False equivalency and crisis reporting

Giving prejudiced voices 50 percent of coverage doesn’t make your reporting impartial.

By Jean Marie Brown

Sift through the COVID-19 reports and you’ll likely find the Fault Line of race just below the surface.

You’re also likely to find journalists falling into the trap of false equivalency in the name of “fairness” or in an effort to reveal official bias and prejudice, or ignoring the role of race and the people involved in the name of the bigger story. The journalists writing these stories are well-intentioned, I’m sure. They are trying to tell a horrible story in a way that will resonate with and enlighten the public. But they must take care that their framing of issues doesn’t negate the humanity of those they are covering or reinforce stereotypes.

The story of the outbreak in Sioux Falls, South Dakota that’s tied to the Smithfield Foods meat processing plant has centered more on the potential effect on the nation’s food supply, rather than the people suffering from the virus. When the spotlight does fall on those with the virus it comes with the suggestion that they are other.

A Smithfield Foods plant in Sioux Falls, S.D., that produces 4% to 5% of the nation’s pork supply has become the latest meat processing facility to shut down as COVID-19 sickens plant workers. Stephen Groves/AP

Dating back to “The Jungle,” Upton Sinclair’s investigation of the industry, meat packing has long been a harsh job that attracts low skill workers. In every century, this has translated into minorities, immigrants and women. Many of the workers are refugees or immigrants.

In its report that the plant and Sioux Falls are the latest COVID-19 hot spot, the New York Times leans hard on the narrative of immigrants chasing the American Dream. The long hours and repetitive injuries are framed as a trade-off for making more than minimum wage in a community with a low cost of living, that’s better than where many of these folks came from. The risk of COVID-19 in the plant is likened to the conditions that forced many to abandon their homeland.

The story is told within the frame of what’s to become of these people now that they are sick and the plant is closed. It does little to hold plant management or government accountable for the conditions that allowed the “startling toll” on workers to occur.

Buzzfeed’s coverage unintentionally perpetuates the victim blaming by focusing on the South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem declaring that the virus didn’t come from the plant, but rather the workers, “because a lot of these folks who work at this plant live in the same community, the same buildings, sometimes in the same apartments.” The point is underscored by a spokesperson from Smithfield who laments the plant’s “large immigrant population.”

The report then does a timeline of what’s been happening at the plant, but the frame is set, somehow what’s happened here is because these people are immigrants and refugees who don’t live like Americans.

One of the local news stations, KELO, inadvertently blames workers by suggesting the plant is a challenging workplace because everyone doesn’t speak English.

NPR also tells the story. It gives voice to the workers through a representative, but not before allowing Smithfield to defend itself against suggestions of negligence.

These reports, though meant to shed light on a serious condition, fall into long standing traps and reinforce stereotypes.


In our April 7 column which focused on Race, we asked you and your team to take some time to think about how you might cover the racial implications of COVID-19 in your community. Now, we want to go a bit deeper in how to approach this exercise.

In addition to other suggestions, we prompted you to think about these two items as you brainstormed:

  • 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?

Now, here are some specific suggestions for how you might go about this during a time of social distancing. That said, also think beyond this crisis for when you are able to physically connect with diverse communities.

Do you have relationships with members of the impacted community(s)?

  • Who are the influencers across the Race Fault Line in your community?
  • Check their social media accounts. Follow them and reach out to them specifically.
  • If these are folks you don’t have relationships with, be transparent about why you are reaching out.
  • Don’t think extractively about your approach to covering them during this crisis.
  • How does covering this community connect to your outlet’s most prosperous and sustainable future? While these communities are often navigating the impacts of disparities, they do not see themselves as deficient. So don’t treat them this way.
  • They are whole and complete communities in need of nuanced coverage by journalists who seek to understand, illuminate and serve. They don’t want to be portrayed through what the Maynard Institute calls “Display Case Journalism.”
  • Which community groups and nonprofits serve people across the Race Fault Line in your community? Reach out to those organizations and see if they may help you make connections. Even in those relationships, seek to be additive and ask what you as a news outlet might offer in service of their mission?

Are you trusted by racially diverse members of your community? If not, how will you gain trust?

We know the answer to this is most likely, no.

So, we recommend thinking beyond the notion of “community engagement,” which is often digitally focused and geared toward the people you already serve.

Move away from the notion of “super-serving” your existing audience and start thinking about who could be your audience.

It takes time. You can’t expect to show up with a bouquet of flowers (virtual flowers at that) and be welcomed into places and by people who you haven’t covered or have over-represented in stories about crime, violence or sports.

Or perhaps they never really showed up in your coverage at all.

We suggest getting help to think more like a community organizer than a journalist in this regard, and look at this as a process. It takes time to build trust. It is incremental.

Here is an excellent piece entitled “What Journalists can Learn from Organizers — A Guide” from our good friends at Free Press. They conduct outstanding training that can help journalists rethink their approach to community and rebuild trust.

We have collaborated with Free Press and have the utmost respect for their work and expertise. Trainer Alicia Bell led a session and community mapping exercise at a Maynard convening in 2019 that brought community organizers together with journalists. We also had the pleasure of having Free Press Co-CEO Craig Aaron participate in another similar event in 2018.

We believe news outlets should think about the creation (or reallocation) of an “organizing editor” position. More on that in our next column.

Jean Marie Brown is an Assistant Professor of Professional Practice at TCU and Maynard Institute Fault Lines Trainer. Martin G. Reynolds, Maynard Institute co-executive director contributed to this story. He can be reached at mreynolds@mije.org or on Twitter @reynoldspost.



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