Soledad O’Brien has been telling stories for the past 31 years, and she loves it.
“We all have a story to share about how we got here,” she said on Tuesday night in the Robert M. Smith Student Center Ballroom at Slippery Rock University.
“An Evening with Soledad O’Brien: Her Life Stories” was part of SRU’s Performing Arts and Lecture Series and the school’s Black History Month celebration.
She has worked for networks like CNN and NBC, and has her own show, “Matter of Fact.” She also appears on HBO’s “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel” and “PBS NewsHour,” and is chief executive officer of Starfish Media Group.
She’s worked on big stories like Hurricane Katrina and the earthquake in Haiti, but she started out small, working for television stations in places including Boston and San Francisco.
She recalled an assignment to interview football fans who were cheering on the San Francisco Giants during a playoff game they were watching on television at a bar.
O’Brien was new to live television at the time, so she was a bit nervous, especially when she realized a lot of the patrons had been drinking for quite a while.
A few seconds before the broadcast, someone pinched her from behind, and she barely made it through the story.
“It was horrifying,” she said.
After recounting the experience back at the office, her boss suggested she work for a smaller market. O’Brien remembered a previous employer telling her to not give up, so she stuck it out.
She eventually became bureau chief of the East Bay, and she had to cover breaking news on Christmas Day – a young boy who got a BB gun as a gift had shot his sister.
The mother asked the news crew to go away, and looking back now, O’Brien said she’s ashamed.
“What were we doing?” she asked of trying to confront that family.
She sees similar things happening in today’s news industry, which should instead be using journalism as a service.
Hurricane Katrina stories were not about the storm itself; she looked for stories about who was and wasn’t rescued.
It became complicated with a focus on race, class and power, O’Brien said, leading into a story about her parents, who both passed away last year.
Her mother, Estela, was a black woman from Cuba, and her father Edward was a white man from Australia.
They met in 1958 while attending Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Her mother walked to church every day, and her father would drive by, asking if she wanted a ride.
She finally said “yes,” and they agreed to go on a date. Restaurants turned them away because they were an interracial couple.
Estela cooked for Edward at her apartment, later stressing the importance of cooking and going to Mass to find a man, O’Brien laughed.
The couple wed in Washington, D.C., because interracial marriage was still illegal in Maryland and other states at the time.
People used to spit on them, but Estela told her daughter that she knew “America was better than that.”
For O’Brien’s documentary “Black in America,” she had to fight to change the narrative from describing a young girl named Glorious as a child of a crack addict and alcoholic to a girl working hard to get into college so she can have a better life.
The media often does a poor job of deciding where to place the main focus on similar stories, she said.
“You have to speak up for yourself; if you let others tell your story, it will come out wrong.”
O’Brien also showed a clip from “Beyond Bravery: The Women of 9/11,” a documentary she made about female rescue workers from the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The idea she pitched – focusing on six women at Ground Zero – didn’t take off right away.
“And I was stunned at the pushback I got,” she said.
The documentary went on to win awards, and it shared stories that were new to so many people.
O’Brien tells students that it’s essential to force people to hear such stories, even though it’s hard and exhausting.
During a question-and-answer session, she said that it’s important to connect to your local press, and share stories with reporters.
Don’t think of them as the enemy, and remember that they often live where you live.
“They’re not robots,” she said.
When asked about advice for people interested in journalism, O’Brien said take the time to find your voice, learn multiple skills, and be aggressive.
“Have guts. Chase down people and ask them for help,” she said. “It’s a good time to be a journalist, believe it or not.”