An Interview with Matt Harvey of The TRiiBE – Chicago Review of Books


At this year’s CHIRBy Awards, The TRiiBE Staff Writer Matt Harvey won the essay/short story prize for his article “When reporting on movement actions, revolutionary joy must be given the same space as the struggle.” What makes his essay particularly exceptional is also what makes it the journalistic standard at The TRiiBE. There are few, if any, Chicago media outlets that have met their staff’s level of care and devotion to exploring the full picture of the joy, vulnerability, and bravery of the demonstrators that make up the protest movement. These are not the stories that were featured in the front pages of the Sunday paper or looped on the nightly news this past summer, but they are far more representative of the work organizers do. 

I spoke with Matt about his path to journalism, his experience covering the summer of protests in Chicago, and what he sees as the ideal role of reporters in covering the movement. As he explains in the interview, the landscapes of art and activism in Chicago are deeply intertwined; a shared world of stories that no one has told better and more honestly than Matt Harvey and The TRiiBE team. 

Michael Welch

I’d love to hear a bit about your path to The TRiiBE. What or who first drew you to journalism?

Matt Harvey

I had always been kind of a decent writer growing up, but I didn’t start thinking about myself as a writer for real until high school. There were a couple of different teachers that put me on the path toward it. My sophomore English teacher was a published writer, Jay Rehak. We had this assignment where we had to write a chapter of a book, and he took me aside and told me if I wanted to write as a career, if I put my energy toward it, I could do it. I was like, “Okay, word.” But I didn’t think much about journalism until I had another teacher, Alayna Washington. She would assign these papers that were like these deep investigations, and she would grade so rigorously that you actually had to do the investigation and the research. And it was so easy for her to call you out on it if you didn’t do it. I guess I was kind of challenged and intrigued by that, and I enjoyed her class a lot. So she was a big inspiration in that sense. 

I think after that class I wanted to see what combined that writing and investigation, and the next logical step was journalism. So that’s how I started applying to colleges, and eventually I got an internship at the [Chicago] Reader after my sophomore year of college. And then I went on to write about arts and culture mainly. So The TRiiBE was the first time I really covered protests and press conferences, talking to politicians and activists. I did have a familiarity with some activists already, because the interesting thing about Chicago is that much of the landscape is intertwined with arts and activism, so there’s a lot of people that cross over. I met Tiffany [Walden] the first year I interned at the Reader, and we were always trying to work together on different things. Then back in February or March I was looking for work and saw that The TRiiBE had a listing. So I applied, and we were both excited to see me make it through the end of that process.

Michael Welch

Who are some of the writers you turn to for inspiration in your own work? 

Matt Harvey

In my own writing, I think one of the main ones that I enjoy reading is Shea Serrano. I appreciate that he has a really unique voice. It feels personal; I feel like I’m listening to somebody talk. He’s someone who actually knows what he’s talking about, and is able to communicate in this really interesting and comical, creative way. It’s something I try to do, especially recently with stuff that’s kind of heavy to constantly be reporting on. You have to be able to inject some creativity into the story to keep people coming back. Because at the end of the day I’m reporting on four or five different protests about the same thing essentially, but they look, sound, and feel different, and I have to be able to communicate that in a creative way.

Ta-Nehisi Coates is another writer I read a lot when I was first starting. Jamila Woods, she’s another writer and musician I enjoy a lot. Jamilah Lemieux, she’s a writer from Chicago as well. She actually went to Whitney Young, and she’s a great journalist. There are a few others here and there. I love Tiffany Walden, who’s an editor of mine. The first time I ever read her I thought her writing was amazing. Then Leor Galil, my guy. Honestly, he tells stories that no one else would really think to tell, and in such an amazing, in depth way. You read 5,000 word stories from him and not feel like you’ve broken a sweat. And Maya Dukmasova too, also from the Reader. She’s an amazing journalist, an amazing researcher, and a hustler for real. Out of anybody I’ve ever worked with directly, she was definitely the most impressive just in terms of watching a journalist do their job. I was like, “Damn, this is what I want to do.” 

