BABE #279: MELANIE LAWSON - Anchor + Reporter, WJXT
Melanie is an anchor and reporter at WJXT-TV Channel 4 News, a Jacksonville, FL-based independent television station covering breaking news, headlines, weather and sports. She’s highly dedicated to providing honest, genuine and unbiased news, working diligently to ensure each story she shares is relevant and accurate. Working in media is no small feat and the pressure to always be “on” can become overwhelming, but Melanie’s unwavering dedication to her craft motivates her to tackle each day with poise and tenacity. She gives us an inside look into the inner workings of reporting and reiterates the importance of female empowerment in the newsroom and beyond.
Hometown: Winter Park, Florida
Current city: Jacksonville, FL
Alma mater: Hampton University (Virginia)
Degree: B.A, Broadcast Journalism
Hustle: Anchor + Reporter, WJXT-TV Channel 4 News (News4Jax)
Babe you admire and why?
My mom. She had a really tough life growing up; she lived in an orphanage part of her life, never really knew her mom and she went through college, got her doctorate and raised two girls—after my dad left her when I was only 2 years old. I look at her life and what she’s been able to accomplish through all the adversity. She’s definitely a hustler.
How do you spend your free time?
I truly live by the premise you can sleep when you’re dead. My free time consists of spending time with friends and family, planning my “what’s next,” listening to podcasts (my favorite right now is “Oprah’s SuperSoul Conversations”), working out, playing with my children and getting in some QT with the hubby.
What's your go-to coffee order and/or adult beverage?
Coffee really isn’t my “happy place”—it’s more of an as-needed drink. I enjoy a skinny margarita: lime, tequila, Grand Marnier and a dash of simple syrup.
What's your current power anthem?
“Worthy,” by India Arie: “Now listen up to this truth. You are me and I am you. Every one of us is worthy. Baby girl, worthy woman. Every one of us is worthy”
What would you eat for your very last meal?
I’d ask to skip the meal and just bring in my family so I can hold and hug them in my final moments. Actually… I might ask for a plate of warm chocolate chip cookies and ice cream to share.
Tell us about your hustle.
The job that pays the bills is journalist. I anchor the 5 a.m. and 6 a.m. newscasts on News4Jax, and I’m also the health reporter. My unpaid hustle: motivational speaker, emcee, comedian, mom, wife, housekeeper, family manager and lover of life!
Were you always interested in journalism?
No. I knew what I didn’t want to do. My sister was an engineer with dual degrees in math and engineering, and I knew I didn’t want to do that. For me, I realized I was inquisitive, I was able to speak in front of groups—I was very comfortable in that environment—I was an avid reader. It made sense. Being inquisitive was a big part of this. I could do the things journalists do well. I’m not a person who loves news. I don't really know how you could—it’s always so depressing. I don't really love news, but I love telling people stories. I was a writer, and I think for me it was just a natural thing. When I went to college, my mom said, “You better pick a major!” I thought: I know I don’t want to do all these things, so, journalism! Let’s try that! It really worked for me. I was told early to get as many internships as I could, so even before I graduated I had four. I tricked everyone into thinking I was getting credit [when I wasn’t], but I knew I needed to be entrenched in the environment, asking questions and understanding what the job was in order to excel. The internships were what really helped me get to where I am now.
What are the challenges of being in front of the camera and always being “on” as an anchor?
You realize you have great days, and you have bad days. You accept that. On your great days, you’re “on,” and on your bad days you work really hard to be “on.” I’m really working right now on being present in the moment, instead of my mind always drifting to getting off the air, or what I have to do when I get off the air. One challenge is always looking “on.” There are moments where you think: I don't freaking feel like putting on makeup. I don't want to do my hair. Now, with this new transition with my natural hair—I just wish people would be OK with my hair looking great one day and not so great the next day. That’s something challenging, because you’re always being judged by how you look. This is such a physical industry. People don't listen to you if you don't look appealing, or if you're not kind. You're so blessed and privileged if you get this opportunity. You meet people, and they feel like they know you and they trust you, and they treat you with such kindness that the average person doesn't get. I try really hard not to take that for granted. That's what I focus on when I have those days—this is a blessing and this is an opportunity. Every day is a new one, so you just try not to ignore that.
How have you dealt with the comments that have come as a reaction to being a woman of color and transitioning to only wearing your hair naturally?
I wear a wig on TV, and most people either know it or they don't. You have a whole population who does. Those people say things like: “Why do you wear your wig?” Or, “Your wig is___” and “You have the cheapest wig on TV.” I [want to say], “This is a $700 wig that was handmade for my head!” I get a lot of that, but, honestly—adversity and negativity is very diminished in my life. I recognize I need that, because that is a balance. If you only got good feedback all your life—people saying you're beautiful, you’re great, you’re perfect, they love you—you realize you can't grow from that feedback. For me, unless it's completely non-constructive, I read it and I listen. I’m never too high, I’m never too low. I’ve grown into that. I’ve definitely had moments where an email does hurt my feelings, or it pisses me off. But I work really hard to just stay balanced in the middle and just be normal, because I think when you're in the public eye, you're going to get the best and the worst—but it's all superficial. They don't know me, and they don't know my heart.
How do you strive for accuracy and honesty in the media you help produce?
