By George Kevin Jordan, AFRO Staff Writer
After 60 years of asking the tough questions, Dorothy Butler Gilliam, the first Black woman reporter at The Washington Post, sat down at the Barnes & Noble on Howard University’s campus to answer questions about her memoir “Trailblazer: A Pioneering Journalist’s Fight to Make the Media Look More Like America.”
“Trailblazer” was published by Center Street, a division of Hachette Book Group, Inc., (January 2019). The Q&A and book signing was presented by HU Media, Journalism & Film Department and the Cathy Hughes School of Communications. Shirley Carswell, a lecturer at the University, and a former editor and newsroom executive at The Washington Post, moderated the discussion.
Growing up in the segregated South, Gilliam spoke of the powerful message of love, inspiration and validation she received from the Black community.
“You are more than what the larger society says you are,” Gilliam said, “and that I should not yield to the negativity.” These messages were pivotal in the racially charged South, and later highly segregated and polarized D.C.
Gilliam gave her thoughts on the tricky subject of objectivity and how Black reporter’s ability to be objective when covering events that impact their community, were sometimes called into question.
“First of all there was not a level playing field because White reporters covered White events all the time with “objectivity,” Gilliam said. “I don’t like that word anymore. I think more about being accurate and being fair.”
Gilliam was very candid about the differences between reporting a story and writing memoirs.
“One of the main things was hearing the editor, who didn’t come on until much later, say ‘how did you feel about this? How did you feel about that?’ That was so hard.”
But the book is not all just feelings, Gilliam said adding, “There book has a lot of reporting in it because I wanted to include so much.” She said many people worked very hard to help her complete the book.
Gilliam’s work spans multiple decades and platforms. Yes, she made history in 1961 as the first Black woman reporter for the Post, and later served as columnist and editor before retiring in 2003, but she didn’t just make enrodes in the mainstream press. She began her career writing for the Black press in Louisville, Memphis and Chicago, covering the Civil Rights Movement.
She was also pivotal in guiding young journalists. She is the co-founder, former chair and a board member of the Robert C. Maynard Institute for Journalism Education (MIJE). She was a former president of the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ). While at the Post, she founded the Young Journalists Development Program. The mother of three children and three grandchildren also eked out time to write “Paul Robeson: All American” (1976) as well as remain active in her church.
She spoke of the importance of a diverse newsroom. “One of the reasons diversity in the media is so important is that you need editors with diverse ideas to really understand and hear what your saying about a story,” she said.
“So often many African American journalists in mainstream media feel very frustrated because they pitch a story idea and they’re told ‘oh that’s not important’ or ‘nobody cares about that.’”
However, the author was adamant that journalists need to fight for their ideas.
“One of the things I always advocate to young journalists is if you pitch a story idea and the editor says ‘I don’t think this is a good story.’ Do it anyway. Do it on your own time. Then you bring it back. You push it. And sometimes once it’s seen, that opens the door for the story to be covered.”
For more information about Gilliam or her book, visit https://www.centerstreet.com/titles/dorothy-butler-gilliam/trailblazer/9781546083443/