'It's All In The Writing': NPR's Korva Coleman On Diversity, Punctuality And 'That' Newscast

Jun 16, 2019

If you’ve ever listened to KMUW in the morning, you’ve definitely heard Korva Coleman’s voice.

Coleman has been an NPR newscaster since 2013, writing, producing and delivering news to the nearly 14 million listeners who tune in each week to the nation’s No. 1 morning drive program.

“People would probably be surprised to know how little speaking I do on the radio and how much writing I do,” she says. “It’s all in the writing.”

Before joining NPR in 1990, she worked as a producer at WAMU, Washington, D.C.’s local affiliate station, and for the Washington Afro-American newpaper.

Coleman is coming to Wichita on Saturday, June 29, as the featured guest at KMUW’s Media Circus, which supports diversity in internships at the station.

She spoke to KMUW about her job at NPR, including the question everyone wants to ask.

Interview highlights

Carla Eckels: There’s one question that everybody wants to ask Korva Coleman: What time do you get up?

Korva Coleman: I get up at 1 in the morning and I'm usually in my seat by about 3:15 a.m., and mainly that’s so I can prepare for the day. I want to know what's happened just like everyone else does when they tune in to Morning Edition. What happened while I was sleeping?

I want to know what's been happening on the other side of the world, so I’ll usually check all of my news sources of course which includes looking at npr.org and going back and listening to some of the things we broadcast and making sure that I am ready to write and deliver the news when my first newscast rolls around at 6 a.m.

I remember one time I interviewed (former NPR newscaster) Jean Cochran years and years ago and she talked about riding her bike to work. Do you ever do that?

No, I do not ride my bike to work. (laughs) … I live about 15 miles outside Baltimore, Maryland, so it would be a bit of a bike ride in order to get it to work.

Some people do. I am not one of those people.

Have you ever been late to work?

Let me put it this way: I've never missed a newscast. There was one time — this isn’t funny — but I came in late because it was a car accident and I had to stop and render aid. But I have never, I have never missed a newscast.

What is something about your job that people would be surprised to know?

People would probably be surprised to know how little speaking I do on the radio and how much writing I do. It’s all in the writing. The presentation part is kind of like the cherry on the cake. It’s the writing, it's that turn of phrase, it's the choice of stories, it's the very essence of what sets NPR apart, I believe, from other news outlets.

What is it that we're telling you? Well, we're telling you certain stories because we believe you really want to know this, you want to find out more. We don't do necessarily the three-second sound bite. We give people a nice long chunk of time to talk about their point of view.

Korva, you shared in one of your tweets once that there is a newscast that you will never forget. What do you remember about that moment when you decided to quote President Trump directly, profanity and all?

Oh‚ the "epithet deleted newscast." I remember that well. That occurred in January 2018 … and what had happened was the president had used a derogatory phrase to refer to certain African countries and certain Caribbean countries and there [was] a big back and forth here at NPR about whether or not to quote the president.

… [The] reason that we did was because after a long and intense discussion we felt that it was important that listeners actually know what the president's thinking was about this matter. It had to do with the concept of race, it had to do the concept of immigration, it had to do with the concept of nations that were more favored with the Trump administration and which were less, and that is why NPR news management, in conjunction with NPR legal, decided to go ahead and quote in full the president's remark.

I actually ended up re-tweeting Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep who said, “Oh, by the way, Korva Coleman said ‘x,’” and I re-tweeted him saying I will never forget this newscast, never, never, never, never, never.

It’s interesting some of the comments online were saying things like "unwavering dignity" in the way you said it, and that they've never heard it sound classier.

That is certainly one way to put it. I heard from other people who were extremely disappointed in me and thought, “Oh my gosh, why did she choose to do that?”

I still believe to this day if I were presented with the same choice, I would make that same choice again because like it or not, this is the age of social media and this is what elected officials are saying and how they're conducting policy. Do I like it? Do I agree with it? That's not for me to say, but it is for me to let you know what is being said.

I’ve heard that some of your colleagues have called you “unflappable.” Is that a good assessment?

I hope so. I really hope so. Part of it is that sometimes I have to present some very, very devastating news to people and it's difficult and sometimes it's not just one story, sometimes it's several. I always find it best to approach this in as calm a manner as possible.

I mean, I may need to tell you about some really shocking and sad things — deaths, attacks, horrible information that may stun people — and it's a lot to take first thing in the morning. You’ve just gotten your coffee and maybe you just turned on the car. If I can present it to you in a calm manner without making matters worse by getting excited, just presenting information to people plainly, I think people are able to digest the information, they're able to consider what it means and how they need to react. If I'm not carrying on or if I’m not hectoring people, it's just much, much better for all.

Can you share a story in terms of what you've reported on that change the way you think about a subject or person?

I think anything that has to do with warfare. I'm always changed by that. Anything that has to do with women in conflict because women are so frequently the target of violent attacks, whether they be some international conflagration that we're hearing about or we're hearing about how some mass shooter began to get in trouble with the law because that person was first a domestic abuser.

It’s really important to me that we hear the voices of particularly women because so often women are not allowed to have voices. I find it really important to make sure that women's voices, not just here in the United States but around the world as well, are elevated and heard clearly to make sure that we're bringing all sides of a story to NPR listeners.

When it comes to diversity, what do you think is the biggest area news rooms are making strides in, and what do we need to work on?

I think we need to continue making strides, and I applaud NPR for doing this, to make sure that we hire people who reflect their communities.

I would like to point to NPR’s Code Switch blog. This is an effort that NPR has put together to cover race in the United States and it has talked about any number of really interesting things to me but may be controversial to others. For example, there was a long discussion recently about use of the word “yellow” when referring to people who are Asian American. This was written by an Asian American colleague. She looked into the history of the word ‚ how races were first defined an assigned colors, how people are not using that word today, how some people are using that word today.

We can only have that conversation or that kind of conversation if we have different people at the table talking to us about what their lived reality is really like.

Carla Eckels is director of cultural diversity and the host of Soulsations. Follow her on Twitter @Eckels. To contact KMUW News or to send in a news tip, reach us at news@kmuw.org.