Michael Welch

Your award-winning essay highlights a number of instances of revolutionary joy and the ways many journalists in Chicago fail to cover them effectively. You note how many reporters you’ve seen searching for scenes of tension or unrest before quickly leaving when they find moments of dancing, singing, and joyful protest. What is your specific approach to covering demonstrations—whose stories do you look to tell and when do you know not to hit record?

Matt Harvey

I think that one of the interesting things about the idea of objectivity in journalism is that the central idea is that you don’t want to pick sides. And in doing that, what journalists will tell themselves is that being objective is recording something just because it’s happening. They think as a journalist, my job is to report what’s happening and so I’ve got to record everything. But, when you do publish these videos for the public and you’re ultimately making them available for police consumption, what you’re doing is you are inadvertently erring on the side of the police. And when people are looting these stores or ransacking these huge bastions of capitalism and greed that we see downtown, you have to realize that it is a form of protest to a degree. It is a form of backlash to the system. You could agree or disagree about if it’s a proper form of backlash, but it is one nonetheless. And because of that I feel it’s my responsibility not to basically be on the police’s side and give them all this evidence that they can then use to convict people who are essentially protesting. When I’m out there, I’m not out there to tell the story of looting. There are a lot of breaking news journalists, and with those specific pursuits I can understand that they’re focusing a lot on the looting because you just have to tell this, this, and this. But when it comes to me, my questions are wider than who or what, because you can see what. My job is to get the why of it all and speak to people on the ground at the protests who aren’t necessarily the ones with the megaphone. I try to remain in constant contact with the folks that I interview to make sure they understand there’s an open line of communication between me and them. I don’t want people to think that I’m just using their voice for a story. I want them to feel that they’re building a relationship with me. I’m not saying every journalist has to do it like that, but I do think there’s something to say about communicating with the people that you are using as subjects in your stories, and being responsible to them. I think it adds a level to the storytelling.

Michael Welch

You mentioned that many organizers understandably distrust media outlets reporting on demonstrations. Was that the case for you in your own reporting, and how have you worked to build that trust?

Matt Harvey

This also kind ties into what I said about Chicago arts, because it gave me a leg up. I would go to these protests and I would run into a lot of people that I met at open mics or I covered previously in stories for the Reader. So I would run into folks that I was familiar with and I’d be able to speak to them for stories. Sometimes they’d be homies with the people that were holding the microphone. Or there’d be times where I’d have to just walk up to people and say “I’m a reporter for The TRiiBE,” and go through that whole rigamarole. I think that a lot of journalists struggle with communicating with people directly, face-to-face, and it’s interesting because that’s what journalism is supposed to be built on. But we’re in this era of digital journalism, so we have so many people that are talented writers but might not be great at being personable and coming up to a random person on the street. I think that’s a skill people struggle with, and I still try to improve on the regular. But not a lot of journalists have that skill, and especially white reporters that are reporting on large crowds of Black people. 

But you’ve got to do your job properly. Like, after the first protests on Memorial Day weekend I could have written a story that made activists feel like I wasn’t hearing them. And that would’ve ruined the relationship. But because my writing came out in a real and honest way, and it came from a place of personal significance, people were a little more open to me. So when you can show that work as a reference, people can trust you to tell their story properly. That to me is one of the biggest things as a journalist. I’m getting paid at the end of the day, so I have to take that responsibility seriously and take their story as something precious. They’re giving me their story for free. You have to give them something valuable back, and that’s a story that accurately depicts what they’re going through and what they’re fighting for. 

Michael Welch

Whether mainstream news outlets are either falling short of presenting a full view of the work organizers are doing or actively distorting and misrepresenting the narrative, it’s clear they’re missing the mark. What do you see as the ideal role of journalists in portraying the movement, and what are some tangible steps reporters can take?

