Rochelle Ritchie: Five Things You Need To Thrive As A Journalist

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Team Player — No job is possible without being a team player. As a television reporter, your photographer is your right hand, and you guys are always in it together. The relationship between reporters and photographers is at times like family. They know what your struggles are and frequently help you get through the day by just being an ear and making your job easier for you.

As a part of our series about “Five Things You Need To Succeed As A Journalist”, we had the pleasure of interviewing Rochelle Ritchie.

Rochelle Ritchie is a former television reporter and congressional press secretary now featured on Fox News Channel, Fox Business Network, MSNBC, CNN, The Breakfast Club, Revolt TV, News Nation Now, and others as a political analyst.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

As a young girl, I was always reading and writing short stories or poems. At night, after my mother put me to bed, I would often use a flashlight under my blanket to continue reading my favorite books. I took these reading and writing skills to actively use in my life as a college student at Western Kentucky University. Initially, I thought print journalism was what I wanted to do, but I realized late in my college career that I belonged on camera. I have always been comfortable speaking in front of large crowds and never had even an ounce of stage fright, so I switched to a Broadcast Journalism major my junior year, and the rest is history.

My television reporting career included positions in Baltimore (WJZ-TV), West Palm Beach, Fla. (WPTV), Spokane, Wash., (KREM-TV), and Lawton, Okla. (KSWO-TV) before I had a change of heart and left the business in 2015.

Following my tenure as a television reporter, I became the Director of Communications for the Office of the State’s Attorney for Baltimore City, led by State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby, Esq. During the Freddie Gray police brutality case, I was the direct media liaison and spokesperson throughout the trial. After two years at the prosecutor’s office, I became a congressional press secretary for House Democrats.

Can you share the most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?

My most interesting story was also my most personal. When I started in television news, I was told that I needed to get extensions to have that “reporter” look, so I did. For six years, I was wearing extensions and wigs to fit this Eurocentric standard of beauty, but in 2010 I said no more and decided to stop wearing wigs and extensions altogether. I even cut off my relaxed hair and went ‘natural.’ I did my big chop on television and had no idea its impact on Black women in the media. The story led to multiple features in Essence magazine, USA Today, The Tom Joyner Morning Show, and others. Many have since repurposed this story, but it’s not as new as many might think.

Can you share the funniest mistake that you made when you first started? Can you share the lesson you learned from it?

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

Right now, I am currently building out my media consulting business under the name Harvard & Union. I decided to pay homage to my father, who passed away due to COVID, and my mother, whom I am blessed to say is still alive. I did so by naming my business after the streets they grew up on as teenage lovebirds in Chicago.

Additionally, I am pushing myself out to multiple organizations as a guest speaker, host, moderator, and commentator. Though most important to me is my work on my book about my life struggles, successes, and how I addressed some inner issues — from victim to victor.

Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?

In 2008, before the presidential election, I interviewed former First Lady Michelle Obama. She and the campaign had come to Spokane, WA, and I was the lucky reporter assigned to interview exclusively in a one-on-one. I remember her height, confidence, and motherly tone as she spoke to me, and I remember crying. After the interview, I told her, regardless of what happens, you and your husband have made every Black boy believe that they can be president one day and every Black girl that she is worthy of being the First Lady.

What advice would you give to someone considering a career in journalism?

Journalism, regardless of sector, is a career that requires integrity, selflessness, sacrifice, and accountability.

What advice would you give to your colleagues in the industry, to thrive and not “burnout”?

This is a tough question because you don’t say “no” to anything in the news, which ultimately leads to burnout. You show up when you’re sick, you stay on the breaking news story even when you have dinner plans, or you are expected at your kid’s play, and you sacrifice holidays and miss special moments all for the job.

However, there was a point in my career when I had to speak up and say what I would not cover certain content, particularly funerals for children.

