Is it the story of a crisis that united the nation, or one of community resilience in the face of institutional failure? Is it a story of a destroyed economy, or decimated families?
In a democracy, we look to the press to help untangle and contextualize what’s happening. But journalism is facing considerable obstacles, too — from underresourced newsrooms to plummeting advertising to a hostile White House, it’s a tough time for news outlets.
How do journalists tell the story of this time?
By digging into one of the core tenets of journalism: speaking full truth to power. And the story of COVID-19 is dangerously incomplete without an analysis of racial justice.
There is no equalizer
In the early weeks of the pandemic, many people referred to COVID-19 as a great “equalizer” because of how fast and easily it spread. Diverse world travelers represented the initial U.S. cases. But ever since infections began skyrocketing and the United States became the epicenter of the global crisis, a different story emerged.
Black, Latinx and Native American people have been sickening and dying at disproportionate rates. More than 36 million people — disproportionately people of color — have filed claims for unemployment. School systems have been scrambling to get tablets, laptops and Wi-Fi hotspots out to students on the wrong side of the digital divide. Essential workers are rising up in protest for hazard pay and basic safety equipment.
COVID-19 is laying bare the foundations, and fruits, of a deeply rooted system of oppression. Free Press’ Joseph Torres writes:
“This pandemic should force our nation to address how political leaders, especially right-wing politicians, have long used racist narratives to launch disinformation campaigns — all in an effort to pass racist policies that benefit corporations but hurt working people and harm our social-safety net.”
Four Black women epidemiologists joined forces to deliver a powerful historical analysis:
“As this public health crisis unfolds in the U.S., it is making even more visible the interlocking systems of racism and marginalization that have their origins in the genocide of Native American peoples and enslavement of African peoples, which together constitute the foundation upon which the nation was built.
“Thus, while COVID-19 is indiscriminate in its transmission, its propagation within a society steeped in structural racism will undoubtedly, as we are already beginning to see, lead to disproportionate impacts among marginalized racial groups in this country.”
—Racism in the Time of COVID-19, Interdisciplinary Association for Popular Health Science, April 9, 2020
And now, we are seeing the magnified impacts of this history, laid bare amid a global pandemic that has underscored this nation’s deep racial divides:
- Anti-Asian racism and attacks have risen, leading activists to create a webpage for online reporting.
- Navajo Nation has lost more lives to COVID-19 than 13 states combined.
- Among cases where racial data were shared, an Associated Press analysis found that Black people constituted 42 percent of deaths — approximately double our share of the population.
- Fifty-six percent of Latinx-majority neighborhoods in Los Angeles County have a high proportion of residents who are at high risk of not receiving individual relief funds from the CARES Act, according to a UCLA report.
The statistics are shocking — and hard to obtain.
Anti-racist scholar Ibram X. Kendi outlined this issue while presenting the Atlantic’s new COVID Racial Data Tracker: “These initial data provide a still-incomplete picture of the national outbreak’s disparities. In 38 percent of the 194,000 cases that these 29 states had reported as of April 12, no racial data were attached. And some states mix racial and ethnic categories in reporting their numbers.”
As we battle an opportunistic virus and a federal government that traffics in science denial and information repression, we need journalists to persist in telling the whole story, now more than ever.
How to tell the whole story of coronavirus
On March 25, NBA player Karl Anthony Towns took to Instagram with a video testimony on his mother’s battle against the virus. He fought back tears while sharing hopes that his video would motivate people to stay home to counteract the virus’ spread. Sadly, Towns’ mother succumbed to COVID-19 on April 13 at age 58.
Like Towns, many people in marginalized communities will courageously want to share their testimonies. Many have never spoken to a reporter, but they have stories to tell.
This is prime time for engaged, community-oriented journalism; journalism that counteracts how media have harmed and silenced people of color, queer people and poor communities — and journalism that asks hard questions regarding how discriminatory triage and ventilator practices contribute to the frightening mortality rate among Black patients — and how white communities are overrepresented among those protesting stay-at-home orders that could help save lives.
“I’m thinking a lot about how media/others would react if the people protesting these stay-at-home orders were black. What would the coverage look like? What would the tone be? I feel strongly that if you’re not noting the timing & racial dynamics, you’re failing somehow.”
—Nikole Hannah-Jones of The New York Times via Twitter on April 18, 2020
White-supremacist groups have exploited the pandemic to spread hateful conspiracy theories and recruit new followers. At a highly reported Michigan protest against stay-at-home orders, participants were seen displaying Confederate flags, nooses, swastikas and assault rifles. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said, “Some of the outrageousness of what happened at our capitol depicted some of the worst racism and awful parts of our history in this country.”
