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Reporting on inequality requires an eye for historical context, institutional injustice

By Laura Rena Murray

Sally Lehrman of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics and Venise Wagner of San Francisco State University discussed reporting tools and strategies to better cover institutional inequity. Wagner and Lehrman began the session with personal tales.

Lehrman’s great-grandfather moved to Colorado to be cured of tuberculosis in a sanitarium – prevailing anti-Semitism of his time blamed the disease on weak genetics. Wagner’s grandfather had worked as a repairman mechanic for U.S. Steel and watched white immigrant colleagues he trained ascend the ranks while he stayed trapped in a low-level position. Wagner said his story inspired her to want to understand the mechanics of racism.

Too often, Wagner and Lehrman noted, reporters draw comparisons between one minority group and whites, which prompts readers to think about stereotypes of minority groups. Instead of portraying these groups as having “less than,” they encouraged attendees to show whites have “more than” other less privileged groups.

"More than shining a light on injustice,” Lehrman cautioned, “show where it comes from.”

There is a continuum of responsibility that Lehrman and Wagner invited the audience to work use when reporting. Move from personal responsibility to examining living and working conditions to institutional and structural practices and policies to social hierarchy and privileges.

“Go up the scale of what shapes the inequity,” Lehrman said.

“A lot of stories are missing historical context and structural elements,” Wagner pointed out. “Reporting needs to shift more from the individual to the institutional.”

It is important to examine the policies, practices, economic and social opportunities and resources available when investigating social problems.

“Push past the negative conditions and behaviors to look at the neighborhood design,” Wagner recommended. “Is there racial segregation? A lot of liquor stores? No sidewalks? What policies designed that?”

By doing so, she said, it is possible to put agency in the hands of people who live in those neighborhoods.

“What gives stories power is being able to document the structure,” Lehrman said. “Who’s making the decisions that make racism possible?”


Laura Rena Murray is a San Francisco-based independent investigative journalist covering public interest and accountability stories that highlight corruption, mismanagement or human rights violations.

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