Why has COVID-19 hit communities of color hardest across the U.S.? And how should journalists explain that fact?
The National Press Club Journalism Institute hosted a virtual conversation on Monday with Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, a New York Times-bestselling author and the founding director of The Antiracist Research & Policy Center at American University and Robert Samuels, Washington Post national reporter, moderated by Shannon Young, POLITICO reporter. They discussed key lessons from Dr. Kendi’s book, “How to be an antiracist,” and how to apply them to coverage of the coronavirus pandemic.
Among their insights:
An antiracist journalist looks at racial inequities and understands that those disparities are the result of policies or environment, not biology.
Kendi: You’re covering COVID-19 right now and you’re trying to understand why is it that in Georgia black people are about 32% of the state population, but about 52% of the people who have died. What a racist – or somebody who has racist ideas – would ask is: What is wrong with the people? What is wrong with black people? What are they not doing? Let me try to figure out what behavioral or cultural problems they have and report that out. Versus somebody who has more of an antiracist perspective, will say: Okay, what’s wrong with the environment? What’s wrong with the policies? What’s wrong with the structures? Let me report that out to explain those disparities.
Samuels: We’re sort of still preoccupied with the idea that blacks live fundamentally differently from whites. When we started looking at why black people were dying at disproportionate rates, the first thing people would talk about is comorbidities. Underlying conditions, respiratory infections, things that are true and exist at higher rates, as if those things by themselves could explain gross differences in people dying from a disease that’s foreign to us. And typically, it’s very simple for a reporter to stop there. But I think this calls for a larger challenge.
Objectivity is actually “collective subjectivity.”
Kendi: I remember very early on I was a master’s student in African American studies and I had just finished my undergraduate studies in, actually, journalism. And I can never forget, one of my professors, said that there’s no such thing as objectivity. And I was like, What do you mean? I’m a journalist, you know, objectivity is key. And so she argued and went on to demonstrate that objectivity is nothing but a collective subjectivity…
If a journalist believes that there’s something wrong with a particular racial group, and then there’s racial disparities that they’re more likely to be affected and die, then that journalist is going to be more likely to ask questions about what’s wrong with that racial group, leading to those inequities. If that journalist believes there’s nothing wrong or right, superior or inferior, about any racial group, and there are disparities, then that journalist is not going to try to figure out what’s wrong with the group. They’re going to try to figure out what policies may be causing these disparities.
Samuels: Do we have prejudice? Absolutely. Probably everyone does. Is there a bias? Yes, there is. Can you be a journalist, can you do fair reporting, even if you have a bias? Yes, you can. But the way you do it is by doing more reporting.
All reporters and editors must strive to be antiracist.
Kendi: Are we telling an individual story that’s representative of a larger phenomenon that we have evidence to prove? Or are we telling an individual story that then other people are going to take away as this is what’s representative of the group?
Samuels: The beauty of journalism is to be able to take ideas that seem far away and bring them close to home. I think sometimes when we report on issues of identity, it can take the forefront. One of the reasons to report the idea of identity is to show that these are living, breathing people with lives, hopes and dreams, who are deserving on the earth as anyone.
Kendi: I think it’s critical for white reporters to even see how they can utilize their whiteness in spaces in which it’s much harder for reporters of color to do so. And to not be fearful in doing so.
Sometimes it’s better to avoid the most provocative example of something you believe to be true.
Samuels: You might see a group of people playing basketball and say, ‘Oh, look, people are playing basketball, clearly they’re not social distancing,’ and you end it right there. But that’s only one place in a certain community…
So the challenge – and it’s a big challenge in a time when we’re very limited in our movement – is to actually do the reporting, and to start asking deep questions, as opposed to looking for convenient ends.
Kendi: [A reporter can] show data that black people are more likely to hold jobs in which they cannot work from home. And black people are more likely to live in multi-family homes, or they’re more likely to live in densely populated urban environments. So, no matter their race, they are susceptible…In China, most of the spread of the coronavirus was through family clusters…This speaks to precisely why these disparities are negatively impacting a particular racial group.
Journalists are the first writers of history, so how they cover this disaster will have political ramifications going forward.
Kendi: This coronavirus pandemic will go down as the worst public health disaster in American history… It’s really on journalists to make sure that America gets it right, meaning that when people are reading and trying to understand what happened during the COVID pandemic in 2050, that they’re reading a truthful story.
Samuels: It’s important for us to recognize that the very same concerns that we have about diversity of sources, diversity of stories, how stories are presented, none of those fade away. And they’re becoming even more important because of what we know about how this disease is playing out within the United States… It’s even more important that we get things right…
Good, honest, fair reporting on minority communities is something that we shouldn’t compromise.