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Using data to cover the racial inequality beat

By Alexis Allison

“The only thing that white people have worse than black people is osteoporosis,” Nikole Hannah-Jones, a staff writer at The New York Times Magazine, said during the “Investigating racial inequality” panel.

“That’s the amazing thing about America,” Hannah-Jones said. “Anything you want to measure, somebody’s tracking it based on race.”

Susan Smith Richardson of the Solutions Journalism Network began the session acknowledging that most journalists don’t disagree that racial inequality exists. The real question for her, for Hannah-Jones, for Teresa Córdova, director of the Great Cities Institute at the University of Illinois-Chicago, and for Ron Nixon, homeland security correspondent at the New York Times, was “how do we document that, how do we investigate that with authority, accuracy, context and impact?”

For Hannah-Jones, stories that merely describe the existence of racial inequality aren’t good enough.

“Anything you can measure, just about, black Americans are on the bottom … we need to ratchet up what we’re doing and show how these things are happening,” Hannah-Jones said.

She recommended journalists cover racial inequality like any other beat.

“Racial disparities come from real people who make real decisions and take real actions that harm real people,” Hannah-Jones said.

Understanding those disparities requires a great understanding of the law, whether it be the Civil Rights Act, Fair Housing Act, Home Mortgage Disclosure Act, Equal Credit Opportunity Act, Housing and Community Development Act or Equal Opportunity Employment Act. For the education world, it’s Brown v. Board, the Green Case, Milliken, Keyes.

Quite a few federal and state agencies house civil rights divisions tasked with enforcing civil rights provisions. Hannah-Jones said to find them, ask who is enforcing what and how, and reporters might just find a story.

Next, she recommends reporters seek data and reports, like those aggregated in Brown University’s Diversity & Disparities project — analyze them, interrogate them and become familiar with measurements such as the dissimilarity index, which quantifies segregation.

Amid these searches, Hannah-Jones said, reporters can get caught up in intent, which is difficult to prove. She said that a person doesn’t have to show intent to violate someone’s civil rights. Intent doesn’t matter — but consequences do.

“If Exxon Mobil has a spill in the gulf, you don’t actually care whether (the director) likes ducks or not,” Hannah-Jones said.

Finally, reporters can’t forget that they’re covering actual people with real problems.

“Remember that you’re not writing about data points,” Hannah-Jones said. “Every data point is a human being, often children ... make sure that you’re writing about humans and that you actually find some humans for your story.”

Córdova outlined the resources and research available through the Great Cities Institute; for example, when the institute publishes a report, they’ll follow up with a blog that inventories how media outlets used that specific report.

“You can access all of the reports at once on the website, as well as the journalism that’s come out of it,” Córdova said.

Nixon outlined four programs that have significant impact on communities of color and poor communities: Subprime loans, payday lenders, community development block grants and the EB5 visa program.

Ultimately, Nixon said the racial inequality beat touches all people.

“Writing about race is not just writing about black and brown people,” Nixon said. “White people have race, too … everything’s about race, particularly in this country.”

Alexis Allison is a journalism student at the University of Missouri.

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