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Interview

The Only One in the Room: Rod McCullom on Covering HIV and Science as a Black Gay Journalist

November 24, 2015

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Rod McCullom snapped a shot at MIT, where he's a Knight Science Journalism fellow.

Rod McCullom snapped a shot at MIT, where he's a Knight Science Journalism fellow.

When you were coming up, did you have particular mentors, people who influenced your work? And how did they do so? And what advice are you giving to a new generation, particularly to young gay black men who are writers?

Unfortunately, when I grew up -- I mean, I grew up in this industry -- there were not many openly black gay men in journalism. There were some, mostly on the entertainment side. So I did not have mentors who were black gay men. I did have several black lesbians who were my early mentors. Two were actually news directors at different shows I've worked with.

What I've done over the years is I've had mentors from different backgrounds. When I was with the LA Times, the office manager was a straight black man. I learned a lot from him. Also, I used to freelance at NPR. Everywhere I've gone, I've had unofficial and official mentors.

One thing that I did learn when I was young: When you're black you have to work twice as hard, and often you get half the respect. So that means I had to come in to work every day early; I had to be the last to leave. As a journalist, and as a reporter I always had to double-check my work. I learned doing that when I was young.

If you make just a casual mistake, so many people will be attacking you. The first thing they're going to say is you're not qualified. And if you made a simple mistake on the date, for example, how can you be trusted with anything else?

But, if you were a white man and you make just some egregious mistake, in your journalism or in your reporting, oh, it's no big deal. "He's done so much good work before. He just had a bad day. It's just data. Anyone can make that mistake."

Unfortunately, it was drilled into us. So many of us became over-performers. So sometimes when you do see a black person in a traditionally all-white environment they're usually an over-performer. You know, for instance, Barack Obama, or Ta-Nehisi Coates, or Teju Cole.

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The new generation, they're fighting back against that. And that's one thing I really do appreciate. So I'm not passing on that advice. But I do make sure when I talk to youth, when I talk to other journalists who are younger, who are trying to come up, I do let them know that racism still is real. I've had to fight homophobia and racism at the same time. It is difficult.

There has been so much homophobia and so much racism, there just weren't many other faces when I was coming up. So now we're finally having some. So that's one thing I do recommend.

The other thing that I do tell other journalists -- youth, and even ones my age -- is to specialize, is to find something to specialize in, because once you have a specialty that makes you more valuable.

Many times in the industry there's this subtle racism that suggests that people of color are only qualified to write on themselves -- and not on serious issues. Or if we do have people of color who are health writers or medical journalists, they're not really qualified to go overseas to an International AIDS Conference. You know what I'm saying?

Or the women are qualified to write on breast cancer, but they're not qualified to write on breast cancer imaging. Or they're not qualified to write on how General Electric is making, whatever, millions of dollars on profits off a piece of equipment.

I tell many younger black writers to try to have some type of subspecialty that's science- or technology-related. For instance, a lot of black writers I've met write on entertainment. OK, that's great. But unfortunately when the big stories come, their entertainment stories are usually not going to be on the front page, or on the top of the Web page.

But if they're also reporting on the business end, or the technology end, or the science end also, then that gives them more play. So when Beyoncé releases a new album overnight, OK, that's a big deal. But if you look at The New York Times, their coverage would be on how she revolutionized the marketing industry, or the technology end of that, or the social media end of that. And quite often black reporters are not called to do the stories on science or technology.

We see black writers steered into writing about HIV prevention campaigns, as opposed to vaccines, treatment or pharmacological -- which is where more money is involved.

There are not many black gay writers in health, in general. But many of the black writers that we have are sort of steered into prevention and wellness. And we see that in HIV/AIDS, black writers steered into writing about prevention campaigns, as opposed to vaccines, or treatment, or pharmacological -- which is where more money is involved, the business end.

You've had other journalism fellowships and opportunities. Are these programs helping to diversify newsrooms and the range of stories that are getting out there?

I've been on a lot of these fellowships. This is my first full-year one. But I had a fellowship from the Ford Foundation, and going to different countries, from Ethiopia, to Australia, to wherever -- Spain -- mostly reporting on HIV/AIDS.

One issue that I've faced in all of these scholarships (and, indeed, in most of my time in newsrooms) has been being the only one in the room -- be it being the only black producer in a division of ABC News; being the only black producer wherever I am; being the only black male reporter at my division at LA Times; being the only whatever. I can go up and down the list. Of course, also being gay.

So when I've been on a lot of these fellowships -- especially the international ones -- it's interesting being the only one in the room. And of course, whenever I've gone to sub-Saharan Africa, of course, there are other black journalists who are from African countries, such as Nigeria, or South Africa, or Zimbabwe. Of course, there are other black men who are reporters and journalists from these countries.

But I'm often the only black male -- only black male, or only black American, or only American person -- in these environments, even in a situation like being a freelancer for The Atlantic, or Scientific American. I haven't done a head count but I don't think there are many there. I don't think there are many black openly gay men writing for Scientific American.

People have noted this over the years. I've seen it all my life. It doesn't make me comfortable. I really look forward to getting to the point where I'm not the only one.

I think what happens, unfortunately, is it just dissuades so many people from going into a field. Women and people of color, especially black people, are not encouraged to are not encouraged to report or write on technical fields or scientific fields. Or they see these programs -- you know, like MIT's Knight Science Journalism -- and they never see any black faces. So they think, "Oh, what's the point of applying?"

I'm looking forward to the day when there's more openly queer journalists.

I've been accepted into a number of these programs. But it's sort of the same thing every year. OK, here's Rob McCollum. He's the only black man. Of the 12 international fellows he's the only American. Or, he's the only black gay person.

What really, really, really has made me happy is that this year the fellowship at MIT is totally breaking away. If you look at the fellows, there are 10 fellows. It's evenly divided, male and female. There's a great reporter from Latin America. There's a great reporter from Germany. There's one from Canada. And there's two black American men.

So I think that's outstanding. I'm looking forward to the day when there's more women of color. I'm looking forward to the day when there's more openly queer journalists.

Unfortunately, the bar is still difficult for us to achieve, to get in there. But we have to keep pushing, from the inside and from the outside.

JD Davids is the managing editor for TheBody.com and TheBodyPRO.com.

Follow JD on Twitter: @JDAtTheBody.


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