew that there was poverty in my neighborhood and I knew there was wealth in my neighborhood. So I think that is part of. How third ward can produce this array.
[00:11:31] Kathleen McElroy: The third ward that produced George Floyd is Authentic as the third ward that produced Beyoncé and Zina Garrison. So I’m I’m fascinated by this It’s incredibly, in the true sense of the word, diverse neighborhood. Not racially diverse, in fact, segregated, but a diversity of income, of, you know, culture.
[00:12:10] Kathleen McElroy: When I was growing up. You know, the Black tennis players that I knew on the pro tour, Zina Garrison and Laurie McNeil, they were from Houston, so, and it wasn’t about the football players and stuff, so I think that’s just, I’m kind of fascinated how Third Ward helped shape me and empower me.
[00:12:32] Eddie Robinson: And I’m wondering too, like, The extraordinary journalist that you’ve become now, you know, how has Houston and Third Ward played a role on that note in terms of shaping who you are right now as an individual?
[00:12:45] Kathleen McElroy: Well, because my dad was a journalist and he ran The Informer. Um, a Black newspaper in Houston. Um, I watched the news constantly. I read sports. I was really into sports. I was ridiculously into sports. It was, I’m embarrassed now about the things I should have known about the world, but instead focused. And by the way, my dad sued the University of Texas to attend its journalism school, and he was denied by the courts because they said the Texas State School for Negroes had an equal journalism program.
[00:13:24] Kathleen McElroy: And I’ve actually. Um, the letters, uh, uh, Tony Peterson, who did remarkable work for The Chronicle, I believe, has just written a piece about him. And he found, uh, one of the letters in which Painter, as in, you know, Sweatt v. Painter, called my dad a radical Negro. Which if you knew my dad and he was, you know, active and trying and, you know, in the sixties and the fifties and Houston’s integration effort.
[00:13:55] Kathleen McElroy: And another thing that shaped me is my parents and their friends loved going to the Astrodome. They loved going to the Astrodome. Now the Astros were terrible then, but it didn’t matter. And I look back on it now. And I think it was because Roy Hofheinz had promised the Negroes of Houston that even if the civil rights lost and passed that they would always be equal in the Astrodome.
[00:14:26] Kathleen McElroy: So I now see my parents happily giving the white, um, person parking their cars or the attendant a dollar and that person calling them yes ma’am and yes sir. It wasn’t about winning or losing. You know, it wasn’t about the Astros on field performance. They were able to be in a space in which they were equal.
[00:14:54] Kathleen McElroy: They were just astrofans and I now see how profound that must have been given their backgrounds to be in this space and to be called sir and man and to be led to your seat.
[00:15:16] Eddie Robinson: Coming up, we continue our chat with University of Texas at Austin professor, Dr. Kathleen McElroy. She reveals what it will take to bring more journalists of color inside newsrooms today when disinformation tends to run rampant. In this ever changing digital news cycle. And how is she moving forward after the botched hiring incident at Texas A& M?
[00:15:40] Eddie Robinson: A million dollar settlement is an awful lot of money. But at the end of the day, did A& M Board of Regents ultimately come out on top? I’m Eddie Robinson. I SEE U will return in just a moment.
[00:16:03] Eddie Robinson: If you’re enjoying this program, be sure to subscribe to our podcast. I SEE U with Eddie Robinson. You can hear all the past episodes and be notified when new episodes are released. Also, please take a minute to give us a review or comment. We love getting feedback from our listeners.
[00:16:33] Eddie Robinson: You’re listening to I SEE U. I’m Eddie Robinson. Our guest is Dr. Kathleen McElroy, who found herself at the center of a story that she might have once worked on as a news editor before becoming a professor. Kathleen, a Black journalist with decades of experience at the New York Times. And a reputation for promoting diversity in the workplace was tapped to lead a new journalism program at Texas A& M, but powerful opponents at A& M took issue with her experience and watered down her job offer.
[00:17:04] Eddie Robinson: McElroy ultimately rejected it and withdrew her resignation from UT Austin. In the end, A& M lost out on a renowned journalism professor, but in essence, was this what A& M really wanted in the first place? How will this impact journalists and university faculty of color when we speak of future hires and retention?
