On the Record with Annika Harris: A Personal Perspective as a Black Woman in Journalism

July 30, 2020

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‘On the Record’ is a series where we sit down with our colleagues and friends who are often at the receiving end of our pitch emails – journalists. We will be tackling hot topics, learning and growing from their perspective and thoughtful advice.

In this post, Caitlin Teahan interviews Uptown Magazine’s Digital Content Director, Annika Harris around what it means to be a Black woman in journalism in a time of great social change. Additionally, Annika discusses the larger cultural and social changes taking place that impact day-to-day interactions with colleagues and peers. Their candid Q&A session took place at a safe distance (via video chat), as at the time it was conducted, New York City was still on a shelter-in-place order.

Caitlin Teahan (CT): There has been a lot of change that has impacted the journalism industry in the last few months, the pandemic and our recent social justice movement, specifically. How has this changed your relationship with PR professionals and day-to-day work?

Annika Harris (AH): I’ve noticed a few publicists that I work with regularly have been more considerate – they try not to inundate you with pitches and have been sending out general emails to check-in to see if you’re accepting pitches. I saw some of those when the pandemic started, but I think now they’re even more aware of it. I actually had an instance where I was flabbergasted and I was going to respond to the publicist. She reached out because she was representing a DVD vending machine brand – by the way I’ve never worked with her – and sent me a list of their ‘Black DVDs.’ It was just so obvious from the titles she picked that she didn’t even research what Uptown Magazine was about because it wasn’t geared towards a Black audience. For example, they were movies we had seen already or were movies that really don’t resonate with us. You can’t put films on a list like this just because they have a Black cast in the movie poster.

I ended up just like not even emailing because I didn’t want to scold her. I did take a look into her firm and it was a small boutique firm, with no people of color on the staff and I realized, well, that kind of explains why this happened.

Also, there’s this attitude or this feeling within the Black community that certain movies aren’t necessarily made for us though it might be an all-Black cast. Maybe if they had somebody who was Black on their team, they would have come up with a better list. Some advice –  don’t go and put Black actors into a search engine or use the ones on the poster because they seem popular. That isn’t doing the research. That’s been my experience and if they just spent 30 seconds scrolling through Uptown Magazine it will give them an idea that say, a pitch about Reese Witherspoon might not resonate. I mean, I love Reese Witherspoon, but I’m not going write about that. This was kind of par for the course before –  people not really doing their research. I think as far as blogs that I read, everybody’s saying, ‘we’re going to feature Black-owned businesses’ and you’re kind of thinking, ‘OK, is it just for this moment or is this going be like a lasting change?’ You know?

CT: Have you seen any recent positive developments that pertains to journalism since the social justice movement took off?

AH: I think there’s more of an understanding of not just looking at the surface of what’s happening. There’s violence, but people are realizing there’s more emotion and history behind the anger that you’re seeing expressed, so I think they’re covering it in a broader way. A lot of that has to do with people no longer ignoring what is happening since it keeps getting caught on video.

CT: How have the relationships you have maintained with PR professionals changed over the past few months?

AH: I don’t think they really have. There is more of an understanding that there’s big news happening. So, you can’t necessarily write about shampoo the day you had planned to. It’s a little bit more hands-off and more letting the stories happen and develop. As things progressed, I haven’t been getting too many general fluff pitches. And that’s good. It’s interesting because with people not being able to travel like we used to, it seems Black travel writers are now opening up about the experiences they have had that might have had racial undertones and stuff like that. I wonder if it’s because we can’t travel that they don’t fear retaliation from brands as deeply. It’s not like you’re going to get canceled off a press trip for speaking your mind… because there are no press trips going on.

CT: Let’s talk about vernacular. Changes in language that have been around for a while are now seemingly more mainstream from capitalization of certain words to labeling. What are your pet peeves when it comes to things like this and do you feel that any terms are still misunderstood?

