Building Bridges, Not Walls: NPR's Eric Deggans Shares Insights on Media & Race

NPR's Eric Deggans speaking at JWU Providence

“I have a pretty great job. I get paid to watch TV and talk to cool people,” Eric Deggans told a packed Schneider Auditorium after snapping a photo of the crowd during his Distinguished Visiting Professor lecture on Johnson & Wales' Providence Campus. “I don't think you heard me—I get paid to watch TV and tell people what I think about it. You guys do that for free!” 

Finding His Voice for Radio
Deggans, National Public Radio's (NPR) first full-time television critic, joined NPR in 2013 after almost 20 years at the Tampa Bay Times newspaper where he served as a TV and media critic. While he had gained some radio experience during this time, transitioning to radio full time required Deggans to stretch and flex his writing muscles in a whole new way.

“When you're writing for radio, the voice of the story is different,” Deggans said. “No one can show you your radio voice, you have to discover it.”

NPR's Eric Deggans speaking at JWU Providence

Building Bridges Across a Racial Divide
While Deggans may joke about the seemingly simple nature of his job, he believes his “real job” is much more important. “My real job is being a watchdog for how media and TV affect us all,” he said.

In an interview prior to his presentation, Deggans elaborated a bit more on what this entails. “I consider myself a thought leader,” he explained. “I need to take my expertise and develop different products to get those ideas out.”

Enter “Race-Baiter: How the Media Wields Dangerous Words to Divide a Nation”, Deggans' first book. While it was originally published in 2012, Deggans says he finds it “both sad and interesting” that topics he was writing about over 5 years ago are not only still relevant, but in some ways are even more significant today.

JWU students make up the audience listening to NPR's Eric Deggans.

“Making mistakes when you talk about race doesn't necessarily make you a racist,” Deggans explained in his presentation. “Talking about race and gender isn't racist or sexist. People seem to believe that bringing up and talking about these issues make you part of the problem....White people have a stake in race issues the same way men have a stake in women's issues.”

Deggans encouraged students to acknowledge that different racial groups are “living different experiences” and the best way to bridge this cultural and racial gap is to tell stories “steeped in the culture of non-white people”, both in the news and pop culture.

Remember: It Doesn't Matter How You Get There
Deggans doesn't deny that journalism has changed significantly since he graduated from Indiana University in 1990. His advice to college students, however, is timeless. 

“You should always have a goal in mind, but don't be rigid about how you get there,”  he said. “I had a goal—I knew since junior high school that I was interested in journalism, and I did everything I thought I had to do to share my thoughts and ideas, but the newspaper industry fell apart. There was no more money in that market.”

And that's where NPR came in. “I didn't think too much at the time about what a big move it really was,” Deggans said, “but I think students should be flexible, be open to moving to different opportunities, all while having a goal. Just keep asking yourself: 'Is this really serving where I want to be?'”

Eric Deggan and Dean Michael Fein

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