Sonseeahray Tonsall’s reason for pivoting from ballet, a staple from age 4 through her late teens, to journalism is simple.
“I wanted to be Jane Pauley,” says the Berkeley-born and Oakland-raised Fox40 reporter. News reporting provides the natural empath, whose first name means “morning star” in Apache, a platform to illuminate all sides of a story. “That’s something that’s in my heart—just how I live,” she says. “The beauty of storytelling is someone being vulnerable enough or willing to open up and be real in what they’re sharing. That’s what they trust us with.”
Tonsall’s stories concentrate on issues that affect people’s daily lives, from baby formula shortages to steps the Biden administration has taken to mitigate soaring gasoline costs. She talked with us about journalism as a touchstone of democracy and a tool for better understanding one another, and the story that, so far, has gotten away.
YOUR REPORTING IS VERY CAUSE-AND-EFFECT. HOW
MUCH OF THAT IS INTENTIONAL?
The business of news is one of the few equalizing forces in our society. It gives the king and the garbage collector the exact same ability to make a decision. People unfortunately sometimes make a lot of bad choices when they’re not fully informed about a situation.
HOW MUCH RESPONSIBILITY DO NEWS ORGANIZATIONS
BEAR FOR ENSURING PEOPLE ARE ACCURATELY INFORMED?
News managers can set very high standards to demand that the people who are going out to tell these stories are looking for all the stakeholders—for the people who have been forgotten.
YOUR REPORTS ARE MUCH LONGER THAN TYPICAL SEGMENTS.
WHAT STORIES HAVE YOU HAD TO FIGHT FOR?
After the George Floyd protests, our news director had an idea of talking to some different voices in our community in a different way. We ended up calling the series “Conversations for Change.” These were deep profiles on people in our community who may often be misunderstood. For example, the only interaction that a lot of folks are gonna have with a protester at a Black Lives Matter rally is gonna be when those folks are blocking an intersection that they need to pass through to go home. There’s not necessarily a lot of understanding born in that moment. These pieces were about seven minutes long. You ask somebody for seven minutes of real estate in a regular news broadcast and everybody’s like, “Really? Nobody wants to listen to that.” Absolutely not true. I think there most definitely is an appetite when people are honest with themselves about people being willing to get out of their silos and listen to another perspective. And I think it’s important at certain times for even the local news to devote chunks of time to something like that.
WHAT FASCINATING INTERVIEW OR CLOSE CALL CAN YOU
TELL US ABOUT?
To talk to someone local in the antifa movement would be very interesting to me, but people are very concerned about their safety and about being misunderstood. And I can understand that. I think there’s a lot of misunderstanding of antifa. It gets painted, like many other groups do, with some interesting brushes. But I think when you hear those voices from the inside is when everyone learns more about what something is really about. I got real close a couple times, but people got skittish and backed out.