Soledad O’Brien: Control your narrative

Soledad O'Brien speaks on her journalistic experience and not letting society write your narrative

Published by and , Date: February 20, 2020
Soledad O'Brien engages the crowd with her stories about her journalistic experiences.

“If you can cook you can get a man, and the Church is where you’ll meet the man,” Soledad O’Brien’s mom said to her when she was young.   

Years later, O’Brien was taking organic chemistry when her sister, now a surgeon, questioned O’Brien on why she was memorizing concepts rather than understanding them. It was then that O’Brien realized medical school wasn’t for her.

“It never really occurred to me that really understanding a topic meant being very passionate about it and understanding it 360,” O’Brien told students in a meeting room in the Smith Student Center Tuesday evening before her speaking event. 

From the wise words of her mother to the observations from her sister, O’Brien said she had to see what she wanted to do with her life.

Attending the Radcliffe College of Harvard University, O’Brien said she felt no pressure to continue schooling or go to Harvard to follow in her sibling’s footsteps. 

O’Brien left college, and her parents, both educators, made it clear that their daughter couldn’t live on their couch and do nothing. Searching for a career, she opted to work at a television station in the interim.  

O’Brien ended up being good at it, she said, but insofar as fetching coffee, getting sandwiches and running scripts. She removed staples from the walls but was intrigued by the idea of being creative in a specific context and constantly learning. 

“I always felt like I was making forward progress […] If you’re willing to be humble and try to figure out how to get better, people will help you,” O’Brien said. “Learning how to take feedback is a really important skill and it’s a really terrible, not fun thing to do.” 

O’Brien always liked moving on to other jobs that would build her skillset. Although it was hard at the beginning, O’Brien mentioned that she had to learn how to navigate life.

Early on, as a production assistant for WBZ TV in Boston, O’Brien was assigned to a story in which a woman, who was eight months pregnant, was killed in a car accident. She was asked to go to her husband’s door and ask for an interview. Rather than slam the door in her face, he politely declined.  

“I remember feeling so gross and disgusting doing that,” O’Brien said. “After that, I thought, ‘I will never, ever agree to go do a thing that I don’t feel good about asking.’” 

During O.J. Simpson’s murder trial, O’Brien would persist daily in interviewing the football star’s mother who lived in San Francisco at the time. 

Once more as a young reporter working on Christmas day, O’Brien traveled to the house where a little boy had received a BB gun for Christmas and shot his sister. She joined other reporters on the front lawn of the house, until the mother wearily came outside and asked them to go away.  

“I look back now and I’m so ashamed,” O’Brien said. “What were we doing? We weren’t serving the community.” 

O’Brien looks at journalism as service to the community. An example being her coverage of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, saying that it shaped her career.  

“How do you cover these stories when everyone in the story is affected? O’Brien said. 

This is when O’Brien learned more about reporting as a service that needed to be provided to the people. These thoughts were amplified when O’Brien and her team walked through the airport after leaving New Orleans coverage and received a standing ovation.  

“Anyone who thinks this is a story about a storm is so, so wrong,” O’Brien said. “Katrina was about race and power.” 

O’Brien said her flexibility, such as that in New Orleans and moving to the next plan when the first fell apart, has been an aptitude that has helped her maneuver into jobs. She also mentioned that she finds mentors wherever possible. 

“I could go into a space and say, ‘Wow, I love how this woman dresses,’” O’Brien explained. “Like, that is my role model for how I need to be in a meeting. And she doesn’t even know I exist and that’s okay, because I’m going to steal that from her and she’s my mentor and she’s not even aware.” 

O’Brien has her own journalists that she is inspired by, whether it be their writing or other qualities. She looks up to Adam Serwer from the Atlantic and Nicole Jones  

Professionally, O’Brien prefers, especially at her age, to be at unease, taking jobs that will help expand her repertoire. 

“I want to learn something,” she said. “I want to be around people who are experts in it so I can learn from them. I’ve never sort of been like, ‘Ooh I’m comfortable in this seat and this is where I’m going to stay forever.’” 

However, O’Brien said that learning something new every day can sometimes be wearying. She offered an example in her discovery of quarterly taxes as the owner of a company she started seven years ago. One year, an assistant of hers paid $4.84 in taxes when $484,000 was owed, a payment the IRS didn’t particularly appreciate. 

Ambition is important to O’Brien not only in the profession, but also in her marriage. At home, with four children, her husband has been supportive of her profession. 

