Best Practices Series: Race and COVID-19

Coronavirus reporting has the potential to expose systemic inequities and prompt a larger conversation about how society responds to racially aggressive behavior.

By Jean Marie Brown

For the moment, the bulk of the COVID-19 coverage is abstract. It’s centered around numbers, as we try to quantify those who are infected and those who succumb to the virus. But in the coming weeks, journalists need to drill down, going past the numbers and episodic obituaries.

COVID-19 is stripping society bare and revealing frailties that need to be explored long after we can go outside and move freely again. When it comes to matters of race, the virus has the potential to lay bare the consequences of decades of systemic inequities and prompt a larger conversation about how people respond to racially aggressive behavior.

Early reporting by several outlets has made note of these vulnerabilities, which are likely rooted in racial inequities around health care and income. It has also renewed debate about microaggressions and how people who are targeted should respond to attacks.

In setting forth the concept of societal Fault Lines, Robert Maynard argued that individual and group Fault Lines and fissures influence how news is covered by journalists and received by the public. The Fault Lines recognize that major events in this country are experienced and framed by race, gender, geography, generation, class and sexual orientation, as well as fissures such as politics and religion.

Journalists often create news frames based on the influence of their Fault Lines. But to produce meaningful work, they often need to look beyond their norms, and societal expectations and ask why. With respect to COVID-19, it’s important to understand why some populations have been more vulnerable than others. It’s not enough to report the numbers, journalists need to probe for reasons. They need to develop coverage that reflects the systemic issues that color American society.

For example, while Black people make up about 30 percent of Chicagoans, they make up 72 percent of COVID-19 deaths. Same thing in Milwaukee County, Wisconsin where black people account for about 26 percent of the population, but more than half of all COVID-19 cases. And in Charlotte, North Carolina, which is 32.9 percent black, black people accounted for 44 percent of confirmed cases.

In Louisiana, more than 70 percent of COVID-19 deaths are African American, the state’s governor reported.

Oftentimes, journalists write stories involving health from a middle-class frame, where having insurance, making annual, or more frequent doctor visits for preventative care is the norm. Prior to the cuts to the Affordable Care Act, 19 percent of Hispanic adults and nearly 12 percent of black adults lacked insurance, according to a report by the Kaiser Foundation.

Stories noting the deaths of some of these people have included comments that the person had no pre-existing conditions. But I suspect in too many of these cases this is a fallacy. After all, if black people are underinsured or uninsured, there’s a likelihood they could have had pre-existing conditions that went undiagnosed, or perhaps untreated.

There are access to care issues for black people with insurance as researchers have repeatedly found disparities in how doctors care for black and white patients with similar diagnosis.

These deaths and illnesses give journalists an opportunity to explore health care in the U.S. and its role in the quality of people’s lives.

In addition to racial disparities in health care, COVID-19 has reminded people of how quickly civility among people of different races or ethnicities can evaporate or turn ugly. Viruses know no boundaries, yet COVID-19 seems to be indelibly linked to China where it is believed to have first emerged.

Early coverage identified the illness as the “Wuhan Virus,” until the World Health Organization dubbed it COVID-19 and called on people not to link it to a specific country. The discrimination faced by Asians in Western Society is well-documented. Immigration laws in this country were first used against the Chinese, and let’s not forget the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. With events like those as a historical backdrop, it’s understandable that Asian Americans and others objected to the president’s use of the term “Chinese flu.”

In February, AAJA suggested guidelines for coverage of the virus that encouraged journalists to avoid stereotypes and racist frames. A month later the organization had to take a stand against racism directed at members of the Asian community because of COVID-19.

Yet, some mainstream coverage has debated whether geographically identifying the virus is racist. https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2020/03/09/coronavirus-wuhan-virus-gosar/

https://nypost.com/2020/03/09/its-not-racist-to-call-it-the-wuhan-virus/

If a group can articulate why specific behaviors are insulting, or worse, threatening, why do mainstream journalists insist on finding people to defend the behavior?

Andrew Yang’s op-ed piece in the Washington Post extolling Asians to counter attacks by proving their patriotism only reinforced the notion that somehow those targeted are responsible for the behavior of their attackers and that by altering their actions they will be safe. We no longer use this frame in the context of sexual attacks and misconduct, so why do we continue to promote it in areas involving race?

COVID-19 has the potential to provoke conversations and coverage how race affects how people live and thrive in this country and how we treat each other.

MAYNARD INSTITUTE FAULT LINES COVID-19 COVERAGE EXERCISE:

It’s not enough to cite race in the accounting of death tolls and confirmed cases. As a society, we must consider if there were underlying reasons that left certain communities vulnerable.

As you gather with your team over Zoom, (we at the Maynard Institute assume you’re following CDC guidelines regarding social distancing) take some time to think about how you might cover the racial implications of COVID-19 in your community.

Some things to consider as you brainstorm:

  • Do you have relationships with members of the impacted community(s)?
  • Are you trusted by racially diverse members of your community? If not, how will you gain trust?
  • Does your engagement strategy reach across the Fault Line of race?
  • Are there collaboration strategies that can help you report this story? Are there other news outlets or neighborhood organizations connected to or working to support communities you’re not? How might you work with them?
  • Have you covered all segments of your community and gone to neighborhoods that don’t look like yours?
  • Who has access to the internet and who doesn’t? Do all areas have access to high speed internet?
  • Where’s the medical district in your community? What about doctor’s offices? Who has ready access to medical care and who doesn’t?

Tips for thinking across the Fault Lines:

  • Think beyond your own societal gaze. How you see the world is shaped by how you align across the Fault Lines; it’s important to recognize that others don’t always see it your way and that isn’t necessarily wrong.
  • Missing someone’s Fault Lines erodes their trust in you and ultimately your credibility.
  • Remember, Fault Lines can help explain why two people can look at the same events and come away with very different viewpoints about what they just saw.
  • Keep this in mind when thinking about coverage, sources, engagement strategies and staffing.
  • Be intentional about who you tap on your staff and in your community, as you to develop story ideas.

Jean Marie Brown is an Assistant Professor of Professional Practice at Texas Christian University and a core Maynard Institute Fault Lines Trainer. For more information about remote Fault Lines training please email Martin Reynolds at mreynolds@mije.org.

The Maynard Institute for Journalism Education

Fighting for newsrooms that represent America since 1977.

The Maynard Institute for Journalism Education

The nation’s oldest organization dedicated to helping the news media accurately, fairly & credibly portray all segments of society.

The Maynard Institute for Journalism Education

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The nation’s oldest organization dedicated to helping the news media accurately, fairly & credibly portray all segments of society. mije.org & bit.ly/39iiNOA

The Maynard Institute for Journalism Education

The nation’s oldest organization dedicated to helping the news media accurately, fairly & credibly portray all segments of society.