From the Classroom

‘Everyone just wants somebody to hear their story’: how one Texas journalist rose to success and challenged newsroom norms

Bob Ray Sanders was one of three Black journalists hired by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram shortly after he graduated in 1969.

Upon receiving a tape recorder and a Kodak box camera for his 11th birthday in 1958, Bob Ray Sanders dreamed of being a journalist one day. This dream, however, did not always feel attainable for a Black man from Fort Worth, Texas during a time when only white journalists dominated newsrooms across the country.

As a young boy, Sanders would often play on the courthouse steps in downtown Fort Worth while his mother was grocery shopping a few blocks away. The memory of having to walk to the janitor’s closet to use the colored restroom baffled Sanders, considering the courthouse was where justice was supposed to prevail.

“Even at that young age,” Sanders said, “I would come out of the courthouse and wonder if that kind of discrimination, which was visible in the hallway of the courthouse, was happening in the courtrooms, what kind of justice was being dished out?”

Passionate toward race and criminal justice, Sanders went on to graduate from the University of North Texas in 1969 with a degree in journalism and a drive to incorporate a Black voice into the overwhelmingly white media.

Newsrooms had just begun hiring Black men in the time Sanders was enrolled in college. Subsequently, he was offered a job at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram as one of three Black journalists. Prior to this, Sanders said there was an unspoken rule that the only way a Black man’s name would appear on the cover of a newspaper was if he had killed a white man or raped a white woman.

Sanders can remember his father boasting once his first story was published.

“That’s him on the front page of paper, but he didn’t kill nobody,” his father had said.

In addition to writing for, and eventually becoming an associate editor and senior columnist for the Star-Telegram, Sanders joined KERA-TV, a public television station in Dallas, in 1972. With time and support from the station, he eventually became the vice president and station manager. Additionally, he hosted and produced News Addition, a segment on KERA-TV which aimed to tell controversial stories from unique perspectives.

Sanders went on to be inducted into the Texas Literary Hall of Fame in 2010, as well as the Hall of Fame for the National Association of Black Journalists in 2018. The Star-Telegram named this “the highest honor the NABJ can bestow,” in a story about the award. Referring to Sanders as “a trailblazer in North Texas journalism,” the NABJ recognized his outstanding work in a release announcing that year’s inductees.

He also won five awards from the Houston, New York and Chicago film festivals, along with a number of other prestigious awards throughout his career. Since retiring from the Star-Telegram in 2015, Sanders still works with various organizations including the Community Hospice of Texas, the AIDS Outreach Center in Fort Worth and Goodwill Industries.

With such success under his belt, Sanders urges young journalists to believe in what they are doing and to listen carefully when conducting interviews.

“If I only stick to my questions, I don’t really hear the answer,” said Sanders. “Sometimes that answer gives you a more important question to ask and that’s what gives you your story. So be a good listener.”

When asked about a challenge he has faced in his career, Sanders noted that writing heavy stories about criminal justice has taken an emotional toll.

“When the system has made mistakes and, in some cases, deliberate mistakes and refuses to correct them, you sometimes feel all alone because you feel like you’re the only one fighting,” said Sanders. “I still get letters from prison, to this day. Everyone just wants somebody to hear their story.”