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The Guardian

‘I had to change who I am’: ‘bison’ reporter Deion Broxton on his TV accent struggle

The journalist whose close call with a Yellowstone bison went viral tells of how he was judged on his Baltimore accent – and how he adjusted to do what he loved Deion Broxton during his viral moment last year. On his accent struggle, he said: ‘[An employer] said: I like you a lot, but your accent is a bit strong. If you can work on that, I would love to hire you.’ Photograph: NBC Montana This time last year, Montana KTVM reporter Deion Broxton had a close call with a herd of bison in Yellowstone national park. In the middle of a piece to camera, he saw the bison approaching. Mid-sentence, his eyes became locked in a side-eye. “Oh my God,” he said. “Oh no, I ain’t messin’ with you.” Camera still running, he packed his kit into his trunk and hastily departed. If you weren’t one of the 15 million people that watched the viral video, you may have seen references to it elsewhere – like on the Yellowstone poster that repurposed “OH NO, NOT MESSING WITH YOU” for one of its wildlife safety signs. Countless memes ran along his one-liner (“When you see someone coughing at the grocery store”). Jackson State Tigers head coach and former NFL player Deion Sanders even chimed in, saying: “ Someone has to tell the story”. Broxton did tell the story, again and again. He discussed it on CNN. He spoke to alumni at his former college about it. It even got added to his Iowa News Now biography. The video stuck perhaps because it came at a time when we all needed some levity this time last year. It also stuck, perhaps, because of Broxton’s accent. Broxton – a Black, Baltimore native – already knew that he would stand out in a place like Montana when he took the job that led to his viral moment. When we talk over the phone, he talked about the learning curve when he first started covering the west. There was a herd of bison walking right toward me at @YellowstoneNPS today! pic.twitter.com/sdrBvojpwF— Deion Broxton (@DeionBroxton) March 25, 2020 “I’m from Baltimore, I’m from the hood,” he laughs. “I’m used to seeing, like, pitbulls and rats. So when I first got to Yellowstone as an early reporter, my jaw dropped, because I’d never seen a bison. I’d never seen an owl. I’d never seen antelope. Every time I went to the park, I was staring in amazement at these animals.” After a year of reporting on the park, however, he had learned a thing or two about bison. When the herd approached him last March, he remembered the time a nine-year-old got thrown in the air by one; the countless videos of people being charged and gored; the time a man got arrested for trying to taunt one off the road while drunk. He did not want to become the next horror story. “Bison can run up to 35 miles per hour. I think Usain Bolt runs like 27 miles an hour. So the only thing that went through my mind was that if they charged me, I wouldn’t be able to get in my car in time,” he says. While the story propelled him to viral fame and success followed (he has just been shortlisted for an award from the Iowa Broadcast News Association for some of his TV reportage) – what is less known is the struggle that came before it. Broxton could not get a TV job as a reporter for years because of his accent. He spent thousands of dollars on speech training, to the point that his accent has now probably permanently changed. So when he reacted in that viral moment, viewers saw the version of himself he usually hides. “I was in survival [mode]. Absolutely. I’m still amazed I didn’t cuss, because I have a bad mouth,” he told me. Bill Clinton has a southern accent and he became president. So why can’t journalists have accents? Broxton first learned that people thought his accent was not “fit” for TV after graduating in 2016, when a prospective employer called to talk to him about it. “He said: I like you a lot, but your accent is a bit strong. If you can work on that, I would love to hire you.” It’s clear Broxton is conflicted about hearing those words from the recruiter. He views them as racist – a code for not sounding too Black on TV. But at the time, he just wanted to get ahead. “I didn’t care. I was like, I want to be a broadcast journalist, so I’m going to do what it takes,” he says. Broxton, who grew up on food stamps and saw his mom behind on payments when he got into a private high school, just viewed it as another example of the ways in which Black people and those who aren’t wealthy have to work harder to get ahead. When he didn’t get a call back after being warned a second time about his accent, he called a speech pathologist. “I said: I want to be a broadcast journalist. And I keep getting turned down. I almost had a job in Florida, but they said my accent was a problem. Can you please help me?” He describes himself at that point as having been “pissed” – but he took it in his stride, seeing it as something he would have to do to achieve his ambitions. Broxton uses a lot of sporting analogies. He tells me lessons he learned from LeBron James – “He said when you see results from hard work, it just makes you want to work harder”; and from Ray Lewis – “You can jump higher than me, you can run faster, you can lift more weights, but you will never out-work me”. All of these lessons seemed to come in handy. For 13 weeks in a row, he drove to the speech therapist’s house, recording himself at the start of the lesson, engaging in speech exercises, and then re-recording himself at the end. When he saw the first video he thought he sounded pretty normal. But by the end he realized how much his voice had changed. “It was night and day. I think my accent is forever changed because of that training,” he says. “I’ve been around white people for the last three years. So I can’t use my normal way of talking. I’ve been using my training 24/7 for the last three years. And I’m slowly wiping my accent out.” At the end of his sessions, he put together a reporter reel with his new voice. Then, everything changed. “I had three job interviews after one week!” He is happy for his success, but he can’t help but feel conflicted. Sometimes he feels robbed of his identity. For a long time, he argued with family over being an “Uncle Tom” and although his old accent slips out around Black people, he feels he fits in neither space. He felt alienated by his work for being Black, and shunned by his own community, who believed he had gone the other way, accusing him of “trying to sound white”. “I was sick of hearing that,” he says. “It’s always about how I’m separating myself from other people.” He differentiates between what he should have had to do and what he did. “I believe in a standard of professionalism,” he says – but that’s very different to simply having an accent. “It does bother me. I had to change kind of who I am to be on TV.” For him, the question comes down to a double standard around what kinds of voices are acceptable on TV. “Look at Bill Clinton. He has a southern accent. And he became president. So why can’t journalists have accents?”

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