[00:17:27] Eddie Robinson: Current students at public colleges are already concerned that a new state law in 2024, which bans DEI measures, will eventually impact certain activities, programs, and speech initiatives on campuses across Texas. We continue our chat with Professor McElroy, who’s calling us virtually from Austin, Texas.
[00:17:48] Eddie Robinson: Kathleen, I imagine you likely would have wrestled with how to talk about race in a hyper politicized moment. And despite what happened at Texas A& M, in many ways you can’t quite help but think about your father, George McElroy, who was denied the opportunity to enroll at UT Austin because state officials at the time said, you know what, you can take journalism classes.
[00:18:11] Eddie Robinson: But you’ll need to enroll at Texas State University for Negroes, which is now Texas Southern. This was despite the landmark U. S. Supreme Court decision that you mentioned earlier, Sweatt v. Painter. Mr. Mack, from what I know, that was his nickname, so to speak, right?
[00:18:28] Kathleen McElroy: That was his nickname.
[00:18:29] Eddie Robinson: He went on to become the first Black reporter for the Houston Post. He taught at Yates High School, right here in the Third Ward. I led the journalism department at TSU for many, many years.
[00:18:41] Kathleen McElroy: He was also the first Black to get a master’s degree from the University of Missouri’s famed journalism school.
[00:18:47] Eddie Robinson: That’s right. That’s right. Amazing life! Your father, what? Broke barriers. Many barriers. And you, Kathleen, Became director of the journalism department at UT Austin 60 years after he was denied enrollment.
[00:19:04] Kathleen McElroy: Yes.
[00:19:05] Eddie Robinson: Where’s, where’s Prime video? Where’s Hulu? You know, there must be a series of your life. The legacy of, of your family, everything. And, and it, it does, I see the passion that you have with regards to journalism.
[00:19:23] Eddie Robinson: And my question to you here is why aren’t we seeing very many Black journalism students enter this arena? Are college newsrooms seeing many journalists of color these days? What do you think?
[00:19:36] Kathleen McElroy: Oh, now for A white journalism student, a lot of times their parents don’t want them to go into journalism because there’s not a lot of money in it, or they see the jobs.
[00:19:47] Kathleen McElroy: And I think that’s the same thing for students of color. White students have an extra burden that many in their family may be hostile to journalism. That we had a student say that her mom told her friends that her daughter was majoring in lying. And think about, think about that level of rejection, but still wanting to be committed to journalism.
[00:20:13] Kathleen McElroy: I bring this all up because many students who would like to major in journalism are majoring in STEM because their parents are saying you need to be doing, you know, it’s engineering, it’s science, it’s, it’s that. And journalism is low on the list, but at least because of broadcast journalism, our communities are exposed to journalists of color on air.
[00:20:39] Kathleen McElroy: I’m also a part of something called the Center for Ethical Leadership in Newsrooms. And what we find is that BIPOC journalists and women enter newsrooms at around the same rate. But as you move up in the ranks, as you look at leadership, it shrinks to practically nothing, to less than 5%. Imagine being a student wanting a Black or Latino Latina student.
[00:21:06] Kathleen McElroy: A gay student wanting to work at places like the Daily Texan or The Battalion, which are much more welcoming now, but that can be intimidating. Do you see people who look like you in leadership positions? And I say, now both campuses are putting young, dynamic students of color in leadership positions.
[00:21:30] Kathleen McElroy: But for the longest, you didn’t see that. So I think that’s one thing. I also think a lot of journalism programs to this day focus on text, or what used to be called print to begin with, where it’s harder to sort of unearth people who look like you or things like that. And I worked at the Times for 20 years and I had bylines mostly in sports and some other stuff, but you wouldn’t know me, you know students wouldn’t know who I am because they really wouldn’t see my byline even though I was helping pick Which stories went on the front page of the Sunday and Monday editions of the New York Times?
[00:22:13] Kathleen McElroy: So, if you don’t know, like, the powerful people behind the scenes. So I think in a lot of factors, students really may not see themselves, or they feel as if, you know, maybe this isn’t my place. Look, I am so old that when I was getting my degree in broadcast journalism, no, I admit I’m an old person. A professor took me aside and said, I need to tell you.
[00:22:37] Kathleen McElroy: You’re too dark to be on the air. You’ll never be on the air because I am chocolate. I am the color of good rue for gumbo. And, and back then people, my skin tone weren’t on the air. So. And now we’re getting to the point where if you have braids, you can be on the air. So it’s evolving, but I, you’re right.
