By Moriah Balingit

In the past year, incidents of police brutality and fatal police shootings have served as a flashpoint for discussions on race in this country. And rightfully, much of the discourse has been centered around those events: the details, the characters, the protests and investigations in their aftermath. But how do journalists move “beyond Ferguson” to cover stories of racial inequality outside of those incidents? 

At an IRE Conference panel, three journalists shared their thoughts on how to cover stories of race and racial inequality.

Nikole Hannah-Jones, now a reporter for The New York Times Magazine, previously worked for ProPublica, where she did a groundbreaking investigation on school resegregation.

[Segregation Now: ProPublica’s in-depth investigation into the resegregation of schools across the country]

Kimbriell Kelly is an investigative reporter at The Washington Post who previously covered housing discrimination for The Chicago Reporter. At the Post, she dug into the housing decline in one of the nation’s wealthiest black communities, Fairwood, in suburban Maryland. The story was reported with the help of American University graduate students, including this reporter, as part of a practicum.

[Broken by the Bubble: In Fairwood, dreams of black wealth were shattered by the housing crisis]

Frances Robles, formerly of The Miami Herald, is now a Miami-based reporter for The New York Times. In recent years, she has covered the Trayvon Martin shooting, the events in Ferguson, Missouri, and more recently, a police shooting of an unarmed black man captured on video in Charleston, South Carolina.

[Skip Child Support. Go to Jail. Lose Job. Repeat: How arresting poor men for child support drives them deeper in to poverty]

Here are some takeaways from their remarks:

Racial inequality is not “magical”

“We write about racial inequality as if it’s this magical thing that kind of floats down from the sky and we don’t know how it happened. We don’t know how it occurred,” said Hannah-Jones.

But, she said, “A segregated school often comes from real people who have made real decisions … It’s not accidental and it’s not natural.”

In Tuscaloosa, Alabama, for example, she found that school enrollment boundary lines had been gerrymandered to cut out concentrations of black residents. Rather than just writing about inequality, investigate its roots. 

Know the law

“Get some expertise in the subject area. Look at data. Look at policies,” Hannah-Jones said.

Understand the laws, identify the public officials and government agencies that might play a role in it and talk to experts. A sampling that Hannah-Jones recommended reporters school themselves on:

  • Civil Rights Act of 1964
  • Fair Housing Act
  • Home Mortgage Disclosure Act
  • Equal Credit Opportunity Act
  • Housing and Community Development Act
  • Equal Opportunity Employment Act
  • Desegregation case law

Data, data, data.

Kelly worked with John Sullivan, as well as other members of the Post’s investigative team, to analyze reams of home mortgage data and make definitive claims about the disparate treatment of black homebuyers in Prince George’s County, Maryland. The U.S. Department of Education also has in-depth data on every public school in the country that can help reporters determine if schools are getting equal resources, Hannah-Jones said.

Don’t get swept up in the narrative

Robles of The New York Times broke news that witnesses told the FBI that Mike Brown did not raise his hands during his fatal encounter with a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. That pivotal detail had become a symbol for protesters of police brutality, and her report inflamed many.

“You want to keep your focus on the facts you’re uncovering. Do not allow yourself to get swept up in what you’re supposed to be reporting,” she said.

That means background checks on everyone, including the unarmed victims of police shootings.

“You do not want to get blindsided,” she said.

Don’t wait for the smoking gun — or the racist email

Hannah-Jones said reporters are uncomfortable with reporting on racial inequality unless they are certain there is some explicit racist intent behind it.

“We are very afraid of calling out people unless we find some racist email,” she said.

But when policies and data show disparate treatment, they’re just as newsworthy — and perhaps even more — than cringe-inducing correspondence between public officials.

 

Moriah Balingit is the American University fellow at The Washington Post, where she covers education while working towards her master’s degree in investigative journalism. Previously, she covered crime, city hall and crime in city hall at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. She has also reported from Bangladesh and Nepal courtesy of grants from the International Center for Journalists and the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.