While reporting in Baltimore, I was a crime reporter and covered the worst of the worst crime stories. At one point, in the height of a murderous summer, I was scrolling through photos on my phone and noticed I had dozens of pictures of murder victims whose stories I had told. I remember crying in the media section of the funeral for several children who had died in a house fire. As I listened to the whaling cries of the family members and looked at all five of their tiny coffins, I began crying myself and had to walk out. But those tears would go on for another two years as more and more young people died. I finally went to my news director and said that if a story requires me to go inside a funeral, I am not doing it. Funerals of everyday citizens do not require a media presence. Let people grieve in peace.

So, I guess to avoid burnout is to prioritize your mental health. Pay attention to what you consume every day by some of the stories you cover, and when you find yourself overwhelmed by the constant tragedies, let your management team know. I have no problem letting anyone know I don’t have the emotional bandwidth for certain stories. Even in my political commentary, I take periodic breaks to avoid a political overdose that hurts anyone’s ability to be objective.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

One of my greatest skills is speaking in front of a crowd and capturing their attention. Whether I am hosting an event, or moderating a discussion, my skills as a journalist who has learned how to charm an audience, I get people to listen. This summer (2021), I pushed myself to become more open about my life at an event tailored for Black women and mental health. I did a segment called, “The Strong Black Woman role is overrated, I am not your superwoman.” The topic, and the words I spoke, permitted Black women to break, use the power of saying no, and recognize that too often the demand for our strength comes with an unfair duty of carrying the burdens of others while drowning in our own issues. Some were moved to tears, and there was a breakthrough for many women who felt seen. An elderly woman walked up to me and said, “Miss Rochelle, if I had your wisdom and courage at a younger age, I would have lived a much happier life.” My humility, honesty, and ability to connect emotionally to these women gave them new insight on how and who they were truly living for, hope, and permission to take a break and focus on themselves for a little while.

I know this is not an easy job. What drives you?

I always have a hard time answering this question because most can point to their spouse or children as the reason for their drive, especially in a society that bases a woman’s value on her marital status and ability to birth children. But for me, I am driven by the truth. When I go on television to provide political commentary or write op-eds I am sincere in my effort to tell people the unknown truth that others are too lazy or bias to research or say.

Do you have a favorite book that made a deep impact on your life? Can you share a story?

One of my favorite books that I discovered later in life was “The Warmth of Other Suns” by Isabel Wilkerson. As a Black American woman, I thought I had extensive knowledge of Black history, and this book made me realize I still had so much more to learn and discover. For instance, the gruesomeness of chattel slavery was never put to me as dark and colorful as what was described in Wilkerson’s book, nor had I ever heard the story of Black American heroes like Benjamin “Pap” Singleton. This former slave made coffins for lynching victims and was disgusted by the consistency of his work. He led a pilgrimage of six-thousand former slaves from the barbaric imprisonment of Mississippi to freedom in Kansas. Singleton’s story and the story of others showed me that before there was Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King Jr, there were others, centuries prior, that were just as fed up. Until this day, the frustration and exhaustion of being Black in America continue. Additionally, The Warmth of Other Suns, highlights the truth that regardless of where we believe we can access and obtain freedom and opportunity, we are still Black. No matter how progressive we think what locality is to another, bias and racism exist everywhere. I recall reading about how Black Americans escaped the Jim Crow South and rode for hours, days even, in their Sunday’s best to freedom up north, only to arrive on the bustling streets of Harlem, dirty, hungry with soiled clothing, because no restrooms for Black passengers were provided. To this day, we as Black people are arriving in and with our best and still being denied dignified treatment and earned opportunities.

