The KRIV Houston reporter is making a name for himself with solid investigative reporting. But he also doesn’t overlook the fact that his work can have real consequences on the people in his stories. “You have to realize these are people,” Carey says, adding that he weighs every aspect of a story because even a piece “about a bad guy affects families. I try to be that way. Because once you lose that, I think you’ve lost yourself.”
Isiah Carey’s Mission: Covering The People
In September, KRIV Houston reporter/commentator Isiah Carey broke big national news — a Houston-area grand jury’s indictment of Minnesota Viking Adrian Peterson on child abuse charges — thanks to the years he spent courting suburban sources few reporters bother with. Carey, who didn’t even know who Peterson was at the time, did it while home sick from work.
His driveway confrontation of another shamed football player this year — the Houston Texans’ Arian Foster, a married man who got a college co-ed pregnant — went viral.
In 2009, Carey set out to bring attention to the plight of Houston’s homeless by living as a homeless man himself for 24 hours, all the way down to sleeping outside in one of their encampments. Bill White, Houston’s mayor at the time, was so impressed with that one that he declared June 23 of that year “Isiah Carey Day.”
Yet perhaps the story that best epitomizes the ethic that drives much of Carey’s work is the one he walked away from, despite its scandalous appeal.
It was two, maybe three, years ago, when Carey got a call from a parent, claiming that a local elementary school teacher, the kind of woman who’s named Teacher of the Year again and again, was actually a man.
The tip kicked Carey into high gear, driving him to comb through documents, learn what he could. He eventually found a Tennessee birth certificate that confirmed that the teacher was, indeed, a man.
While interviewing a psychologist for the story, the psychologist told Carey that his door would be open if he needed counseling after the story ran, as publically outing the teacher, like Carey was about to do, could throw her life into turmoil, maybe even make her suicidal.
At that moment, Carey realized there was really no point.
“The adult thing to do was walk away because there was no purpose exploiting the situation,” Carey says, adding that the teacher was causing no harm, actually improving kids’ lives with her teaching style. School administrators, after meeting with Carey, took no action. Why should he?
“You have to realize these are people,” Carey says, adding that he weighs every aspect of a story because even a story “about a bad guy affects families.”
“I try to be that way,” he says. “Because once you lose that, I think you’ve lost yourself.”
That sort of empathy, along with Carey’s affable, everyday man personality, emerge in his weekly Isiah Factor (Uncensored) reports, longer stories that cover everything from junked cars at the bottom of Houston bayous to the big news that Krispy Kreme (Carey’s favorite) plans to open its first Houston stores next year, meaning “we now have an official date to throw out all those other doughnuts we eat in Houston.”
Although Carey says his daily reports (simply The Isiah Factor) are played straight, he does let loose – adding commentary, personality and the like – in the weekly Factor, which can run up to five minutes long, and at times include guests. In some segments, Carey throws in a little humor. In others, “a little street language.”
The segments have made Carey a bit of a celebrity in Houston. Fans often come up to Carey, at times addressing him as “Mr. Factor.”
Carey has used his personality-driven reporting style to garner a big online and social media following. He created a news blog in 2009.
“I try to be the everyday person, not being too complicated and breaking stories down,” he says.
KRIV GM D’Artagnan Bebel has a long history with Carey, whom he first hired at WHBQ, the Fox affiliate in Memphis, and brought with him to Houston in 2001.
“Since Isiah’s move to Houston his work ethic, his open-for-business 24/7 mentality, is like no other, excepting our sports director Mark Berman,” Bebel says. “The bottom line, and I’ve said it time and again, is I wish I had eight more like him in our newsroom.”
Carey appreciates the opportunity that Bebel has given him. Considering himself “a general assignment reporter with a hard edge,” Carey says “he was stuck in a rut for years” before KRIV.
In addition to WHBW, his resume includes gigs at NBC affiliate KARK Little Rock, Ark., and his hometown’s CBS affiliate WAFB Baton Rouge, La. He says he followed “the formula for investigative reporters: rolling cameras, kicking down doors but with a very stiff delivery.”
But he never really had the patience for doing that sort of episodic work, preferring the rush of cranking out daily stories. “It just felt old,” Carey says. “After a while, you realize it’s just not you.”
Carey says that changed when he got to Houston, where he’s been given the creative license to add a little attitude to the mix. “I realized I could be myself by putting some of me into the story without crossing that journalistic and ethical line.”
Despite his accomplishments (which include Emmy and Society of Professional Journalists awards), Carey still adheres to the belief that “I’m not worth what I get paid unless I turn in something every day,” which he does.
Carey believes TV news — as well as the viewers it serves — would greatly benefit if reporters cultivated deeper relationships with the people they cover. “If they would come out of their homes – not just cover the news and go home and call it a day — we would have more compassionate coverage,” he says. “It doesn’t take a black reporter to cover black people if people would become part of their community.”
Then again, this is from a guy with uncommonly deep roots in TV news. Carey first wheedled his way into a newsroom when he was eight years old by writing a letter to Carlton Cremeens, then the news director at WAFB Baton Rouge, saying he wanted to be a reporter.
Cremeens, who has since passed away, invited Carey into the newsroom one afternoon and then asked him to return again and again.
“There I was a little black kid running around the newsroom,” he says. “People were smoking and cursing. And I said, ‘I love this place.’”
Carey got his first real TV job as a reporter and public affairs talk show host at WVLA Baton Rouge. In 1991, he re-joined WAFB, the same station he shadowed as a third grader. He remained there for four years, then joined KRIV in September 2001.
Carey has since adopted a mentoring spirit himself, advising five young reporters “around the clock” as part of his work with the Houston chapter of the Association of Black Journalists.
Although Carey always aspired to work in New York, he says his larger goal is now just “making it here in Houston,” where he’s carved out a niche by giving voices to communities he didn’t even know existed when he first took the job. “I just thought I’d see white people on horseback — cowboys,” he says.
“I wouldn’t call myself a champion,” Carey says, “but I am someone willing to cover the people.
You can watch some of Carey’s other stories below in which:
- He profiles a former Houston city councilman who says he was targeted for arrest because he is black.
This is one of a series of occasional profiles of people who make a difference in journalism. To suggest a candidate, contact Diana Marszalek at [email protected]. You can read other Air Check columns here.