AH: Yes. For me, I don’t necessarily identify as African American. Because I don’t know where in Africa my people came from. I mean, I have an overall connection because I’m part of the African diaspora, but I can’t pinpoint it. The closest for me would be Caribbean American but as you know, I was born here. So, I identify as Black and sometimes there’s this attitude around why I would want to be identified as just Black. Maybe there is more of a comfort in calling people African American? But then you get into the issue of well, what if they’re from Canada? Or somewhere else? How do we go about all of that? I mean, I tend to use it interchangeably. If I get copy where the person who wrote it uses ‘African American,’ I won’t take it out because, you know, that’s how they identify. But I have definitely been seeing an increase in capitalizing the word ‘Black.’ I’ve been doing it since high school and that’s one thing I always do change when I am editing.

I think sometimes there’s a generalization with the phrase ‘people of color.’ It’s like a whole blanket statement but we don’t all necessarily think as a monolith. In a way it is kind of lazy at times to use and I’ve been seeing Black Indigenous People of Color lumped in with Latinx or Asian people, which is crazy. I don’t know what the alternative would be besides specifically listing out everybody, but maybe that’s what it has to come to.

CT: Do you feel there is a level of discomfort when it comes to using certain words to self-describe?

AH: Black has always been considered a negative, right? There’s only one instance of the word/color black being a positive in like English language. When your money is in the black. So, I think a lot of times, non-Black people can’t understand why you would want to identify with a ‘negative.’ It also brings up the Black Power Movement, the civil rights movement, America’s racist past, but if you just make it a blanket like ‘African American,’ then you don’t have to kind of confront those things. In our history, we lost our culture. All of those things happened and I don’t think it is just an American thing to have a negative connotation or discomfort. I have been in meetings with a major European airline that was trying to get more Black people to visit Scandinavian countries because we spend however many billions traveling. In the meeting, he just couldn’t understand that we identified as Black or Caribbean American. Or if you want to get really specific, we’re St. Lucian American. But Black is just fine!

The discomfort made it harder for us on the trip. If a publicist plans out this whole trip for us to experience this place and wants us to tell our readers, who are Black, to come visit a country that isn’t racially diverse, let the merchants and the hoteliers know we’re Black. Don’t let it be a surprise when we get there, because then it puts a little negative smear on top of the trip before you even get started. But, he didn’t understand. He felt that to tell the merchants and hoteliers would be racist. But we want to avoid an awkward interaction that might come across as racist and make us uncomfortable, you know? It’s funny because none of us were contacted again after that meeting, which is pretty interesting.

CT: Do you feel that brand investments in Black audiences tend to be ‘one and done’?

AH: When it comes to traveling, I think everyone’s realized that most travelers are going for a cultural experience as opposed to just have fun in the sun. You want to explore, you want to learn something. I think in general trips are geared toward that. But I haven’t personally been on too many trips where it was mostly non-white people on the trip –  it’s been maybe one. I’m usually like a token. Which then means the trip is not necessarily geared toward what my audience would be interested in. One trip that sticks out is when I went to Nashville, which was my very first press trip and there were dozens of reporters on it. I was the only Black person and this was back in 2012. A lot has definitely changed since then, in a good way. But I was trying to express to them that going to the Grand Ole Opry was great but my readers who were into country music already know about these things. They’re not looking to Uptown Magazine to educate them about that. They want to know where Black locals hang out. Finally, we did visit Fisk University’s art gallery. But a lot of times, like I said, I feel kind of like a token, but you get used to that and you’re happy to be part of the experience and everything. But sometimes, you want to remind people that we all don’t think and look for the same thing.

It has gotten a lot better. I would have to say that even before the movement kicked off, things were starting culturally mix.

CT: Why do you think there is a lack of cultural and racial diversity in the industry?

AH: I think the mentality has always been ‘well we have we have one,’ meaning me as the Black person on the trip. The brands and publicists think that one writer – that one article is going to reach the millions of Black people. Crazy. But it is everywhere. I was on a press trip to Antigua and Barbuda, which is where my family is from. There were three Black people on the trip and one Eastern European woman. She got the better accommodations in this Black country, on this Black island. It turns out that she was really a “press trip crasher” and not a real journalist. We get double- and triple-checked to make sure that we can offer some value to the brand. But then you have people who aren’t even up to the caliber of getting these luxury trips or these luxury experiences, but nobody is checking on her.

