Leadership advice

Don’t stop with protest stories, start covering systemic racism

Advice from Jill Geisler, Bill Plante Chair in Leadership & Media Integrity, Loyola University Chicago and Freedom Forum Fellow in Women’s Leadership

Journalists are doing a remarkable job of documenting this moment. Even in the face of physical attacks and the health threat of a pandemic, they are delivering compelling images and memorable stories of nationwide protest in the wake of the killing of George Floyd. 

The best way to honor that work is to be as good at reporting on systemic racism as we are at covering protests.

Systems don’t make for compelling television or light reading. They take time to deconstruct. They involve history and social science and data. 

Systems are complicated and nuanced. Peeling back their layers makes people uncomfortable, particularly if they created, maintain or benefit from them. Some will attack journalists for doing it, calling them biased or untrustworthy. 

No matter. Dive into processes, protocols and laws that underlie education, employment, wages, lending, credit, business and neighborhood development, health care, criminal justice, policing, and access to voting. 

Look for patterns. Who benefits and thrives? Who suffers? Who has the power over decisions and who and what influences them?

It will take the same courage shown by journalists in the streets to tell the deeper stories about systemic racism. It will take an investment of time and resources, even as the news industry is struggling financially.

While we’re at it, we also have to take a hard look at the role journalism has played in the problem. What have our majority white newsrooms ignored over the years, or reported only as events? It’s easier and cheaper to report on overnight crime than explore the criminal justice system – or to host a food drive without examining why food insecurity and food deserts exist, who’s responsible for that and what real change looks like.

Nothing I say here is new. We’ve had these conversations at journalism conferences. Groups like the Solutions Journalism Network and IRE offer help in digging deeper. Each year, we give awards to news organizations for stories that take on systems. 

We need so much more of it.


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