Matt Harvey

I think our job is to just tell the truth. It sounds really basic, but at the same time it’s really confusing for a lot of journalists clearly. Because we often rely on that trope of objectivity, and in the traditional sense what that will tell you is that if I am a reporter, I take what the police put out in their press conferences and that’s what I’m putting in my story. And we have evidence over time that shows that police are not entirely trustworthy in that way. You can’t just take their word for it a lot of the time. We have proof of this over and over again, and CPD especially is a major culprit of that. So when I get a statement from the police, I can’t just take that and run with it and treat it as law, because a lot of the time they like to create their own narrative. As a reporter you have to be on the ground looking at everything from a 360 degree way. You have to be looking at the lines of the police officers as much as you are the lines of protesters. You have to be scrutinizing and analyzing the actions of not just the protesters, but also the police. In doing that, you get a better sense of not just what each of the sides’ actions are, but also their relationship to one another. So, what do the police even feel like they’re out there to do? Are they out there to arrest people? Are they out there to protect protestors who are using their first amendment rights? Or are they here to protect these businesses? Are they here to kettle and abuse people? And I’m not necessarily saying they are out there to do these things, but when those things happen we have to be able to look and say “yes, the police attacked a person.” And even if the police come out tomorrow and give all these numbers about officers injured on the job, you still have to tell that story about the person that the police attacked. Because at the end of the day these are civilians. Just like the police have a responsibility to serve, you as a journalist have a responsibility to serve.

Michael Welch

Your essay is centered on displays of revolutionary joy as an act of protest, as well as revolutionary vulnerability. If these instances are often ignored by reporters, do you see your telling of these individual stories of joy as a revolutionary act?

Matt Harvey

I mean, I think it’s kind of strong to call it a revolutionary act itself. I think it’s definitely important and significant, and I also think it’s beneficial. But to call it revolutionary to report on the acts themselves is a bit strong, because at the end of the day I am press. I am protected in a certain way that protesters aren’t. Even if the police don’t know me, a lot of the other reporters around know who I am. So I have a certain level of privilege in those spaces. I think that doing my job as a reporter isn’t necessarily a revolutionary act. I’m reporting on revolutionary acts and people that are putting their bodies on the line, and in doing that I’m putting my body on the line yeah, but I wouldn’t say what I’m doing is any more revolutionary than a reporter that’s being sent to report on the war in Iraq. It might be something that’s definitely dangerous and brave of them, but not necessarily revolutionary. But it has special importance, definitely, because it does require vulnerability. I end up injecting a lot of my voice and my personal stories into some of the reporting I do, because I can’t act like my life isn’t intertwined with this in a lot of ways. And I think a mistake a lot of journalists make is believing that people think robots are writing these stories. When you try to take all personality away from a story, you’re trying to convince readers that they’re not reading a story by a real individual. I’m trying to make sure that while I’m not centering myself in the story, I’m trying to make sure people know that a real person is writing it.

Michael Welch

I want to leave some space open for you to speak on The TRiiBE and the work your team is doing. How can CHIRB readers and the literary community best support the platform?

Matt Harvey

The TRiiBE is an interesting little engine. We are putting out a lot of work and great reporting. We have a team that’s small but mighty. We have a decent impact and footprint. I think because our mission is so specific to us, there isn’t any other journalistic platform like us where we’re specifically writing toward and directly to Black Chicago. Everybody reports on Black Chicago, and when they do it’s honestly not great, but when you’re reporting to the people you have a little more responsibility and accountability to them. I think that the job that we do is really unique in that way, and I think that we have some great people doing it. Right now we’re writing stories that are recapping the protests and exploring the relationship with the police, mayor, and civilians of Chicago, and how it evolved through the course of this year. We have graphics and a bunch of data going into these stories to wrap up the year. We’re working on a bunch of stuff honestly, and I think we’re doing a great job if I do say so myself. I mean, it won us a CHIRBy award.

The best way to support us is of course to read our stories, to donate, subscribe to our mailing list, and to follow us on Youtube, where we have the We Real Chicago show every Thursday. Then we have TRiiBe Tuesdays, where we were even able to interview the mayor. Stay tuned to what we’re working on and enjoy our perspective.



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