CT: What would you say, from your personal perspective, has been the biggest challenge when it comes to being a part of the journalism industry as a Black woman?

AH: Well, I kind of knew what the world was going be like because, even though I did my grad school at CUNY, the City University of New York, out of a class of 100 people only about 13 of us were non-white. The professors weren’t that diverse either. So, you kind of had this idea already about the industry and of course they were always pushing mainstream media like The New York Times. It was a situation where we realized we’re all not going to go get hired by The New York Times, so you have to put value in other things. After that, I interned at Entertainment Weekly (EW), and that was just…wow. I think I remember maybe two other Black faces on the entire staff other than mine. But thankfully there were instances where, because of how I carried myself, people didn’t all automatically assume ‘Oh, she’s just an intern.’ I remember an instance when the Sex and the City movie was coming out EW was doing a whole package. Myself and another intern had to pick up and return props from the TV show. The other intern was younger than me and a white woman. We were pretty cool, but she always kind of had these little jabs at me. I don’t think those were microaggressions, I just don’t know what her deal was. But I dressed pretty smartly at that time and she kind of dressed a bit bummy and when we had to go drop off the props to the photographer, they all automatically assumed EW had sent a writer or an editor –  me. They just treated me so much better, for lack of a better phrase, because of how I dressed, how I presented myself, so I don’t think there’s racism throughout – not in every person anyways.

But it’s still kind of disheartening at times when you’ve been invited to a private event and it’s either somebody that you’ve had an email relationship with, but you’ve never met each other, or the people who are doing the guest list or something, and you walk in, the first thing they say is, ‘Oh, it’s a private event.’ And I think, ‘Yeah, I know I’m on the guest list.’ Why would you think I’m not invited into this space? It is annoying. You could be dressed perfectly, completely fit the professional world and that’s still the reaction.

CT: What concerns do you have in terms of working with brands?

AH: Sometimes brands don’t want to work with a Black publication because it isn’t big enough. Which then creates these darlings of the industry that are always invited to everything and don’t necessarily allow for others to be engaged. An audience might not be as big, but it shows the laziness of the industry. It’s easy to pinpoint these people huge publications but what about deeper reach?

CT: Do you think some of it involves the framing of the outlets to the brands, for example, instead of labeling an outlet as a Black or Latinx publication, it should be labeled general women’s interest or whatever the corresponding vertical is?

AH: I think that’s a good idea. Not only does it exclude Black writers from telling a specific story that maybe might not have a ‘Black theme,’ it also assumes that white writers don’t want to tell the story. Listen, I understand everybody can’t come to the party, but leave it up to the journalists to decide for themselves whether this is a story that interests them or that their readers will be receptive to. But let’s not start telling Black stories to Black journalists because Black History Month is coming around. You have to mix it up and tailor every pitch as you would with any journalist.

CT: What haven’t we covered that you have been thinking about lately?

AH: It’s been interesting to me to see all of the editors who have had to resign because they weren’t creating environments of inclusion and instead made toxic environments for non-white people. I wonder what happens for them next. Are they going to go somewhere and put in the work to educate themselves as to what inherent bias they might have? Are they going to be bitter that they were fired or embarrassed or knocked down off their kind-of high horse? I have a joking theory that they’re going to band together and form a magazine and it’ll be nothing but Black people and non-white people working for them so that no one will ever say they created an exclusionary environment.

People who do these negative things need to realize that it’s easier for their company to put out a statement that they don’t support any kind of racial bias or discrimination and fire them before they’ll defend their actions even if it is a company where this attitude is fostered. These are brands that tell employees to check the Black guest or follow around the Black shopper or whatever it is. It’s still a hell of a lot easier for them to get fired if they’re caught. So why put yourself in that position?

Overall, the changes are interesting … how quickly laws have been passed and murals have been put up in my neighborhood because we’re all like in a pandemic and have nothing else to do. I guess it’s more of a question of how long-lasting are these effects and the answer is, we won’t know until we have to live it.

CT: Thank you for your candor, Annika!