Ok wonderful. Thank you for all of that. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Sacrifice — My first television job interview was in Mason City, IA. I will never forget the trip from the airport in Minneapolis to what I swear looked like the town where Napoleon Dynamite and his pet llama lived. As I was riding with one of the photographers tasked with picking me up and bringing me back to the station, he said to me, “We don’t have a lot of colored people here.” I was stunned at the naturalness of his depiction of me as colored, and while I usually would have given him a piece of my mind, I thought to not ruin my opportunity at this job because of one person’s sheltered ignorance. But, when I arrived in Mason City, IA, I could feel that there weren’t many Black people in this town. I mean, hell, even the Black people looked at me like I was an alien. The interview went well, but when I got to the hotel, I called my mom crying on the cheap motel phone about how I couldn’t live in a place like this. I explained how everyone stared at me and how I was afraid the station might be haunted because a reporter that worked there was murdered years ago. What I realized that night is that being a reporter would take the sacrifice of all that I considered normal. I also knew that Mason City was too abnormal for me to consider as my first job, and I ended up getting a job in Lawton, Oklahoma. It’s not just the sacrifice of moving to a town you never heard of. It was the sacrifice of time with friends and family. See what no one tells you is that, unlike your friends who get to celebrate holidays with family, you’re going to be stuck at one of three places; the gas station talking about high gas prices, a triple AAA office talking about how many are hitting the road, or if you’re lucky the airport where people are angry about canceled flights. When it snows, and no matter how much snow falls, somehow you manage to get to work on time and stand in the snow for hours telling everyone the obvious — it’s snowing, schools are closed, salt trucks are — you guessed it — laying down salt, and people’s cars are stuck in ditches. But if you’re lucky, like I was many times covering winter weather in Washington state and Baltimore, Maryland, you can find a pizza spot that is open and kind enough to deliver a pizza to your live truck on the side of the road. God knows that after 16 hours in freezing temperatures, you’re going to get back to your station to find the general manager ordered an entire feast for the producers, editors, and anchors, who do not work outside. The only thing left for you and your photographer is celery sticks and ranch that came with the buffalo wings that some interns demolished. In other words, your sacrifice is a thankless job. This isn’t just one job where you will be expected to sacrifice. It’s all of them, and while it may sound harsh, it’s also the truth. But stick around for a good ten years, and you may finally make it to grandmas for Christmas Day.
  2. Instinct — No reporter can be a great reporter without great instinct. It was a Sunday night in 2015. Baltimore is on high alert after a police officer was critically injured after being shot. I am sitting at my desk when my phone rings. On the other end is the father of the shooting suspect, and he wants to talk. I jump up, run to an editor, and say we need to dial this call in and a record. The father agreed to be recorded, and he had only called us. After hanging up with the distraught father, I go back to my desk, happy that this man just gave me what all reporters should desire, exclusive interviews! But my phone rings again, and this time it’s the friend of the shooting suspect who says he wants to turn himself in, but he wants to talk first. Pause. At this point, I am thinking, do I call the police? Do I get permission first from my news director to even take a call that could be used in a court case? Or do I do what a reporter with good instinct does and get the story? I agree to meet with this shooting suspect on a street in Baltimore saturated with strip clubs and conveniently right next to the Baltimore Police Department. As my photographer and I were driving, I saw Channel 2 in front of the police station where I was supposed to meet the suspect. I knew if he showed up, they would jump in on my exclusive story, and no way was I going to let that happen. I immediately call the friend, tell him to meet me on the backside of the police department instead. I am standing outside, nervous, wondering if I will become a hostage or something crazy and if this guy is really going to show up. He shows up. We do the interview. No one is harmed. We followed him as we walked towards the back of the police station to turn himself in for shooting a cop, my photographer still recording. We never stopped recording. Finally, as he starts to enter the do not enter zone, three rookie cops pull up yelling, “Hey, what’s going on?” I told them this was Gregg Thomas. They look dumbfounded. They had no idea who he was, but when they radioed for assistance and said the suspect’s name, it seemed like every officer in Baltimore was there within 15 seconds. We record everything, and when he is finally out of our view and inside the building, my photographer Joel and I high-five each other. Boom! Instincts turn to exclusives. Could I have called the police? Sure. Could I have gotten permission to sacrifice my life for a great story? Of course, but I didn’t because reporters tell the stories. They don’t get told what to tell.
