‘Minority’ Reporting: Covering Students of Color
D’Leisha Dent graduated this spring from a 99-percent black high school – a story that might not be what you would have expected from an Alabama public school system that was federally ordered to desegregate in 1979.
That’s the tale of Pro Publica reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones’ recently published Segregation Now, an in-depth project tracing three generations of one Tuscaloosa family and their local high school’s journey from segregation to integration to once again being segregated as a result of gerrymandering and closed-door deals.
Hannah-Jones joined two other reporters at EWA’s National Seminar in Nashville in May, on a panel entitled “Minority Report,” a name the reporters were quick to challenge.
The word “minority” doesn’t fit, Hannah-Jones said, given that “we are moving to a plurality” in many urban school districts. But the issues won’t go away, she added.
The country is already 60 years out from the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, and issues of integration, equity, and institutionalized racism remain vivid concerns. As a result, the panelists contended, the media has turned to words that are subtly, or not so subtly, loaded to describe minorities.
Reporter Sarah Carr, who writes about education in the South for The Hechinger Report, said words often used to describe minorities are “code words,” a sentiment echoed by Hannah-Jones and Honolulu Civil Beat reporter Alia Wong.
Too often stories about minorities focus on individuals whose experiences are either highly positive or highly negative — the extreme ends of the spectrum, Carr said. There’s not enough written about the significant majority between those two extremes, Carr said.
And reporters must be aware of the power dynamics at play while interviewing to tell a story, Carr said.
While reporting her book, Hope Against Hope, Carr realized she needed to be more explicit about her role as a reporter because some families thought she was a representative of school organizations.
Hannah-Jones and Carr both spoke of the importance of following up with interview subjects before and after publishing work, calling it a powerful tool for reporters to hold themselves accountable.
Wong embedded herself in a Hawaiian charter school teaching a native language, a project which earned her an second-place award in EWA’s national reporting competition. She stressed the importance of not writing like an anthropologist: observe and ask questions, but don’t portray a population as if they are exotic.
Reporters should question the details and descriptors they include in their work, the panelists said. And Hannah-Jones cautioned reporters against pointing out gaps and filling in the blanks without evidence.
Hannah-Jones used the example of a time when she used the word “poor” to describe a population. “What was I actually trying to say?” she said she later asked herself, after she learned the people were deeply offended by her word choice.
That’s why she reviews her work with subjects, to ensure they are accurate and subjects are comfortable, Hannah-Jones said.
The panelists offered suggestions for reporters looking to improve their own reporting on race and minority issues:
- Follow up with interviewees before work is published and review word choices.
- Carefully scrutinize all details going into a story.
- Be clear about your role as a reporter make sure not to exploit any perceived power dynamic.