‘Words either heal or they harm’: How to practice antiracist journalism daily
When do objectivity and neutrality mask inequity? How do journalists tell stories that root out racism in society?
Moderator Juliet Beverly of BrainFacts.org and panelists Leah Donnella of NPR’s Code Switch, Cassie Haynes of Resolve Philly, and Robert Samuels of The Washington Post explored how journalists can practice antiracism in their everyday work at a Journalism Institute program on Friday.
The speakers began by acknowledging the work of Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, a leading scholar on antiracism and author of “How to Be an Antiracist,” then led into a series of practical approaches to antiracist reporting. (You can watch the Institute’s “Covering Coronavirus: How to be an antiracist” program with Dr. Kendi here.)
Among their insights:
On defining antiracism in journalism.
Samuels: When I think about antiracism, I think about viewing everyone as having a race and recognizing that race is an active part of how we think, no matter what your race. … When I think about antiracist journalism, I think about journalism that asks deep questions about why things are the way they are, that take nothing for granted, and also display an empathy for others.
Donnella: One thing that’s really important too, is that it can’t just be an individual process. I think a lot of times people who are trying to do antiracist work really focus on themselves and the stories they’re telling, the language they’re using, the people they’re meeting, which are all really important things, but it’s also part of a system. Part of that is being accountable to readers and listeners. Part of it is working with a team, having editors and coworkers and a whole system that is actively trying to do something together.
On neutrality and language.
Haynes: Words either heal or they harm. And that idea of the neutrality of a word is that it’s not, it’s not real. We focus a lot on language, and we focus a lot on where language comes from, how language is used. We focus a lot on person-first language, language that talks about the experience of a person rather than assigning a trait to that person. If you’re talking about someone with the experience of homelessness, it is a more accurate and authentic story to talk about this person’s experience of sleeping in a tent or sleeping in a car rather than to call that person homeless, right? Because that is a state not a trait, and that language is not neutral.
Samuels: One of the things that we need to recognize as journalists is that neutrality is a little bit of an awkward place to start because our lives, our perspectives of things, they inform what we do and the type of questions we ask. So I think it’s good to move to a methodology of fairness. How am I being fair to a community and to people who I’m reporting about? …
It’s not about whether I can be a blank slate. I cannot — no one can — but it’s about being able to challenge those presumptions and to also look at people with a lens that’s natural to them and complex, because we’re all complex people. And even as much as I try, I cannot fathom the life of walking in someone else’s shoes. I need to go and figure out why they are walking the way they’re walking.
On the challenges.
Donnella: Doing antiracist journalism is hard. I think it’s meaningful and rewarding in a lot of ways. But, I think, especially right now, when it’s something that is on a lot of people’s minds and has a national attention, it’s something that can feel almost exciting and like something that you can get in on. My suspicion would be that in a year from now, or in six months from now, it’s not going to feel the same. … I think it makes a lot of people mad and uncomfortable, and that reflection can be very painful. It is painful for me, a very good deal of the time.
Samuels: Toni Morrison once said … when most people write, they usually have a little white man on their shoulder. That’s the person they explain to. And I think that’s particularly true when we talk about general interest journalism and we think about who the audience is, it typically looks like that person. What the challenge is, is to have a few different types of people on our shoulder. So I write with the little white man on my shoulder and I write with a Black woman on my shoulder too. I think about the sort of questions they’d have, the sort of things they’d respond to, what would feel right to them, what would feel obvious to them. And a lot of times, you know, it might be surprising, but there is a lot of similarity in between the two.
Haynes: I have been the number two to white men in charge. And that sucks. It sucks to be the person who is executing the work and never called on for the quote. … Go the extra step of looking at the website and seeing if there’s another person who is not the white man that you could reach out to.
Donnella: One of the nice things is that you always get another chance. I have so many times been on deadline and had to call the first person who would answer and do that story. But then you get to do another story. The work and the responsibility is to figure out, okay, what’s the next story? This country is run by white men, right? We have to talk to them, we have to hear from them. But that can’t be the whole story, we have to then hear, who are the people that are going to be affected by these decisions? Who disagrees? What are the other perspectives? And I think that’s the exciting part, is to get to continue the reporting.
On sustaining antiracist journalism.
Haynes: We have very open conversations as a team about mental health. I think that’s hugely important. And we are very generous with time off. We offer health benefits to employees regardless of full- or part-time status, and we pay 75% of those benefits. I also want to point out that youth is not an excuse. If you prioritize taking care of the people who are a part of your team from the beginning. It is a part of the work that you do for always. And let me tell you that those decisions that we made a year and a half ago are paying dividends as we support our team through this pandemic. So, that is one way that you can tangibly, actively practice antiracism within your organizations and sustain the work.
Additional resources from the panelists:
- Ask Code Switch: Is Beauty In The Eyes Of The Colonizer?
- Broke in Philly: Collaborative reporting on economic mobility
- Equally Informed: Bridging Philadelphia’s information divide
- Philadelphia Inquirer: The trauma of being a Black woman working for the City of Philadelphia
- The Washington Post: COVID-19 is ravaging Black communities. A Milwaukee neighborhood is figuring out how to fight back.
- The Washington Post: Inside Pete Buttigieg’s years-long, and often clumsy, quest to understand the Black experience
- The Washington Post: Stumbling toward wokeness
The Journalism Institute has hosted many conversations exploring social justice and the role of journalism. Watch the recordings here:
- Covering Coronavirus: How to be an antiracist with Ibram X. Kendi, Robert Samuels and Shannon Young
- Newsroom leadership in the age of Black Lives Matter with Mizell Stewart III, Katrice Hardy and Mary Irby-Jones
- How to recruit, develop and advance diverse investigative journalism teams with Manny Garcia, Maria Perez and Cheryl W. Thompson
- Being heard: How to use your voice so people listen with Sewell Chan, Erika Smith, Nikole Hannah-Jones and Jake Silverstein
- Covering justice: Reimagining the cops, crime, courts beats with Michael Days, Libor Jany and Jamiles Lartey Walker
- Equity and community in local news: Lessons learned in 2020 with Jim Friedlich, Denise Rolark Barnes, Cassie Haynes, Darryl Holliday and Tasneem Raja
Contact Journalism Institute Executive Director Julie Moos with questions or suggestions.