Showcasing the silent, Martin and Tippett talk about getting all sides of the story

Amanda Mainguy | Staff Photographer
Krista Tippett and Michel Martin discuss the relevance of gender and race in journalism, and their hopes for the future, during the Interfaith Lecture in the Hall of Philosophy Thursday. The discussion continued the week of “Conversations on the American Consciousness.”

After setting some “ground rules” for who got to lead the conversation, Krista Tippett and Michel Martin, both female journalists and radio hosts, talked shop at the 2 p.m. Interfaith Lecture Thursday in the Hall of Philosophy.

Tippett, host of NPR’s “On Being,” brought in a different conversation partner each afternoon in a weeklong series, “Conversations on the American Consciousness.” Martin is the former host of NPR’s “Tell Me More,” which broadcast its last show Aug. 1.

Acknowledging Martin’s show was canceled a little more than a week ago, Tippett said she really wanted to talk about journalism in the broadest sense. She began by asking Martin how she got started in the field.

Martin said she felt compelled to start writing for the Harvard Crimson, even though she was not a journalism major, to tell the uncovered stories she stumbled upon while working in Boston.

“I would hear about things that were going on among the people that I was working with that I would never read in the paper. At the time, there was a series of assaults on young, black girls, and they all started in the Allston-Brighton neighborhood and in Roxbury. And it was somebody like a serial predator preying on these girls. I was never reading about it in the paper,” she said. “I just thought that was crazy.”

Martin said the world of journalism opened up before her when she submitted that first article to the college paper.

“I did my piece for the Crimson and I had people stopping me and saying, ‘I didn’t know about that,’ and I think I got hooked on that,” she said.

Tippett said Martin’s story points out the ridiculousness of The New York Times’ banner, which reads, “All the news that’s fit to print.”

“That awareness that there’s so much more story is essential,” Tippett said. “And that’s what you were seeing.”

The untold stories and unheard voices continued to be Martin’s focus, specifically on “Tell Me More.” Tippett suggested other media outlets might have misunderstood her focus.

“It would be described as an NPR show aimed at minorities. And I think what you do in your journalism on NPR,” Tippett said. “And I think you really followed that thread that you pulled out all those years ago, that you want to tell more of the story — it’s not at all that you don’t have mainstream, white voices or some of the same kinds of intellectuals who are on other programs.  But you also bring an array of voices that reflect the array of who we are.”

Martin said the distinction was made because of a white privilege to decide who and what is considered mainstream in America.

“What I try to do is exactly what you said,” Martin said. “I try to pick up the loose ball. Like what’s the side of the story that isn’t obvious.”

She did this, for example, by inviting both a Ukrainian and Russian Orthodox priest on her show to talk about the role of religious leaders in the midst of their countries’ conflict.

Her segments were not geared toward minorities, but giving people who were otherwise ignored by media the chance to share their viewpoint. Martin said people dubbing her show as non-mainstream was part of a bigger problem about race.

Tippett related this problem to the radical, usually negative, voices on subjects such as race and religion getting the most airtime in the media. Other voices lie silent, and Martin said it might be because people believe that if they pretend it’s not happening, or that they don’t see it, it will go away.

“The whole question of race — people saying, ‘I don’t see race, I don’t see color.’ It’s a false doctrine of politeness,” Martin said. “They mean well, but they’re demeaning you in a way they don’t mean to.”

Diversity is necessary and healthy in society, she said.

“Faith and family are huge topics at the center of your journalism,” Tippett said. She asked Martin to talk about people who scoffed at reporting on “soft topics” such as these.

Martin said that in the end, faith and family are “so fundamental to the way we live that they deserve the seriousness that we impart to other topics.”

She said she uses her work — based on knowable facts rather than opinions — to open up larger conversations about values that people can take into their homes and continue in their own lives.

“All we’re really doing is setting an example, and I’m hoping that other people will use our work to open the door to those conversations themselves,” Martin said

Tippett made the observation that most media outlets focus on the negative news bits instead of showing the positive. But Martin said that sometimes, giving someone in need media attention is the best thing that can be done.

“I think sometimes what we do as journalists is, if I could use this expression, a ministry of presence,” Martin said. “What we are simply saying is, ‘I see you.’ ”

She described a time when she was reporting in Turkey after an earthquake. Martin said that, even though she felt useless — because she lacked any technical or medical skills that could physically help the people suffering there — she realized as people thanked her for being there that her presence shone a light on their situation.

Tippett asked Martin on her take of the Trayvon Martin case in 2012.

“You drew out people on every side of that human drama,” Tippett said of Martin’s coverage. “People who loved both Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman, for example. … You talked about also the need — and I think you were speaking to journalism as well — in our culture for the ‘what now, what next’ question.”

There’s a need to draw out the unheard voices, Martin said, and she proposed a challenge.

“I offer a challenge to white people who care about these issues to stop allowing themselves to disappear from this story,” she said.

Another role of journalism, Martin said, is to look past the present moment and ask questions that focus on finding hope in the next moment. After the initial rush of breaking news and the in-the-moment questions, she said the questions that arise after the news cycles moves on are the big ones that need to be asked.

It’s in these big questions and in their accompanying stories that Martin said she receives the ultimate gift journalism has to offer.

“I feel that they have given me something precious, and it’s my job to protect it,” she said.

She continued by saying that each person’s story has “made my world that much larger, and I hope that I’ve done just this much to make the world larger for other people.”