Stories Worth Sharing

Claire Merchlinsky

Driving across the Bay Bridge from the San Francisco airport to my childhood home, in East Oakland, I can see cranes moving cargo containers. I get on the 580 freeway, which divides the city. To the west are the Oakland Hills, where the wealthy live; to the east are the flats, home to the working classes. I’m from the flats, where I grew up among other low-to-middle-income African-American families. Passing through the divide, I scope out new buildings that have sprung up since my last visit, mostly luxury apartments. In the distance, among the residential high-rises and office skyscrapers downtown, a familiar landmark stands out: the Tribune Tower.

Until it shuttered, in 2016, the Oakland Tribune was my hometown paper. I remember hearing the delivery van roll by; someone would toss our copy, wrapped in a plastic bag, up the driveway in the wee hours of the morning. One story from my childhood stands out. It was about the Oakland Riders, four police officers who terrorized Oakland residents for years, resulting, in 2003, in a case settlement of $10.9 million. I was seven years old when that news broke, and already fully aware of how police officers would come into neighborhoods like mine, taking what they wanted, harming whom they wanted. As of 2016, according to an article in the East Bay Times, one of those cops was still a police officer, in Southern California, while two of the others worked for security companies.

I never read the paper much, unless I was browsing the classifieds section, seeking puppies for sale. But my father could often be found on the living room couch with the Tribune spread across his lap. If there was something he thought was interesting, like the Riders story, he’d give the family a synopsis. My engagement with the news ended there. I was a math and science kid with no interest in current events.

During my senior year of high school, however, I was thrust into the media spotlight for “making it out” of Oakland—a community associated with violence and tragedy—and committing to attend Yale. I was paraded around national news broadcasts that cheered my success. At the time, my brother was incarcerated; in the stories, my picture was often held up in comparison to his. I felt torn. I was happy to be representing my city in a positive light, but I couldn’t help but question what society expected of people like me if graduating from a public high school and attending an elite college was considered newsworthy.

While at Yale, I studied African-American history. I majored in sociology. I wanted to learn about how and why society functions as it does, to understand the ways race and class determined my position and my brother’s. Seeking answers to those questions, I wound up right back home, interning at the law offices of John Burris, the attorney who represented the plaintiffs in the Oakland Riders case from my childhood. It was in his office that I found my way to journalism.

My job was to intake potential cases by listening to story after story of police misconduct from residents on the receiving end. We may have gotten ten or twenty calls a day. We repeatedly heard the same names of cops brutalizing members of our community without fear of being held accountable. Only a fraction of the complaints ever made it to a courtroom. Without significant evidence, such as video footage, it would be difficult to win in court; most cases were dropped early. But it was hard for me to let go of them, of the stories of my neighbors, so worthy of being told. These people were, I came to realize, the human beings on whom the news weighs. All the articles about housing policy and immigration policy and policing policy reflected their experience. Political coverage was personal to them.

So I read, I watched, I listened. I became a news junkie, following political stories large and small. I became absorbed in the news that tracked the rise of Donald Trump, and had my mind blown by what he got away with. It all felt like need-to-know information. Ultimately, I decided to pursue a career in reporting, which meant that, a lot of the time, my attention drifted from what I’d come for—the truth about my community, and who holds power over it—to the horse race election stuff. And the deeper I went, the more I noticed something strange. Gradually, I felt space growing between me and my peers, most of whom barely even read the stories that now engulfed my life.

Had I lost sight of why I became a journalist in the first place?

 

While back home recently, I had a chance to ask my friends about how they consume news, on the election and otherwise. Pretty much all of them had the same three answers: Apple News push alerts, Twitter trending stories, and Instagram. “I literally just get the news updates on my phone,” my friend Juwan Anderson told me. “It just pops up every day, so I don’t have a choice but to know about it. I don’t necessarily read them, but I can see the summary and understand it.”

Unlike me, most people have other things to do besides reading multiple election predictions and analyses per day, on top of the latest updates about a global pandemic. And, as if staying up to date on covid-19 weren’t enough, the recent wave of protests highlighting police brutality and racism in our society has snatched up the media spotlight, adding yet another urgent story to the daily news cycle—drawing attention even further away from the presidential race. For someone who is from a liberal city, as Oakland is, I can understand why election news may seem particularly unimportant to my peers, especially now: We all know the folks in our area are voting for the Democrat, whoever that is, every time. Once the primaries are over, there doesn’t seem to be much exciting campaign news that matters. We have other concerns to focus on.

But there’s another factor, too. When I asked my friend Jordan Reed about political news, he said, “There aren’t too many sources that I trust because of how misguiding politics can be.” He went on: “Once I learned about how people can use the news to game the economy and business world, I really stopped trusting it. I’d prefer to just learn from Twitter—watching a raw, uncut version of people’s thoughts unfold.”

Social media accounts like Baller Alert and the Shade Room keep my friends up to date on news about our favorite entertainers and athletes; politics will stream in when something major happens. It all feels more personal, and therefore more honest, than a newspaper, to them. The points of emphasis align with their interests. Anderson will go to the news section of Twitter and scroll through the headlines and summaries. “If it’s trending, I’ll know about it,” he said.

Stanley Wright-Arnold deleted his Twitter account; he prefers Instagram. “I mostly get news on the election and politics from credible Instagram pages like CNN or Bay Area news outlets, and also prominent politically active personal pages,” he told me. But exposure to national politics can often seem to be a bad thing. “Sometimes, we may see more blunt racism or different groups being stereotyped because of Trump’s behavior, or racist people just stirring up conflict across our communities,” he said. What does reading election predictions or Trump takedowns do for young people in Oakland? “Absolutely nothing,” Wright-Arnold replied. “We already know Trump’s viewpoints and how he uses his power. We’re voting against him—what more can we do?”

He had a point. I wondered, as I talked to my friends, if I had become so wrapped up in the conventions and priorities of the election news cycle that I’d distanced myself from my home, my community. That I’d lost sight of why I became a journalist in the first place.

I studied sociology because I wanted to make connections, to understand how people like me fit into the American political system and how our fates are formed by it. I became a reporter because I wanted to share what I learned. But after not very long into my career, I realize, I’ve acquired some habits that I don’t like, some views that don’t square with my own ideals. Political coverage can’t be so self-absorbed that it forgets whom it’s really for.

At times I’ve been frustrated by my friends’ avoidance of the news. But I have to check myself; I can’t blame them for not following along the same way I do. The whole point of reporting is to serve them, and to make it obvious why our stories are relevant. Election coverage ought to show, for instance, how embracing the Black Lives Matter movement involves more than not voting for Trump. If we struggle to do that—if the latest election update feels too abstract to matter to my friends—maybe it’s not worth their time anyway.

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Akintunde Ahmad is a recent CJR fellow and now an Ida B. Wells ­Fellow with Type Investigations. He is based in Oakland.