[00:23:04] Kathleen McElroy: There, many of the people who are in journalism are not students of color.
[00:23:13] Eddie Robinson: The notion of trust. You know, we say that a lot, you know, here as a public media entity, but I loved what you said in an interview and I wanted you to expand on how do you look at that as a journalist and and as a leader in journalism, you know, moving forward in this day and age?
[00:23:32] Kathleen McElroy: People need to understand that disinformation. Okay? That we even have that word is a terrible thing. That the, one of the major points of especially Russian level of disinformation is to just sow confusion. Some of these lies and things that are being said are so outrageous that the point is for people just to throw up their hands and trust nothing.
[00:24:03] Kathleen McElroy: A lot of times people want to teach media literacy to journalism majors, well they kind of get that in every class. I want us to get that to education majors and engineering majors and things like that. Understanding the role of disinformation. And part of that is that you trust nothing. So all folks like me, you know, will have their little.
[00:24:32] Kathleen McElroy: favorite stations and their favorite this and by the way, journalism is a flawed profession, a flawed field because it’s run by humans. And even if AI becomes more involved, who’s programming it? Who’s doing the algorithms? So journalism is not perfect by any means and I’ve actually studied the ways journalism has so distrust and mistrust in communities, but it is our better tool.
[00:25:03] Kathleen McElroy: It is our better tool, but that’s what’s so hard is that people, there are forces out there that want people to trust nothing.
[00:25:16] Eddie Robinson: I’m Eddie Robinson and this is I SEE U and we’re speaking with journalism professor Kathleen McElroy. And Kathleen, what you said just a moment ago about artificial intelligence, AI, makes me think a lot about the evolution of journalism, right?
[00:25:30] Eddie Robinson: And I think about your father and the world he lived in, of covering the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 60s. And while we are in a different world now, a lot of that struggle from back in the day is still going on. You know, look at how race and gender… Are affecting your career, you know, I wonder how your father, if we could channel him, what he would be saying, you know, like, I see you, I see what’s happening here.
[00:25:58] Eddie Robinson: Yeah, I have a voice. I want to change. I want to be a part of telling stories of my community, but what he would be saying would more than likely be on Tik Tok or some other platform that only gives you 30 seconds.
[00:26:11] Kathleen McElroy: But I don’t consider Tik Tok evil or one of those things. In fact, you know, there’s some really good Tik Tok news related Tik Tok, the Washington Post for the longest has been as alone for the longest, how long has it been around?
[00:26:25] Kathleen McElroy: Um, what your point is that there is this world of information, but it’s not necessarily. Um, evidence based.
[00:26:37] Eddie Robinson: Right. And I’m curious as to if professional journalists, you know, can make a career out of this.
[00:26:44] Kathleen McElroy: Oh, absolutely. Well, maybe not a Tik Tok, but we don’t know what that next thing is. So one of the beautiful things about teaching 19 year olds is that you’re not so much teaching them a particular device or a particular medium.
[00:26:59] Kathleen McElroy: You’re teaching them how to produce evidence based information worth sharing on whatever that next thing is. And I think it’s especially important for journalists of color and journalists from underrepresented groups to be at the table when they’re building that next thing. Because a lot of journalism has been reacting to it.
[00:27:23] Kathleen McElroy: Now in my dad’s age, you know, the Black press played a very important role. And, you know, deciphering the message and we still have a robust, uh, Black press, it’s not, it doesn’t hit as much of all of the Black community as it did before. Um, we know we have The Defender Network and, you know, other outlets, but part of the reason why there was a Black press, a Latino press and ethnic press is because the mainstream press quote unquote.
[00:27:55] Kathleen McElroy: Was that default was white patriarchal CIS type news, right? It was, and to this day, it’s still that way. And to be, to be perfectly clear, journalism is best when everybody is understanding how you have a fully dimensional news report. So it’s not just built on, you know, bodies. Like on our bodies, so, but for the longest, it’s been our bodies that have been trying to get the message out and, and then for my dad, that was extraordinarily important, you know, and, but you know what, he wasn’t given that many options.
[00:28:44] Kathleen McElroy: He didn’t get nearly the number of options and opportunities that I did. Um, so I know I’ve gotten a little bit far field here and there are. Um, you know, outstanding journalists from underrepresented groups. It seems like it’s fewer than at the beginning of this century or at the end of last century.