In this day and age, where there is so much information out there, and tone matters. You know you have different people writing for you who have their own bias—it is a daily job. It is a daily struggle. Every day when I read a script, I have to check myself for my own bias and make sure we’re being accurate and fair to all aspects of our community. We fail every day at it, but the only thing you can do is hope you do better than what you would do if you didn't [try]. I don’t think people realize their own bias and the way it contributes to how they write for the anchor or even the way [the anchor] says something. We mess up and we’re successful every day. We say a lot of words and we do a lot of stories, so that's understandable. But [...] it's never malicious in our newscast; it's never on purpose or trying to take somebody down. We all have strong opinions about how we feel towards politics and the city, but we try our best to keep it out of how we deliver the news. We have a seminar about how we handle minorities and disenfranchised communities. If I see something that is glaringly wrong or biased, I pull the script. I keep a drawer full, and it has three big question marks on it. Those are the scripts we should never let on the air. That's the only way we can have those kinds of conversations. [...] It's a learning, growing process, and because you always have such turnover in the industry, you are teaching and training new people how not to be biased, how to be fair and I-really-don't-care-how-you-feel-about-it-just-tell-me-the-facts. It's not easy. Especially today, when a fact is only a fact when you check it. Before, you would get information, and you would [know it’s] a fact. But now you have to ask: Is that really from AP? Is CNN being biased in this? What did FOX say? You really have to check your facts—or what you think are facts.
What’s been your biggest career milestone?
In my daily life, there's always a challenge and a win. Right now, I feel so strong and powerful as I navigate the things I want to accomplish, especially career-wise. I went to my GM for my last contract negotiation, and I rocked it. I said, I want this, and I want this, and I want this and I want this money. I feel like right now I’m in my zone, where I can say what I want to say and ask for what I want to ask for, and mess up how I want to mess up; express when things are challenging or I need some support. My next steps and how I’m going to do them sometimes are my struggle, but I think now is such an awesome time. It’s taken time and maturity and growth—and failure and fights with my current news director—to get to this space.
How has being a woman—and a woman of color—affected your professional experience?
Because I am in an industry of demographics, if they’re looking for a black woman I’m in that pool. If they're not, they’re not. It’s definitely carved my way. I know when I’m needed in a newsroom, based on the demographic they already have. Being a black woman, especially in this community, is empowering because the black community loves me, they love my husband, they love our family, they’ve embraced us and they appreciate what I represent on television. It’s a very loving, embracing community, and the white community likes me too. There is a challenge, especially now with the natural hair, that sometimes people don’t recognize me and I get their bias. I can feel it immediately.
What’s the gender ratio like in your industry and role? Do you see that evolving?
It’s more women, for sure. But you always see the balance on the news desk. You’ll see two women anchors together before you see two men anchors together. Out in the field, it’s more women in the business. As for managers, it’s always more men in management roles, except at Channel 4. I’ve always had a woman boss, which I’m sure has really colored my experience, too. Management is under-represented by women and people of color, in general, which is unfortunate because the whole point of the newsroom is to represent the community you serve. If you don’t have that, you’re biased, and it’s very difficult to cover stories fairly. You don’t have that voice in the room.
How do you balance the responsibilities of your job with your role as a mom?
I am a firm believer in being there for my children, but also myself. Luckily, I wake up at three in the morning and I’m at work by 3:45 a.m., and I get home by noon. I can pick up my kids and have the evening with them, but I’m not afraid to not have that evening with them and do some things for myself. For me, it really works. My husband takes the kids in the morning and I am not involved in that process at all. I relinquish control of that. For me, there is a balance, because I make sure there is a balance. You have to create it, otherwise you just [don’t get it]. I’m tired a lot, though. I don’t get a lot of sleep. But I have a lot of energy—that’s my superpower. I have a lot of drive to do things, so I ask: opportunity or sleep? If I stay home, all I can think about is what I'm missing, so I might as well enjoy things and be a little tired when I wake up.
Who are some women in your field you look to for inspiration?
Diane Sawyer was always my hero when I was first coming up, because I felt like she was so compassionate and smart. I think that’s the balance you want as a journalist: you want to be able to connect with people, but you want to be smart and ask questions and be prepared. Look like you know what you’re doing, and still be beautiful and poised. That’s a tough balance. The expectations are very high for women in this industry to be all of that. Oprah. Obviously, I just love her. It's funny, because I’m a second-generation today-Oprah person. I didn't really watch the show growing up. I’m enjoying her podcast and like that being-present, connection, soul-development work she’s doing now.
Career and/or life advice for other babes?
Don’t be bound by yourself and your fears. Tap into your passion and what you want to do, and then do it. Don't make excuses as to why you’re not going to reach your full potential, and why you’re not going to reach your goals, and let people in the way, let time slip away—and then next thing you know, you didn't do the things you were going to do, because you had other things on your plate. Prioritize what’s important to you and then make it happen. Check off the list of the things that are important to you and get them done. I think we make so many excuses in life about why we’re not doing things—and why we’re not happy. True happiness is being happy with where you are, instead of saying it’s not enough. That’s a hard thing to do—for anyone, but especially women, because we’re always putting ourselves down. If you can be very specific about the things you want to do and knock them off, you’ll see how awesome you are.
In partnership with: Generation W
Generation W is an ever-growing, enthusiastic community and national nonprofit that embraces the guiding tenets of education, inspiration, connection and the power of women’s leadership. Join the BWH team at the next signature Generation W event at Jacksonville’s University of North Florida on Friday April 3, 2020!