Soledad O'Brien inspires, emphasizes storytelling with her passionate CBT lecture

The former CNN and NBC anchor described her crusade to portray minorities in a positive light during her speech.

Thursday evening, Syracuse University’s Coming Back Together event hosted a former CNN and NBC anchor and Harvard graduate to kick off this year’s University Lecture Series. Soledad O’Brien led a lecture focusing on the power of storytelling.

As jazz music piped through the room, current students and alumni alike trickled into Schine Student Center’s Goldstein Auditorium. Chatter, laughter and the sound of flash going off created a hum of anticipation before O’Brien took the stage.

“I am a storyteller and I believe in the power of journalism.”
-Soledad O'Brien

Once she did, she shared a series of stories, personal anecdotes, and clips outlining her struggles and successes in the field of journalism. Through her retellings the audience laughed, cried and listened intently.

She recounted her days starting out as a young journalist, working on stories with surface-level ideas. One example she said she vividly remembers was camping out on the front lawn of a mother whose son shot his sister with a BB gun on Christmas Day. She remembered the woman wearily asking the reporters to leave. But she and the other reporters remained and resolved to get the story at whatever cost.

“We would never let a good headline like ‘A Christmas Tragedy’ be lost,” O’Brien said. “I was ashamed.”

From then on, O’Brien began to fight to cover the authentic versions of stories. Her message to the audience and to young journalists was to search for the stories that still have yet to be told.

“We can’t cut people’s narratives out of the fabric of our nation,” O’Brien said. “All of those uncomfortable topics, you have to tackle them.”

O’Brien also explained how she pitched ideas for the CNN documentaries "Black in America" and "Latino in America". For her, the privilege to see the stories of real people play out with truth and dignity on television would be met with pushback but overcome by her consistent effort to rewrite old narratives.

“So much of this documentary was fighting over words,” O’Brien said.

O’Brien described how colleagues in the newsroom wanted to describe minority subjects as “the daughters of addicts” and highlight the negative aspects of their lives as opposed to their positive attributes, as was common practice with their white counterparts. 

“For people of color, their story becomes this short hand,” O’Brien said. “We don’t describe people as the results of their dysfunction.”

She then showed a clip from "Black in America" that followed the life of a school principal that acted as a bus driver, parent, personal cheerleader and academic adviser for all of his students. The audience was introduced to Glorious Menaphee, a young girl with a bright future ahead of her. She was not the product of her circumstances, but instead conquered adversity by getting an education and going on to attend college.

As she finished, O’Brien made one last appeal to young journalists to utilize the power that they have as future producers and professionals in the field to tell different stories. She emphasized that it is critical and essential to fight for these stories.

“I am a storyteller and I believe in the power of journalism,” O’Brien said. “I believe it’s the power to change the world.”

Following the lecture, audience members were encouraged to ask questions. Many of them thanked O’Brien for coming and called her an inspiration.

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