[00:29:08] Kathleen McElroy: And that’s what’s heartbreaking. Um, and it’s not heartbreaking because our story isn’t being told. It’s just heartbreaking because… Professions are more robust when they are fully dimensional.
[00:29:27] Eddie Robinson: Well, in March of 2022, you gave a lecture for the National Press Foundation where you talked about objectivity.
[00:29:34] Kathleen McElroy: Ah, yes.
[00:29:35] Eddie Robinson: And, and I’m wondering less than a year later, a year in 2023, do you believe your Blackness weaponized against you?
[00:29:48] Kathleen McElroy: I’m not going to talk about me specifically.
[00:29:54] Eddie Robinson: Okay.
[00:29:55] Kathleen McElroy: As I said, then, and I’ve written in other instances, the whole issue with objectivity is that it was never objective.
[00:30:06] Kathleen McElroy: It was a strategy. In fact, objectivity as a whole was a business strategy of newspapers at one point to be more profitable than partisan press. So it’s always been a strategy. And the way that objectivity is often used in newsrooms, for instance, is that, and Pamela Newkirk wrote an amazing book about this.
[00:30:38] Kathleen McElroy: I think it’s called Within the Veil. I might have gotten the name wrong. But Pamela Newkirk, uh, I think she produced this book in 1998 and she talked about how Black journalists were not allowed to cover the O. J. Simpson trial because they wouldn’t be objective. And for the longest, Black journalists wouldn’t be sent to Africa because how can they be objective about that?
[00:31:01] Kathleen McElroy: There have been women who’ve not been allowed to cover women’s rights. Well, because they’re women, they can’t be objective. No one would question a white reporter covering Timothy McVeigh or anything, right? So I think that’s the way that I talk about this in terms of newsrooms. And that there is a sense that by having an identity marker, people will focus in on…
[00:31:29] Kathleen McElroy: That without maybe seeing how your authority and your expertise in that area adds so much. So when I talk to students, I talk about how can you be fully dimensional? How can you be accurate? Like, how can you approach truth? Alright, so facts are meaningless. Individual facts are meaningless. If a red car hits a blue car in the street and you come away from that, that the red car hit the blue car, that’s not what’s important, but those are facts.
[00:32:09] Kathleen McElroy: So what’s interesting in terms of the term objectivity and why many of us in journalism are moving away from it is because people never really were, and that maybe there’s another term, but we’ve yet to come up with it. It isn’t being fair. Because, I, you know, I’m going to be fair, I am not going to take points off, you know, Brittany’s paper because I know that she struggled on her job this week.
[00:32:38] Kathleen McElroy: Well, that’s not fair to the other students. So once you bring in the concept of fairness, that’s not the right term. And of course, so much of journalism, unfortunately, has become he said, she said, which is stenography, you know. So, so it’s like getting, don’t use objectivity as a crutch. So I’m going to talk to five people and try to get a diversity of voices.
[00:33:06] Kathleen McElroy: And some voices aren’t legitimate. There are people who legitimately think that the vaccine was not good for them. That’s fine. But then there are people who were just pure anti-vaxxers. Or people who are white supremacists, who maybe don’t belong in a report. And this is what we saw with climate change.
[00:33:33] Kathleen McElroy: People felt as if, well, I should get someone who’s anti climate change in this piece so it can seem balanced. Well… That’s not understanding how statistics work. And the scientists didn’t know how to talk to journalists, and the journalists didn’t understand what the scientists were saying. And yeah, it’s 107 degrees outside.
[00:33:56] Kathleen McElroy: So that’s a long way to say that objectivity has been this, like, tool. And maybe we need to figure out what that thing is that does approach a fully dimensional world. Um, look at truth.
[00:34:18] Eddie Robinson: Coming up, we wrap up our conversation with University of Texas at Austin professor, Dr. Kathleen McElroy. We start to dive deeper into understanding the notions of objectivity and what it means to be biased. In storytelling as a journalist, who gets to be a narrator now? Can it be a person who’s conservative or liberal?
[00:34:39] Eddie Robinson: Does race or ethnicity of the narrator matter? Let’s hear from you. Give us your perspectives. Share your thoughts. And send us an email, talk at I S E E U show. org. I’m Eddie Robinson. Don’t move. Our final segment of I SEE U comes your way right after this.