  3. Curious — If you’re not curious about why things are the way they are or why people do what they do, journalism isn’t for you. I know we have gotten into this new age of journalism where reporters and their Tik-Tok dances are now what makes them popular and not their actual journalism skills which earned them the job in the first place. However, I am hoping to encourage young reporters to find a balance of doing both. Curiosity leads to great soundbites that allow you to hold people accountable. I was covering a story about a guy who was found dead in his cell after being arrested. As the lieutenant rattled on about ensuring safety and their commitment to following search procedures, I blurted out as he is in mid-sentence, “Sir, the guy is dead in a cell locked away from any weapons, so what procedure was followed?” He paused, and with nowhere to turn to deflect from my curiosity, said, “I do not know.” When you’re a reporter, you still need to have some sense of basic common sense and interest. Too often, reporters get caught up in the script that they forget to ask hard questions to even the most prominent figures. Now, as someone that has transitioned to political commentary and op-ed writing, my curiosity has only intensified. For example, I no longer settle for the status quo excuses for why crime is up in Black communities, poverty, lack of education, fatherless homes, etc. Yeah, those are true, but what else, what hasn’t been said or discussed, also serves as a culprit. How about environmental injustice? I encourage all journalists to go deeper.
  4. Team Player — No job is possible without being a team player. As a television reporter, your photographer is your right hand, and you guys are always in it together. The relationship between reporters and photographers is at times like family. They know what your struggles are and frequently help you get through the day by just being an ear and making your job easier for you. When my engagement ended, I was at work. I was preparing to do a live shot when I saw that my fiancé had changed their relationship status to single. I was devastated and cried for 30 minutes in the live truck while ignoring calls from friends and family trying to figure out what happened. My makeup was running, my fake lashes were sliding off, and I was to be live at the top of the show with breaking news. How could I possibly do this now! But my photographer looked me in the eye and said, “Rochelle, you got this, just get through 2 minutes of your life, and then you can fall apart all you want.” I thought, just two minutes, and it’s over just two minutes. I repowered my face, reattached my lashes, and pulled it together for just two minutes. When I was done, the mic went limp in my hand, and my photographer just gave me a hug and let me cry. See, a team player in reporting is not always about the job. It’s about being there for real-life issues that never make it to air.
  5. Emotional Intelligence — Know when to back off an interview. Regardless of how great the story may be or how close you are to getting to that crying mother on camera, learn when to cut your losses and show respect. Believe it or not, I remember a few times where reporters from competing stations and I had agreed not to antagonize a grieving family and decided to all take a loss for the greater good of human decency. It’s not something we admit to our news directors, but it does happen. You also must know the community in which you are reporting and how to connect with people. You cannot just show up with a camera asking for an interview. Sometimes you need to assess the neighborhood, tell your photographer to sit back and not pull out the camera until you have established a rapport with people living in those communities. As a crime reporter in Baltimore, I knew what neighborhoods would not appreciate a camera filming randomly. I would get out of the live truck to approach certain individuals that I knew were “leaders” in that area and let them know our story and that we would be shooting for just about ten minutes. This display of respect for where I was and who I was around is part of emotional intelligence. It is also to ensure the safety of yourself and your photographer.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would support a movement that pushes the federal government to forgive students loans for those that graduated college.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I would love to have breakfast with lawyer and author Judy Smith, an American crisis manager and television producer. Ms. Smith’s work in crisis management was the inspiration for the ABC television series Scandal. She was also a special assistant a deputy press secretary for President George H.W. Bush. I hope to follow in her footsteps professionally and would love to have her as a mentor, which I believe you are never too old to have.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

@rochelleritchie on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Clubhouse

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

Rochelle Ritchie: Five Things You Need To Thrive As A Journalist was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.