“When you walk into that community, they’re going to see you the same way they see me: just another white woman. How are you going to get the community to trust you?”
This question came up during a recent interview I had for a position reporting on a community with large Latino and immigrant populations. The question was well intentioned, but I think it highlights a faulty notion that is prevalent in most newsrooms: only minorities should cover minority communities and issues.
On the surface, this makes sense. Being a member of a community means access to sources outsiders might not have, awareness of cultural nuances and language skills that may be necessary to interact with specific communities, especially immigrant ones.
But this mindset also means the impetus of covering minority communities — at least in an in-depth manner that explores the range of their experiences — almost always falls on the shoulders of minority journalists.
A study on racial profiling in newsrooms published by the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication suggested that this phenomenon — that of having minority journalists writing mostly about relatively powerless segments of society, while white journalists write mostly about powerful institutions — “reinforce(s) white dominance in newsrooms and shed(s) light on the social processes by which white dominance is perpetuated.”
On an organizational level, this means less people of color in general are working in newsrooms, but especially in editor roles and other positions of power. In fact, in 2018 the Pew Research Center reported that 77% of American newsroom employees are non-Hispanic whites compared to the 65% average for all U.S. workers.
On the individual level, it means pigeonholing and, at times, burning out minority reporters, while simultaneously allowing white reporters to largely ignore diversity issues and compartmentalize them as something that is not their responsibility.
Unfortunately, this pattern is nothing new. In 1968, the Kerner Commission declared that the press had: “too long basked in a white world, looking out of it, if at all, with white men’s eyes and a white perspective.”
That kind of perspective has never been adequate to serve the communities we report on, and it is way past due that we move away from it.
So where do we start? First, we need to throw out the concept that whiteness is the norm. We should represent people of diverse backgrounds in nuanced ways in all of our stories. And if we find a situation where diversity is lacking or where one group seems to be repeatedly portrayed in a shallow manner—well, that’s probably a story in and of itself.
Second, we need to reexamine how we cover race and minority issues. I’m not advocating to whitewash coverage of minority issues. In fact, I think collaborating with journalists of color (and that can mean everything from letting them take the lead on a story to bouncing ideas off them or looping them in during the editing process) will be an important step in balancing the load when it comes to minority reporting.
I came across a quote from an Asian American editor who was interviewed by media researcher Edward Pease for a study on satisfaction of minority journalists at U.S. newspapers that I think sums up this point quite well:
“I am insulted by the notion that only minorities can adequately cover minority news… A good journalist, regardless of racial background, brings a racial sensitivity to the story. A good journalist is capable of a breadth of reportage.”
In other words, covering issues with racial and cultural awareness and sensitivity is part of the job description. Fairness has long been one of the ideals of the journalism industry, even if we don’t always live up to it. It seems ridiculous to write it, but that should include when we write about minority communities and issues.
As a white journalist, yes, you may have to put in more time and effort to cover minority issues and communities than a person of color would. You will have to spend time in a community in which you feel out of place. You will have to understand cultural practices, slang, norms and more that you did not grow up with. You will have to accept being “otherized” and uncomfortable at times.
In other words, you will have to do the things journalists of color have always done.