How journalists should cover prejudice, now

African-American boy selling The Washington Daily News, November 1921. (Children’s Bureau Centennial/Flickr Creative Commons)

Note: As I wrote this post, I learned that NPR’s Marketplace fired reporter, Lewis Wallace for airing on a personal blog, his thoughts on prejudice, objectivity and the journalist’s role. Wallace identifies as trans. For a Marketplace response, see this Margaret Sullivan column.

Right now is always the time to re-watch Spotlight, which won Best Picture at the 2016 Academy Awards. The movie is about Boston Globe reporters who in 2002 revealed the Catholic Church’s cover-up of decades of child sexual abuse by 90 parish priests. It’s difficult to imagine that one priest could get away with repeatedly hurting children much less 90. But our current skepticism is a direct result of these Globe probes of the institution. What I like about Spotlight though is that as reporters and editors pull up the Church’s moldy flooring, the rot gets on ‘em, too.

For years the paper had downplayed or overlooked allegations, including an early list of 20 priests vetted by a credible source. It took an outsider, a Jewish editor new to Catholic Boston, to align allegations of child abuse in the Church with the public interest of Globe readers. Then there’s the Armenian (played by Stanley Tucci, one of my faves). He’s the ostracized plaintiffs’ attorney who looks like he shops at Florsheim’s in the mall. As the movie itself emphasizes, it’s not a coincidence that the truth-seekers are different.

Any traveler to a foreign country knows: we are gifted with second-sight. So too are Outsider identities in homogeneous newsrooms. If the press wants to (re)gain the public trust, allow Outsiders to shape its pursuit of “the public interest.” My suggestion: overhaul how you cover prejudice. Focus on reporting. Examine why the topic’s best coverage often comes from the opinion section — from savvies whom you did not employ nor train — and not your reporters.

When it comes to reporting on prejudice, the press is stuck on a single frame. It’s how Trump’s victory surprised them, and my ability to see this problem has nothing and everything to do with me being a black woman immigrant in America.

It is necessary, as media columnist Margaret Sullivan wrote last weekend, that the press hold government accountable, emphasize accuracy and stand firm for factual reality. But that is not enough. Public anger says that is not enough. In a republic where residential segregation is hard-coded in, the press must also help us understand our separated communities and how we knit together or don’t. News media is our glue. No other institution — not our schools, not our jobs and certainly not our churches — comes closest to that function. Forgive me if my ideals sound a bit abstract. Here’s what prompted me to write.

Last weekend, I read another New York Times dispatch from the heart of Trump’s America that concerned me. I re-watched Spotlight, looking for a solution to the question, how can news outlets that matter do better journalism? I don’t mean to suggest The Times is the only outlet at fault. But they get special attention because I subscribe.

In blue America last Saturday, crowds were gathering at airports to protest Trump’s executive order on immigration. While I had my hunches, I still sought reporting on reactions from red and Trump America. My hunches are prejudices after all; they could be wrong. News media is the only spoke in the national wheel that will help me to know Other people beyond my own bias. I have no way of interacting with a woman with a Vote Trump sign in her yard. I barely interact with anyone with a yard.

In Mount Gilead, Ohio, The Times told me that a Ms. Cottrell supports The Wall. “I’m tired of them [unspecified immigrants] being here illegally and cutthroating the rest of us,” she says. I learn that, “people here…felt as if immigration had undercut wages for construction workers in the area.” And an unidentified man feels, “uneasy about the longstanding Somali community in Columbus, about an hour’s drive south.”

Ms. Cottrell never explains why she believes immigrants are cutthroating the rest of us — or she isn’t asked. The article never confirms if immigration undercut construction wages — or it’s never researched. The man never explains what makes him uneasy about nearby Somalis — or he isn’t asked. Each explanation would take up the space of a sentence, if that much. I sought fact-based reporting — not opinion, nor analysis —on a different community and this article fails.

