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Covering racial injustice in the age of Black Lives Matter

“Race is the original problem in this country.”

That’s from IRE member Nikole Hannah-Jones, one of the nation’s most well-respected investigative and data reporters, who visited the University of Missouri earlier this week to present a lecture called “Covering racial injustice in the age of Black Lives Matter.”

It was an appropriate and timely topic for journalism students at MU, who have been covering heated campus protests against racism since the fall. But Hannah-Jones’ advice is useful for all journalists, no matter the age or experience, so we thought we’d share it with other IRE members. 

Race may be the original problem in this country, but over the past couple of years, protestors, Black Lives Matter activists and citizen journalists have pressured the mainstream media to look at racial injustice in a new light.

The problem is, we still live in a world where 12 percent of newspaper employees are black, Latino or Asian, despite the fact that 39 percent of the U.S. population is black, Latino or Asian.

Why is that important? If an entire newsroom looks the same, Hannah-Jones said, reporters will have blind spots and important stories will never be written because reporters won’t know where to look for them.

“But something is changing,” Hannah-Jones said. “Something is changing the way… we are looking at racial injustice.”

What is that change? Hannah-Jones calls it a digital revolution, “and I hate hyperbole, so when I call this a revolution, I actually mean it,” she said.  

People are using social media and smartphones to challenge the dominant narratives reported by tradition media outlets. In the past, many white journalists simply weren’t aware of instances in which police officers shot at unarmed men and women. Reporters have historically been too deferential to police, Hannah-Jones said, and not skeptical enough of their reports.

However, with the advent of mobile and personal technologies, witnesses can capture the moment and upload it. They can become citizen journalists.

The first person to break the news that Michael Brown had been shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, wasn’t a journalist. It was a citizen who posted a photo to Instagram of Brown’s stepfather holding a cardboard sign that said, “Ferguson Police Just Executed My Unarmed Son!!!" That post drew the attention of a local TV reporter who then went to Ferguson to report on the story. And, of course, the national media arrived not much later.

Another citizen journalist, St. Louis Alderman Antonio French, was on the ground in Ferguson during the height of the protests. He live-tweeted his observations and, within one night, found himself with tens of thousands of Twitter followers. French’s tweets challenged the narrative coming from traditional media outlets that violence was widespread in the area. Thanks to French and others on the ground, those outlets were once again forced to confront their blind spots.

“So what’s the problem with how we write about race and think about racial coverage in this country?” Hannah-Jones asked.

Well, it all comes down to intent. Or rather, our fixation on intent.

“We get frozen in our coverage of racial injustice when intent is the most important thing, when we want to know what’s in someone’s heart,” Hannah-Jones said. “I don’t care what’s in someone’s heart! What is the action?”

That, she said, is the most important thing in our coverage: action and consequences. And we can investigate those actions and consequences through — you guessed it! — data.

Data itself is not enough, though. To get the most meaning out of data, journalists need to find it, analyze it and interrogate it. That’s how Hannah-Jones works. When she realized that the school districts in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, were gerrymandered so that the majority of low-income, black students were pooled together in one school that wasn’t even located inside the district, she asked why

It’s not enough to show that a disparity exists, Hannah-Jones said. That’s boring. What’s best: analyzing at the data, paying attention to counter-narratives, and investigating the why.

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