Critical Thinking: Does Racial Background Affect How a Reporter Covers a Story?

Critical Thinking December 2018

Washington Post reporter Paul Farhi recently discussed how the White House reporting staffs tend to be the least racially diverse. What would be your response to his question: ‘Does racial background affect how a reporter covers a story?’

 

Marquis Holmes, 28, senior, Kennesaw (Ga.) State University  

Holmes has served in various leadership roles in journalism, including editor-in-chief of the Sentinel, KSU’s official student newspaper; president of the KSU chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists; and a board member of the Georgia College Press Association. He is set to graduate this month, and will commission as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army. 

Essentially, my answer to this question would be yes. However, it comes with a couple of views. To clarify, I can see the counterargument here. It makes sense that the majority of key leaders that come through the White House are usually white. So therefore, it would make sense that reporters of similar races would indeed be useful here.

When it comes to being capable of establishing relationships with interviewees, especially those that are high-profile, reporters of certain races will draw the shortest straw every time. It is not to say that every high-profile person of interest is racist, but that people of color tend to have a stigma surrounding them before ever introducing themselves. I would be comfortable to say that this affects all races in some way in conjunction with another race.

For example, with me being black, I imagine that I will be welcomed by hesitation when asking a blue-collared professional for an interview in a predominately white community. I wouldn’t say that the hesitation would always be black and white but there would be an obvious difference.

Race also comes into play during the interviewing process itself. Once the interview is actually established, I think racial background still has an effect, but with difference. When it comes to the effectiveness of interviewing said person, I believe that racial background would have an influence on what questions are asked.

For example, if I am black and my interviewee is a diplomat from Russia, I would imagine that I would miss certain opportunities for questions because I don’t quite understand their culture. I wouldn’t be familiar about the political structure that takes place in the Moscow Kremlin if I am interviewing Putin.

On the other hand, if I don’t understand the culture or more generally the person, there is less opportunity for biasness. This will bring about more effective reporting.

 

Sharon Pian Chan, 43, vice president of innovation, product and development, Seattle Times

Prior to her current position, Chan was a reporter for 12 years and previously served as national president of the Asian American Journalists Association.

Does racial background affect how a reporter covers a story?

Is the Pope Catholic?

Yes, racial background affects how a reporter covers a story. Just like your gender, age, sexual orientation, religion, where you grew up also affects how you report a story.

Would we even be asking this question if we replaced “racial background” with “what beats you covered?”

What is a story? What’s the angle? What sources do you call? What sources are willing to call you back? The answers to all these questions are informed by a reporter’s lived experiences.

When I was a young reporter, the sources most likely to give me news tips were 50-year-old people of color in positions of power—elected officials, board directors. Did I remind them what it was like to be a young person of color trying to catch a break? Or was it because I spent more time asking them questions, while the white reporters before me had gravitated towards white sources?

If you are the child of Latino farmworkers, you will bring a fresh approach to covering the agricultural industry. If you experienced getting pulled over for driving while black, you may pay more attention to reports of traffic stop altercations. If you are an Asian American politics reporter, you may see the lack of Asian Americans in elected office as an issue that needs coverage (a story idea I could not convince my white editor to green light). If you are a white reporter…yes, that is also a racial background that affects how you report a story.

Race is not the only lens reporters look through. Reporters are shaped by the awesome and the awful editors they have worked for, every accolade they have won and every correction they have ever written.

Robert Maynard, the first African American owner and publisher of a major daily newspaper, believed that the nation is split among the fault lines of race, class gender, geography and generation.

Maynard said that the job of journalists is to report stories that close those fault lines. But the first step is to acknowledge that they exist.

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