[00:35:06] Eddie Robinson: If you’re enjoying this program, be sure to subscribe to our podcast, I SEE U with Eddie Robinson. You can hear all the past episodes and be notified. When new episodes are released. Also, please take a minute to give us a review or comment. We love getting feedback from our listeners.
[00:35:34] Eddie Robinson: You’re listening to I SEE U. I’m your host, Eddie Robinson. We’re speaking with Dr. Kathleen McElroy of the university of Texas at Austin. In many ways, we’ve been workshopping what her journalism class might look like after her experiences this summer. Are we still having the conversation, the reckoning on race?
[00:35:54] Eddie Robinson: We thought America had finally confronted in 2020. Or has the reckoning expired, so to speak? We don’t need measures of inclusion or diversity anymore. Some folks, including state officials, think that’s exactly the case. Dr. McElroy is calling us virtually from Austin, Texas.
[00:36:15] Eddie Robinson: On the year 2020, the death of George Floyd being witnessed on video, there indeed was this awakening, right?
[00:36:22] Eddie Robinson: There was a reckoning, if you will, where Americans sort of became divided on whether an increased focus on race Would ultimately lead to major policy change people were divided with that I found myself torn because as a news anchor at the time here at Houston Public Media, notions of being stopped by police. You know I had these experiences under my belt by I was being pulled over when I was on 11th grade and in high school in Mississippi, but I’ve also had Experiences, you know, in New York City.
[00:36:57] Eddie Robinson: I lived there for 20 years almost, and I got an NYU Master’s in Media Ecology in 2000.
[00:37:04] Kathleen McElroy: I almost majored in that.
[00:37:06] Eddie Robinson: Yeah, it was amazing. I loved it, but it really sort of threw me off. Because it unveiled the curtain, it pulled the curtain wide open, and it shocked me. And I almost wanted to say, forget journalism, because it really destroyed my mental state of what journalism really was. And I started taking courses like manufacturing news.
[00:37:30] Kathleen McElroy: I took that course.
[00:37:31] Eddie Robinson: The uses and effects of political propaganda in the USSR.
[00:37:35] Kathleen McElroy: Oh, I, uh, you know. And I can relate to so many things you’re talking about. So I did end up getting a degree in journalism research from NYU. Um, I got it from the Gallatin School of Individualized Study and I studied race and media. Because I didn’t know about the media ecology degree till after the, um, till later.
[00:37:53] Eddie Robinson: Steinhardt School of Education. Yeah, that’s exactly where it was. Yeah.
[00:37:56] Kathleen McElroy: So I think I’m going to disagree with you on one thing. You said that.
[00:38:00] Eddie Robinson: Yes.
[00:38:01] Kathleen McElroy: George Floyd in 2020. Uh, America was divided by race. America has always been divided by race.
[00:38:07] Eddie Robinson: You’re right. That’s, that’s a perfect point. You’re right.
[00:38:10] Kathleen McElroy: It may not admit it, but your other point, the thing that you’re saying that’s so insightful is, and I’ve studied this. I did a case study, what journalists of color, their reaction to everything with 2020 with George Floyd, because all of a sudden Black journalists and Latino journalists are getting arrested by the cops in these…
[00:38:30] Eddie Robinson: mm-hmm.
[00:38:31] Kathleen McElroy: covering protests. Right. And there is like, wait a second. Just ’cause I look like this. I’m being,
[00:38:52] Eddie Robinson: that’s right.
[00:38:52] Kathleen McElroy: Fill in the blank. And things were happening in newsrooms. There were major shifts in newsrooms. All over America because journalists realize we can’t just be on the sidelines. We see this affecting ourselves, our children, our families. So at that point you see how being quote unquote objective, which would be just, I’m going to report this, but I’m not going to put in how this affects me.
[00:39:24] Kathleen McElroy: Well, how this is affecting you is a legitimate news angle. And it took newsrooms a while to figure out how to sort it out. And I think there’s still a question.
[00:39:38] Eddie Robinson: I think so too. In 2020 it just, it, it, it threw me off because I was trying to figure out why was I not necessarily afraid of reporting anything.
[00:39:49] Eddie Robinson: No, you know, I even co hosted the funeral of George Floyd with a colleague of mine. But it was as if I almost wanted to just scream as I’m reporting because of, of wanting to just kind of, you know, go there, but you can’t because you’re trying to remain unbiased and you’re trying to. You’re, you’re making sure that you’re balanced and having a balanced reporting,
[00:40:14] Kathleen McElroy: And taking care of yourself mentally.
