I can’t remember ever using the n-word in text or conversation with a newsmaker. But more times than I can count, I’ve done what my colleague Valerie Hoff did earlier this month. Unfortunately, Valerie tiptoed across a line of acceptable language, and it cost her the job she’d had at WXIA for 18 years.
Valerie was trying to make contact with a man who’d shot a newsworthy video that had gone viral. The man had a Twitter handle, and Valerie private messaged him. It was a competitive situation — other news organizations were trying to do the same thing — and Valerie didn’t want to see it anywhere else before she had it.
The African American man had tweeted something about “news n—-z” trying to reach him. Valerie, a white woman, tried to humorously use the same language in an effort to pitch an interview. Instead of finding it funny, the man chose to re-tweet and further racialize her text. Valerie resigned Friday.
Valerie is easy to underestimate: blonde, fit, well-dressed and disarming, it’s a facade concealing a tenacious competitor. When I worked at WAGA, Valerie was the 11Alive field reporter I feared most. I still smart from the bruising she gave me on the “mansion madame” story in the mid aughts. When I competed with her on a story, I knew I had to be very thorough or I’d end up hearing about a story element she had that I lacked.
When I started work at WXIA in 2009, she was assigned to a franchise called “Ways to Save,” and was anchoring weekends. It sounds like a dream assignment for a reporter coasting toward retirement; yet she worked her tail off producing fresh consumer material that seemed to air seven days a week. When that gig ended, as all such gigs seem to do, she re-engaged general assignment reporting with her old fervor. Her stories were often weeks ahead of our competitors. She was a mainstay in the A-block of our newscasts. And she did it while undergoing a public struggle with breast cancer.
Every reporter tries to find ways to get a potential newsmaker to play ball. If the newsmaker is a civilian new to our world, then the reporter wants to seem likable and trustworthy. Your competitors are doing the same thing.
Valerie did that better than most of the rest of us. Knowing her 18 years, I’m absolutely sure there’s not a racially insensitive bone in her body. I know she regrets using the language in that particular pitch. It turns out quoting back somebody else’s use of a variation of the n-word is perilous territory.
I frequently attempt to use humor or empathy to pitch interviews with perfect strangers under such circumstances. I also try to be mindful, especially in written messages, that such stuff can surface publicly. Sometimes I hit “send” too quickly, because typically, time’s a-wastin’. There’s a deadline a few hours away, and there’s a competitor or three breathing down my neck.
So far, it’s never come back to haunt me.