14th Annual Conversation on Race and Entertainment Media: Robyn Lattaker-Johnson Event

By Fatima Bangura

Photos Courtesy of Dominique Forbes

Alongside the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communication, the NABJ-SU chapter helped the school with their 14th Annual Conversation on Race and Entertainment Media with special guest and Program Development Executive Robyn Lattaker-Johnson.

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A dynamic leader with over 20 years in the entertainment business, Lattaker-Johnson has launched 35 shows with BET and managed several hit shows on Syfy. She served as Vice President of Unscripted Development & Current Programming at Syfy from 2010-2014.

“Is diversity a checklist?” Lattaker-Johnson solemnly asked when prodded by interviewer and Newhouse Professor Dr. Charisse L’Pree.

Lattaker-Johnson detailed of an industry experience she had when a woman of Native American descent joined her office at Syfy. The white majority praised the half Native American woman. Not because of her skills and experience, but because she was a checkmark on the ‘Workplace Diversity Requirement Checklist.’

“I would like diversity to mean having more than one black person on a [television] show” said Lattaker-Johnson.

The audience erupted in snaps of affirmation.

Students from their own diverse backgrounds filled the Joyce Hergenhan auditorium to hear Lattaker-Johnson speak about multiple career experiences including how she began in the business.

“My path was designed for me,” she said as it was one that was meant to be.

Initially, she wanted to be a national news anchor. She graduated with a Bachelor’s in Broadcast Communications from the University of Washington. However, by the end of graduation she did not have an aspiring broadcast journalist’s prized possession—a demo reel. Lattaker-Johnson was more attracted to the fluff pieces at the end of the newscast, rather than the hard news, and was always interested in the underrepresented voices in documentaries. So she attended grad school in pursuit of filmmaking expertise.

When she entered the field had no idea ‘this’ job existed—a program development executive. As she settled into the position, she began to oversee, shepherd, and develop content. Her role included managing almost all creative choices that go into a television show, from the color of the paint on the wall to the actors’ wardrobe.

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On the topic of reality TV, an audience member asked Lattaker-Johnson whose truth is being told during an episode: The producer or the “reality star”? She explained it is in fact the producer’s truth. Why? Because they are responsible for controlling the edit.

While she doesn’t always agree with the content of the scripted reality programming that sucks in audiences who continually give shows the advertising, ratings, and inherently money required to stay on air, she truly has a special connection with her profession, both the good and bad.

“I love the voices, I love seeing the transformations.” Not all reality shows are catfights and duck hunting. Some content is actually touching. To see stories about strong people overcoming adversity or reuniting with long lost loved ones pulls at the heartstrings. Lattaker-Johnson said that is what she lives for.

When asked what her mission is for the rest of her career, Lattaker-Johnson said she is here to change the world a little bit.

“And I know I’ve changed it, but there’s more work to be done.”