Instead, the article leaves prejudice undisturbed like the glassy surface of a country lake, with no hint of the life below. I get the gift of Mt Gilead residents’ ill feelings about racial and ethnic groups, but no ‘why’ or fact-checking when the person identifies a cause-and-effect. Erm, thanks? I subscribe to The Times for many good reasons and half-told stories isn’t one of them.

From my Outsider’s perspective, I see two journalistic faults and the second has nothing to do with me. One, these halfies fail my public interest: knowing how our segregated communities knit together and how we unravel. When Ms. Cottrell switches her displeasure from immigrants to the government, the article does its job and explains. She spent years trying to get her husband’s disability claim approved by the Veterans Administration. The claims wait clues me into why she dislikes government; she thinks it failed her family during what must have been a time of need.

So why do editors dump the reflex to add context when the subject is prejudice? Regardless of whether the source’s beliefs are logical — and I slot declining construction wages under ‘logical’ — ask, why. I happen to like the idea of a pluralist democracy. Whatever your politics, it won’t last if we don’t really know where Other Americans are coming from. It won’t last if our hunches rule.

Two, Mt Gilead residents also lose. When reporters skip the ‘why’ and don’t trouble the water, they fail to connect personal troubles with public issues. That sociological distinction resurfaced this January in media critic, Jay Rosen’s advice for journalists. The former arises from immediate experience whereas the latter, according to sociologist-journalist C. Wright Mills, “is a public matter: some value cherished by publics is felt to be threatened”. Rosen says:

“Journalists, I think, need to listen for people’s troubles, and find the points where they connect to public issues. And they have to be better at that than a broken political system is. From there they can start to rebuild trust. … Somehow this insight will have to be combined with [Margaret Sullivan’s] more traditional virtues in journalism, if the press is going to withstand the attacks that are coming and thrive in a far more dangerous world.” [Emphasis mine]

Is there no public issue to highlight by asking Ms. Cottrell how immigrants are “cutthroating us?” Researching Mt Gilead residents’ belief that immigration depressed local construction wages? Asking why Somalis an hour’s drive away makes a man uneasy? In an earlier Times dispatch from Trump’s America by a different reporter, a Ms. Furman of Monticello, Iowa complains that, “‘Chicago people’ were moving to Burlington to receive higher benefits and bringing crime.”

The article doesn’t explain who ‘Chicago people’ are; I assume they look like me. But that omission is a side annoyance and I’m interested in journalism’s higher calling. Is there no public issue to highlight by researching Ms. Furman’s private trouble that ‘Chicago people’ get higher benefits than unidentified preferred people? By fact-checking if crime spiked after the the ‘Chicago people’ arrived? I think there is.

For news media a particular kind of prejudice — that coming from working class whites living in the south, rural and middle America — is a ‘get.’ But reporters need to listen better. Openly aired prejudices are signposts leading to public issues of interest to the local and national community. Follow the signs.

Feeling uneasy about nearby Somalis ‘just because,’ is different from feeling uneasy because theirs is the only growing community in a white, Christian area. Disliking immigrants because you can’t stand their accents is different from disliking them because competition caused area construction wages to fall. I suspect that many who share these and similar views would like the press to probe deeper than simply recording bias.

I could’ve titled this piece, “How news media should cover prejudice in Trump’s America.” But that would’ve been bullshit and there’s enough of that going around. Prejudice didn’t appear under Trump; it reclaimed its public power after festering beneath untroubled waters. This is happening at a time when there are fewer bodies doing fact-based reporting (between 2000 and 2015 daily newspapers lost about 25,000 reporters, the worker bees of our ecosystem). If the press wants to light a very dark path then empower Outsider perspectives that challenge you but, also hew to the verities of journalism.

“It matters who is making editorial decisions: I think marginalized people, more than ever now, need to be at the table shaping the stories the fact-based news media puts out,” Lewis Wallace wrote. Then he lost his job.

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