“The most challenging part of being a journalist is the travel, because I don’t think you can do a good job telling stories about other people if you’re not going, seeing, doing or being with them,” O’Brien said. “I like to go to communities and have sit-down conversations with communities.” 

After giving birth to twin boys, O’Brien was almost passed over to go to Thailand to cover the tsunami. Joking that she had four children under the age of four and that Thailand sounded amazing at the moment”, O’Brien went.

In Thailand, O’Brien dealt with an unpleasant producer who threatened her job. She would call and vent to her husband, who reminded her of her abilities

“There’s really nothing you can do except show people what you can do,” he told her. “Feel free to cry to me on the phone. But then you’re going to have to get off the phone, suck it up, and just come up with a strategy for showing everybody that you actually didn’t just do a pretty good job, but that you killed it.” 

O’Brien did just that, following her husband’s advice and advice from a former boss of hers that told her, “whatever you do, do not quit.”  

Telling the narrative was something O’Brien excelled in. “Beyond Bravery the Women of Ground Zero” focused on the women’s narrative, after receiving surprising pushback at the beginning.  

O’Brien said that the only way to get people to move forward was to question why there are so uncomfortable talking about the story of women. O’Brien shared a clip from the documentary. 

“If someone else tells your story, don’t be shocked when you don’t recognize your own story in the narrative,” O’Brien said.  

Whether the story be local or national news, O’Brien believes local journalism is important and is terrified at the budget cuts in the local news industry. O’Brien stressed the importance of local news, reminding that it not only supplements what national coverage misses, but also begins to break a story before national news swoops in.

“Who’s going to hold people accountable to what they do and what they say and what their jobs are?” O’Brien asked. “Who’s really going to really represent the people in a community if we don’t have the media with the access to talk to elected officials who are supposed to be serving?” 

O’Brien believes that the strategy of duel talking or having 11 people on a panel is a mistake in discussing politics. Not wanting to talk to a congressman about topics they aren’t experts in, O’Brien said that people need explaining, not yelling at one another.  

I love when my elected officials yell at each other, it’s so illuminating for me.’ No one ever says that,” O’Brien laughed.

Advising students, O’ Brien said, “In the macro, look at your career and ask what you want to get to.” 

Stating that it’s not brain surgery and it’s a good time to be a journalist, O’Brien offered advice to those who wish to pursue the profession.  

Encouraging reporters to find their voice, be multi-platform, start a podcast and work on skills, O’Brien said that reporters and students interested in the line of work must be competitive and willing to chase down people to ask for help.

O’Brien also touched on an issue in the media, which has come under scrutiny in today’s political environment, saying sometimes outlets quote untruths. In newsrooms, producers know that fantastic content, at times from even non-experts, boost ratings and finances, which contributes to a contrasting dynamic in terms of reporting the facts. 

“Ultimately, I think the job is to help educate people so that they understand issues and the truth,” O’Brien said. “It’s not, over here we have this Republican and over here we have this Democrat who, for the next six minutes, are going to scream at each other because it makes good TV.” 

Her show, Matter of Fact, has better ratings than any other Sunday program. Instead of politics, O’Brien focuses on policy, such as minimum wage and how it relates to a housing crisis, and its effects on the population. 

Answering an audience question about the public finding their voice or place in politics, O’Brien encouraged everyone to vote and reach out to local reporters. 

After 20 years in the news business, O’Brien found her voice working on a documentary titled Black in America. She was told not to make the work “too black,” but refused to bow to that demand. 

On the second year of the series, O’Brien said they were to create six stories over an hour documentary. Five of the stories were about black people and one was about a white person. Although a great story, O’Brien adamantly believed that all six stories should establish the narrative of black people.

“There came a point where I became very comfortable arguing for things,” O’Brien said. “I know this is right, I know this fight is accurate and I’m not going to back down.” 

It was at this moment O’Brien knew she was in the right spot. However, argument or disagreement is still evident in society and journalism.  

In a time on Twitter where it’s about who has the louder opinion, O’Brien has learned to gain insight from people she strongly disagrees with by responding to them with ’that’s so interesting, tell me when you feel that way.’

“It opens up the conversation in person,” O’Brien said. “I don’t think that’s something you can do on social media because that’s not the goal of social media. Otherwise, they’d give you more than 280 characters if they really wanted a thoughtful, nuanced, deep conversation.” 

Although Twitter is limited to the characters in a tweet, O’Brien still believes it is a good way to reach a mass number of people, and a way for others to tell their story.  

Emphasizing that everyone is part of the American story, O’Brien said that media tends to frame stories, such as viewing poor people as deficits, and opened the idea that people should shape their own story. 


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