Navigating through the media and journalism industry involves an interesting battle between ethics and empathy. Now more than ever, responsible journalism is singularly one of the most important skills to credible storytelling. Having the ability to connect with the voice you’re representing beyond just submitting the latest and greatest click-bait makes content not only relatable but powerful. With “fake news” being the industry’s top concern post-election, Marissa Calhoun has gracefully mastered that art through her experience in this industry. As a Content Producer for CNN’s Digital Film & Series division, Marissa lifts the voices of the unheard and uses integrity to ensure its impact. Here’s what Marissa had to say about applying empathy in storytelling and journalism thus far:
Marissa, thanks so much for chatting with us. Tell us who you are and how you’ve landed in this industry:
Who am I? I am 29-year old, content producer for CNN’s Digital Film & Series content. I live in Brooklyn, NY, but I was raised just outside of Washington, DC in Prince George’s County, MD. My senior year of high school I was awarded the Posse Foundation Scholarship which afforded me the opportunity to attend Bucknell University on a full-tuition scholarship. I’ve always known that I wanted to pursue a career in television in some capacity. With the experience at several major networks including Voice of America, PBS, Nickelodeon and The Discovery Channel, the opportunity to work in journalism sprouted from a close mentor of mine who had worked as an exec in the industry for years. He just said frankly, “you ask a lot of questions—and they’re good questions.” That was it. I decided to give it a try…
I had no idea at the time, when I started out as a production assistant getting coffee and scripts for Wolf Blitzer, that I would eventually become a producer and content creator. Working at some of the biggest companies in broadcast and cable news, like CNN, ABC and CBS have been invaluable.
How do you define media and wow does it impact you as a person and as a professional?
Media is any kind of shareable content that has the ability to move or shift the culture. When I first started working in the industry around 2007, the term media was much more narrowly defined than it is now. Back then “media” mostly referred to content created for television or the big screen. Today, the screen or platform we use to view mass media can be small enough to fit in our pockets. Better yet, it’s even more fluid enough to be produced by everyday people with no background in TV Production. For me, this has made it an incredibly nuanced and exciting time to do what I do. As someone who professionally produces, shoots and edits content for a big company like CN, it’s a reminder that the new rules of media make it so that I’m not limited to major corporations. It’s made it so that even though I currently work for a large media company, there is an avenue to which I can execute just as a smaller company or an entrepreneur would in the field. In essence, the way media has changed has made it more accessible for all. And I think that’s a great thing.
As a digital producer for one of the largest TV networks in the world, what's your approach to storytelling and responsible journalism?
I have to say that while it is an exciting time to be in the industry, it’s a tense time to work at a place like CNN. It’s public knowledge that our brand integrity has been under constant attack by the current administration. So much that fellow colleagues have been personally targeted and in some cases harassed for simply doing their job. It’s unfortunate but the whole thing has really reinforced for many of us why we chose the careers we did. In times such as these, it’s more important than ever to have people willing to speak truth to power. As a journalist of color, I feel a special responsibility to reflect the diverse perspectives of black and brown people whose stories are often under-reported or misrepresented in the media.
My approach to my work is deeply rooted in the teaching’s or my amazing mentors—to always seek truth in my reporting, to uplift the voices and the stories of the humans that I am covering in my storytelling with integrity and respect, and to remember that balance is my responsibility. With these values in mind, the stories I tell presents a fair look at both sides of a said coin, presents the facts, and inspires people to seek to understand.
What was your experience like being a field producer for CNN Heroes?
It was absolutely incredible. That experience tremendously impacted the way I see myself in the world and my responsibility to produce sensible content. It taught me to be more sensitive and empathetic towards people, and it made me realize that I wasn’t living up to my full potential in a good way. For three and a half years, I literally got to travel internationally to interview everyday people who were changing the world often by starting with the work that needed to be done in their own backyard. This assignment took me to homeless encampments in San Bernardino, poverty-stricken communities in Maui, Hawaii and to some of our country's most dangerous prisons. I will always hold that experience near and dear to my heart.
Marissa Calhoun connecting as a CNN Field Producer for CNN Heroes
How did empathy and vulnerability impact professionalism here?
I remember a year before I left Heroes, I did a story about a program in San Francisco that works with inmates at San Quentin State Prison. Some of them would be eligible for parole, and many of them are lifers who are coming to terms with being behind bars for the rest of their lives. Furthermore, the organization also helped these people make peace with their choices. I remember going into the facility and I was kind of numb. I expected that my perceptions of the people I was going to meet at San Quentin would be largely what one might expect they would think about people who have been found guilty of some very serious crimes. But to my surprise, as I interviewed inmate after inmate, and as I walked the corridors of the prison—even having an opportunity to film inside a few of the cell blocks, I was incredibly moved by the individuals I met. Some of them outright told me their stories—they’d taken lives, stolen, and done other horrible things—but their real stories started long before they ever offended. And, it was understanding those stories that helped shape the way I saw them and their situations. By the end, I saw myself in them and realized “but for the grace of God, there go I.” To this day, I can’t get some of their faces out of my head. And it forever shifted the way that I think about people in our criminal justice system.
Marissa Calhoun listening to the stories of San Quentin State Prison inmates
How do you want to define yourself in this industry?
I’m a storyteller, simply put. I am here to tell powerful stories that will hopefully spark change.
If I had to use one quote to sum up my core values and beliefs, it would be this gem once dropped by Ralph Ellison, “When I discover who I am, I’ll be free.”
At this point in my life, my every waking moment is to devoted to fulfilling the premise of this quote—getting a better understanding of myself, and using that knowledge to shake up the world and the media industry.