What is the connection between white supremacy and the coronavirus epidemic? How has the crisis become a flashpoint for hate-group recruiting and evangelizing? How have media and political leaders shaped the rhetoric? How are the lives of people of color affected and endangered by the compounded impact of hate and disinformation? How can we tell the stories of deeply impacted people in a way that is non-exploitative?
For journalists, it comes down to using the power of reporting to help build more power-full communities.
Reporter’s toolbox: how to surface the full truth of the COVID-19 pandemic
We’re going to be telling COVID-19 stories for a while. Whether that’s in the form of breaking news or longer-form pieces that contextualize what we have and continue to experience, the effects of this pandemic will not be short-lived.
As journalists are telling these stories, here are some of the questions that are critical for newsrooms to ask as they shift power and engage more deeply with communities:
- What are the history and context that led to local rates of coronavirus infection and mortality? Can you identify ways that local communities of color have advocated for access to health care and economic justice prior to the emergence of this virus?
- How do that history and context inform the current status of the pandemic in your community?
- Whose interests are you centering? Are you exploring structural interventions like the World Health Organization’s recommendations for decarceration, or structural failures like the closure of 43 hospitals in New York since 2003?
- When you report on policy interventions, are you considering the impacts those policies will have on communities of color? Queer and Trans communities? Working-class/poor communities?
- Are you telling stories that lift up voices, resilience, resistance and creativity from communities of color? Queer and Trans communities? Working-class/poor communities?
- Are there reporters, editors and producers in your newsroom who are people of color? Are they able to consider their families, communities and lived experiences in their newsgathering processes?
- How are you in regular conversation with poor people of color? How could you hold these discussions on an ongoing basis?
- What was your news organization’s relationship with people of color facing chronic health conditions and poverty prior to this crisis? What will it be in the future?
- Based on the answers to the questions above, how will you shift your newsroom strategies to ensure that your journalism is truthful and inclusive of your whole community?
- Will you continue to cover the structural foundations of health and economic disparities after the pandemic subsides? What could you do to continue shining a light on these issues beyond the quarantine period?
- How could your organization continue to engage with communities of color and other stakeholders impacted by the erosion of the social-safety net?
- Investigate local histories of redlining and discrimination in jobs and housing. Examine how these histories have led to lower wages for people of color, especially women, as well as overcrowding in households and communities of color that renders physical distancing nearly impossible.
- Refer to data on ZIP-code access to: hospitals; critical-care units; COVID-19 testing; ventilator equipment; Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation (ECMO) and other advanced life-support technologies; and locally produced news and information.
- Compare ZIP codes of environmental violations with health outcomes historically and during the pandemic.
- Avoid photography and headlines that reinforce harmful and baseless stereotypes and fuel racism and xenophobia, particularly against Asian Americans.
- Gather lived experiences of bias and inequity in the health-care system that may be represented via stories of maternal mortality, lack of palliative care and pain management, being ignored in emergency rooms, and other racialized interactions.
- Seek out and partner with local community organizers, social-service providers and nontraditional health practitioners that people of color may turn to due to mistrust of institutions.
- Diversify your sources. Think about the race and gender of the typical TV “talking heads” — then throw that mental image out and get connected with people of color in the fields of health care, science and healing. Free Press’ Tauhid Chappell has compiled a handy Twitter list of diverse experts to help.
Collective dreaming is the key to our survival
In the political climate at the beginning of 2020, one could never have guessed that Congress would deliver $1,200 stipends to the majority of American households, or that the U.S. House would pass a bill that includes a $50-per-month broadband subsidy for low-income families. But the advent of a pandemic has shown that much of what we assumed before doesn’t serve us at all. And most of all, we need each other to survive.
This crisis continues to be a time of great sadness and trauma — and, if we dare, a time of great possibility for moving away from outdated norms toward healing and restorative ideas.
One such idea is a news industry grounded in community power, the kind of power it will take to survive beyond the COVID-19 pandemic. We hope you’ll use the tools shared above (and tell us about your methods) to help realize journalism’s greatest potential in these challenging times and beyond.
“Journalists shouldn't be reporting on communities. We should be reporting *for* communities. Community relationship building really should be informing our reporting. Data and experts can only take you so far.”
—Kat Stafford, AP national race & ethnicity writer via Twitter on April 24, 2020