Q&A with Aaron Morrison
Aaron Morrison is an award-winning multimedia journalist based in New York City, where he is a national race and ethnicity writer for The Associated Press. Before that, he was a senior reporter at The Appeal and an on-air correspondent and senior writer for Mic. His work has also appeared in the International Business Times and The Record newspaper in Bergen County, New Jersey.
What is your role at The Associated Press?
Last March, I was hired as one of the national writers on the race and ethnicity team, and my job primarily is to cover the intersection between race and justice. Justice is not only policing, but also educational justice, economic justice, environmental justice and other ways that justice can be denied to people, particularly people of color. We’re looking at systems, many existing for generations, that have created deep disparities.
Covering my beat in the last year meant getting a piece of almost every major story. Because, the fact is, race is involved in everything. You cannot cover any story with nuance, without at least acknowledging the role that race plays. Though the AP has always had reporters that covered issues of race in addition to their general assignments, race and ethnicity had not been a unifying theme for any team. That changed in October 2019 as the AP formalized this team, which came ahead of this year when race was the major story.
What has this year been like, starting a new job in the COVID-19 pandemic and in the middle of an intense news cycle?
A week-and-a-half after I started at the AP’s headquarters in New York City, pandemic shutdowns spread nationwide, and I was suddenly working from home. Technology and other tools have allowed us to collaborate on substantial, important work.
From the beginning of the pandemic, we were looking at the racial disparities in who was being infected with the coronavirus. In fact, our coverage led to members of Congress, and people across our government, demanding that health departments prioritize the collection of COVID racial data. It’s been important to our understanding of where the greatest need was for responding to those infected, for getting testing where it needed to be, for getting relief to those who lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic or who were continuing to work because they do essential jobs. We knew that a lot of those on the front lines, such as bus drivers and subway conductors, grocery store clerks, and other essential workers, especially in big cities, were disproportionately working-class people of color who didn’t have the option of telecommuting. Many couldn’t afford to lose their jobs, and often didn’t have the proper protective equipment to keep themselves and their families safe.
That work was really important, early on in the pandemic. So, we made it work as a team, even though we couldn’t be together.
On top of COVID, which was a major news story for your team, Americans were increasingly calling for racial justice. What was it like to be in the middle of that flashpoint?
In some ways, you want to take yourself out of it and go into work mode – get the coverage, look for ways to elevate and highlight voices that too often get left behind in big stories. But, early on, there was a feeling that we were recording a very important part of our history. It became more than just your job. I think that energized us as a team, and it certainly energized me, to get up and do the work as best we could. I know that, for years to come, we’ll be analyzing the impact of this moment and what kind of changes came about because of it.
There was certainly an unprecedented uprising of people in the U.S. who were – in some cases for the first time – declaring that ‘Black Lives Matter’ or who wanted to see issues of systemic racism addressed more seriously. There has been a larger appetite for this kind of coverage. That was energizing, and it was also traumatizing. As a member of the press, you’re trying to cover protests, and just like the protesters, you’re dodging rubber bullets and tear gas and other crowd dispersants to get the story. But even when things get hairy, you take that experience, that firsthand knowledge of unfolding events, that anxiety and worry about your personal safety, and you channel it in your work.
What was your career path to the AP?
I majored in journalism at San Francisco State University, and then I actually interned at the AP’s Baltimore bureau. After that, I decided to move to New York City and ended up in a short-term reporter job at the AP’s Trenton bureau. I eventually ended up at The Record of Bergen County, a newspaper in New Jersey. I covered some interesting stories about race, like the 50th anniversary of the voluntary desegregation of schools in a town called Teaneck. Elsewhere in the U.S., young Black children had to be escorted by National Guardsmen to integrate their schools, but this majority white town had voluntarily bussed Black children to schools where they could learn with white children and children of other backgrounds. I was at The Record when Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Missouri. I knew then that, whatever I did next, I wanted to be reporter writing about race and social justice at a national level.
I went on to the International Business Times, where I was a breaking news writer covering issues of civil rights. And then I went to Mic, where I covered continued covering civil rights, social justice and race, and I helped launch Mic’s Facebook Watch news show. I gained skills and experience as a video producer and an on-air correspondent. When Mic folded, I went to The Appeal, a nonprofit newsroom covering criminal justice reform. I left there to return to the AP full time. It’s been a wild ride, and one that I’m grateful for. I said I wanted to cover race and justice at a national level, and now I’m really doing it.
What has been your involvement with the Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting?
I’ve been a member almost from the beginning, and I’ve been able to take workshops and lead a workshop. To the Society’s credit, they offer such valuable training that many times I’ve tried to register for a workshop, and it was already full, or I ended up on the waitlist. I’ve felt incredibly lucky to be able to participate and learn from the wealth of knowledge that exists among the community of Society members, and then also to be asked to come on and train. In October of last year, I was on a panel with Society co-founder Ron Nixon to talk about how to cover racial inequality, and I felt honored to be able to do that.
I’ve supported the Society financially, and I’ve gotten a couple of t-shirts. It’s probably time to order a new one.
What would it have been like to have this Society early in your career?
I think I would have sought professional experience with investigative reporting earlier. Now, I have a fair amount of experience doing investigations. One of the reasons why this Society needs to exist is because, when journalists seek to move up and get promoted, some of the most coveted newsroom jobs are on investigative teams. Not having experience doing high-impact investigations, even if you have a decade of professional experience under your belt, can stifle your career trajectory as a reporter. I think it’s incredibly important that the Society offers this training and this community to people who need it, especially to aspiring and opportunity-starved journalists of color.
Could you talk about the importance of the work you’re doing to the future of the news industry?
In some ways, the media is going through a bit of a reckoning around issues of race. I think we are working to repair relationships damaged by the harmful ways in which journalists of a different generation covered race. Communities of color, especially Black communities, haven’t felt that they had an ally in mainstream media outlets. That they were always taking a risk in granting interviews to a reporter who might only parachute in for a flashpoint, and never return or follow up. They’ve seen their loved ones dehumanized or depicted as villains because media has given unearned credibility to law enforcement sources. And for too long, there’s been very little follow through to make sure that we correct or update the record when the facts have changed. It’s essential that we do that now.
Journalists are essential workers. We’ve been on the front lines of this pandemic, too, going to where the stories are and making sure our reports accurately reflect the lives of people who are suffering and are counting on us. It’s an important time for journalists to get this right. We’re providing an indispensable service, but we’ve still got to prove that to our readers, viewers and listeners.