[00:40:16] Eddie Robinson: On, but I would have to do that when I turn the mic off.
[00:40:21] Kathleen McElroy: Well,
[00:40:21] Eddie Robinson: I would have to do that if I’m walking out, you know, and going to my car and to just be relaxed.
[00:40:27] Kathleen McElroy: And I think that’s, that’s one of the difficult things is that you know if someone goes on air and says America grieves the so and so, and there can be this default, I’m speaking for the world, the royal we. You know, and I think what’s tough is that for journalists from underrepresented groups, we want to surface the stories of people like us, but not always the pathological, you know, thing, want to say this hurts, it’s trying to figure out how to say this hurts, and, and the question is, If you’re telling this, this story, is your body being unbiased and being unbiased is absolutely what we all strive for.
[00:41:19] Kathleen McElroy: Objectivity and unbiased are not the same things. And I think that’s one of the things the public doesn’t quite get. But I think that you look at the 2020 white reckoning, you look at Sandy Hook, you look at Uvalde. And I think one of the things that’s so painful is that what has changed, you know, but we have to keep doing this.
[00:41:45] Kathleen McElroy: And I want to make sure that my students are inspired to do this and that they can feel confident in their training and their ethics, that I am telling the story the best way it can be told. It doesn’t matter what I look like, what my background is. But I am going to take a 360 look at anything I’m doing.
[00:42:12] Kathleen McElroy: I’m going to try to get the voices that can help fully tell the story. If you’re doing a story on sunburns, you should get a dermatologist who is a person of color. You know, like really understanding so you can add that element that makes your story better than the typical story. I remember once I was teaching this class and the students were, they had to talk, describe their roommates.
[00:42:37] Kathleen McElroy: And I had someone who was evaluating me and the students are going, okay, my roommate, um, Becky, she’s white. She’s da da da da da. And this person asked me, how did you get white students to understand that they were white? And this is, this was like years ago. This was in the, in the eighties, but it was, it’s sort of like letting people understand that you’re not the default.
[00:43:01] Eddie Robinson: There you go.
[00:43:02] Kathleen McElroy: And, and letting other people understand that you are not secondary.
[00:43:07] Eddie Robinson: This is I SEE U. I’m Eddie Robinson, and we’re speaking with Kathleen McElroy of the University of Texas at Austin’s School of Journalism and Media. Dr. McElroy recently went through a botched hiring process at Texas A& M.
[00:43:21] Eddie Robinson: And I think what you’re saying here, Dr. McElroy, is really important that it’s not about saying, I don’t see race or I don’t see a person’s color because what ends up happening is that white becomes the default and that alone maintains white privilege, right? I mean, the reality. is that people of color are reminded of this every day with microaggressions and even blatant discrimination.
[00:43:49] Eddie Robinson: So in many ways, we should directly address race. We should be addressing it unapologetically. You know, what are you seeing and hearing from your students? Are they, you know, going to practice journalism in a totally different way than, say, we thought possible? You know, younger folks get most of their news from apps.
[00:44:08] Kathleen McElroy: I get my news from apps, and they just happen to be more like, you know, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times.
[00:44:15] Eddie Robinson: There you go.
[00:44:16] Kathleen McElroy: And the Houston Chronicle.
[00:44:16] Eddie Robinson: It’s not Facebook.
[00:44:18] Kathleen McElroy: Um, nah.
[00:44:20] Eddie Robinson: Yeah, I mean, how does that affect the way you teach journalism to the next generation?
[00:44:24] Kathleen McElroy: Well, you know, journalism at its core is the gathering and sharing of evidence based, relevant, significant information for a good reason.
[00:44:38] Kathleen McElroy: Not a good reason could be a recipe, or it could be to understand that you’re living on a floodplain, okay? So, how you communicate that message may change with the medium. But there are some basics in journalism, you know? I’ve seen students write an amazing story, and maybe all the commas aren’t all in the right space.
[00:45:01] Kathleen McElroy: That’s okay! We can figure that part out. But how are you gathering the information? How are you sharing it? And how are you understanding the big picture of it? So I think the fundamental things that we’re teaching them can go to any medium or, you know, we teach, I don’t teach data journalism, but we’re teaching our students data journalism, how to build apps, how to create news in different, you know, ways that we didn’t really think about because there’ll be something different in three or four years. What’s important is you’ve taught them how to learn something.
