Farai Chideya

The multimedia journalist talks about the digital media age and why she still believes in the power of journalism.

By Beandrea Davis Jan 07, 2008

The online publication you founded 12 years ago, Pop and Politics (www.popandpolitics.com), is an elder on the Internet. How has it evolved over the years?

One of the things that we’ve consistently done is to reach people in their twenties and teens. It’s a place for people to really cut their teeth in the world of digital media…Now we’ve become university-based at University of Southern California in Los Angeles. We have a whole training component…

But it’s not enough to say, “We’re going to give people news information.” You have to prep them, give them a foundation, so that when they get to voting age they actually have a vested interest in the news culture.

NPR has recently been increasing efforts to attract younger viewers, a demographic where it has traditionally struggled. Is attracting younger viewers a focus of your work at News and Notes, your first stint as a national public radio host?

Yeah, it’s funny because that’s not what we were asked to do. We got one of the best fan letters where this woman said, “I’m 34, and I love you guys because you’re young but you’re not Britneyfied.”
What that fan was saying was, “You speak to me as someone who is in my thirties without doing it in a way that’s patronizing.”

Do you think multimedia journalism culture is progress?

For me it always has to be about journalism in the public interest, and freedom of choice and expression within the context of building a society that works…It’s not “is online journalism good or bad?” but “does it fulfill the basic need of journalists to shake things up and be truthtellers?” Multimedia journalism is evolving constantly.

What keeps you optimistic about the power of journalism
to impact people’s lives? 

People really do want information. Journalism is not the endgame, it’s the beginning. If we have good journalism, what else can we have? We can have good citizenship. We can have the potential
for social change.

With the 2008 election on the horizon, what are some of the important questions journalists should be raising?

We need to really take a look at what we consider truthtelling. In looking back at the 2000 elections and the major tax cuts that followed, there was some critique that said, “People never should have thought that you could have a tax cut without deficits.” 

Part of journalism is being fair and allowing there to be different sides of a discussion, but at what point do you say, “This is just not realistic”?

We missed the chance to do a few reality checks.

You’ve been very public about your struggles with weight loss and dieting over the years, including doing a personal fitness challenge series that aired on NPR in 2006. What did you learn?

I loved it. I have not reached the mountaintop of ultimate fitness, but I do work out five times a week. I’m still putting together the pieces on how I can ultimately maintain not just a healthy weight
but a healthy life. I’m getting closer. Now I’m 38 years old. I’ve been heavy since I was 6 (laughs). There’s a lot of internal coding in my brain about how I react to stress, the role of food in reacting to stress, all those things. Where I’m going at this point is not just “I weigh this much or that much,” it’s “how do I deal with stress? What are my coping mechanisms?” What I have to deal with really
gets to the heart of what a lot of people are trying to do.

YouTube has revolutionized access to digital video content on the Web. Give us your take.

It’s a great archive, if a somewhat legally dubious one. We were doing a story on Nona Hendricks, who has got a new rock opera
in development. I put together a blog post that was a compendium
of all the stuff she had done from LaBelle on. We linked
to YouTube. But there’s always a question of who uploaded it and
under what circumstances. In terms of being a personal storytelling for politics, it seems to be working with the YouTube Debates, but it’s still new. I don’t think the story has yet been written on whether or not it’s a tool that will revolutionize politics in any way.

Any new projects you want to tell our readers about?

I just finished my first novel. It’s called Touch. It’s about a Black female rock singer making a comeback. It hasn’t been sold yet, so it won’t be out for quite awhile. I’m totally excited about it because it’s been a lifelong dream. One of the things I’ve learned
in life is that you can always change and you can always grow. That’s considered something of a cliché, but it’s really important. Life is constantly a set of new achievements and new struggles. At any point in time, you can change.