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CNN journalist visits UI campus to discuss diversity

BY ABIGAIL MEIER | JANUARY 24, 2014 5:00 AM

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Growing up in the only black family in an all-white community, Soledad O’Brien said she spent most her years along the north shore of Long Island as an outsider. However, she never let others stifle her individuality.

“There is a huge value in being the outsider and an insider,” O’Brien said. “You can go very seamlessly into different worlds and ask tough questions about communities.” 

After covering numerous tragedies from Haiti to Hurricane Katrina, O’Brien — a critically acclaimed journalist and former CNN reporter — was welcomed as part of the University of Iowa Health Care’s weeklong celebration of diversity at Iowa to a packed auditorium on Thursday afternoon. 

As she delivered the 2014 Martin Luther King Jr. Distinguished Lecture “Diversity: On TV, Behind the Scenes, and in Our Lives,” O’Brien talked about how many times people may come into a story with biases. O’Brien said she tries to do is go into a story without expectations.

“You have to let people tell their story and not define for them what their story is and what you bring to the table,” O’Brien said.  “A really good reporter does a lot more listening than reporting.” 

O’Brien recently launched Starfish Media Group, a multiplatform media production company that touches on issues such as race, class, wealth, poverty, and opportunity.

The UI Health Care brings in speakers each year to address professional leaders’ life experiences. UI Vice President for Medical Affairs Jean Robillard said it is part of the UI’s responsibility to bring the community together to discuss the issue of diversity.

“We live in a diverse world, and the more we know about each other and respect each other, the better we can be productive in life,” he said.  “And as a society, the better we will be able to understand the disparity that exist.” 

Rodney Maiden, a doctoral student in the UI College of Education, said he has long been inspired by the work of O’Brien.  The Louisiana native said he experienced the coverage of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and said many of the news organizations characterized people as “barbaric.” 

“The way some news stations were depicting people was not what I was seeing every day,” he said.  “She presented interviews showing people what really was happening by taking a leap of faith and traveling down a road that is less talked about and reporting truly on the events happening.”  

Maiden said O’Brien’s coverage is one that many in diverse areas may be afraid to talk about; doing that inspires others, such as him to talk about major issues such as diversity. 

UI journalism Associate Professor Frank Durham said it is important to see people in the mass media that others can relate to. He said, one important function of the media is to show us the world.

“It is important to see someone like yourself on TV, on the web, or on billboards,” he said.  “It shows people they belong to a community and makes us more productive as a society.” 

O’Brien said during her speech two leaders, such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela, were two regular men who decided “in a moment to lead.” She said individuals need to think about what people can do for others to build a better sense of humanity in the world. 

“I support those uncomfortable conversations, and much of my reporting is about leadership,” O’Brien said.  “Their lives are not about empowering themselves but about empowering someone else … One thing that you can give to people who have lost absolutely everything is their humanity.”


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