[00:45:42] Eddie Robinson: I can’t help but think about your sunburn example where you mentioned and stated that you’d ask a person of color for that news item in an essence, you know, you’ve just promoted or offered up an idea of inclusion within that reporting, right?
[00:45:56] Kathleen McElroy: Yes.
[00:45:56] Eddie Robinson: And, and, and I’m, I’m trying to figure out, is that how we move forward with. Texas state officials, when they pull away or try to dismantle D. E. I. and those three letters, you know, it sounds like you just, you caused a riot when you mentioned those three letters. What, in terms of looking at the future, moving forward, Are we to not use D E I and not use those words and those, you know, those inclusive words so that we can get the point across of making sure that we can include everybody in a, in a news feature.
[00:46:40] Kathleen McElroy: The term D E I or D E I B are in various other versions of that. These terms are relatively new and before these terms. These terms came about because we at least wanted a rhetorical way to express why this is important. There are people who really don’t want students to understand the importance of things that many of us think are important.
[00:47:14] Kathleen McElroy: And maybe they’re going after the rhetoric. They are going after the
[00:47:25] Kathleen McElroy: still believe in the actual action behind whatever term it is. And so you’re not gonna put public money into that, then we’ll figure out something else. I’m here because of the things that my father and my mother did in their generation, and I am not going to abandon the next generation just because a term is now banned or unpopular.
[00:48:03] Kathleen McElroy: Maybe we call it cheeseburger.
[00:48:10] Eddie Robinson: Don’t say that because I’m hungry, but yeah.
[00:48:13] Kathleen McElroy: I mean, clearly I’m joking, but you know, I, the work continues.
[00:48:20] Eddie Robinson: And it will continue to remain work, which gets at the heart of my last and final question that we always ask our guests of all the accomplishments of what you’ve had to endure, especially over the course of the summer of 2023 with your case being settled.
[00:48:42] Eddie Robinson: What lessons have you learned about yourself thus far?
[00:48:50] Kathleen McElroy: It’s been a little weird to have my own Waking Ned Devine moment. I think that was the name of that movie.
[00:49:08] Eddie Robinson: I loved that movie. It was phenomenal. I loved it.
[00:49:09] Kathleen McElroy: When you hear all these wonderful things. It’s being said about me that, that there are people who… support me, but I’ve also learned that things that we don’t know about the world. There are things people who I bring up the Wall Street Journal reporter who’s been detained in Russia.
[00:49:40] Kathleen McElroy: Our energy needs to go. To his case so what I’ve learned is That I may think that I’m in a fishbowl or I’ve been in one, but I really haven’t, that this is a world we live in.
[00:50:03] Kathleen McElroy: And my goal is to remain an active part of this world and helping people find their voice, helping people feel as empowered as, as I have felt my entire life. And that’s why Third Ward is important to me. Because of the sense of empowerment.
[00:50:30] Kathleen McElroy: And I also realized that I am privileged to have had the background and the connections I have.
[00:50:41] Eddie Robinson: Thank you. This was almost a, a journalism 101 class without having to pay for it.
[00:50:51] Kathleen McElroy: I love teaching journalism 101. I would love, I would love to teach that to adults, which you don’t need the class. You’d ace it. You’d ace it. Thank you so much for having me. I’ve learned so much from your programs and looking at, you know, past podcasts and this opportunity to think about life is, is. It’s such a blessing, and I wanted to thank you for giving me this opportunity.
[00:51:22] Eddie Robinson: She’s professor in the School of Journalism and Media at the University of Texas at Austin. Her name, Kathleen McElroy. Thank you so much for being a guest on I SEE U. Our team includes Technical Director, Todd Hulslander. Producer, Laura Walker, editors, Mincho Jacob and Jonmitchell Goode.
[00:51:45] Eddie Robinson: I SEE U is a production of Houston Public Media. Follow us on Instagram and subscribe to our podcast, wherever you listen to or download your favorite shows. I’m your host and executive producer, Eddie Robinson, and I feel you. We hear you.
[00:52:02] Eddie Robinson: I SEE U. Thanks so much for listening.
[00:52:07] Eddie Robinson: Until next time.