Perspectives shaping political coverage
Reporters of color share personal views that help educate outside communities on important issues
When Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson started rising in the polls during the primaries, Robert Samuels pitched a story to his editor at the Washington Post about a generation of black people who felt confused and disappointed that Carson was a Republican.
Samuels said his brother had idolized Carson growing up. “And now he was disappointed with his issues,” said the 31-year-old national political reporter. “It was one of those very easy instances where you can see the impact of having people with different perspectives. I had a way of viewing this man that was very different from my colleagues.”
At the Post, perspective is a significant part of its definition of diversity.
“It’s not the numbers that matter. It’s how (diversity) translates into the stories that you cover and how you execute on the journalism,” said Tracy Grant, the Post’s deputy managing editor. “And you need a wealth of perspectives.”
With race at the forefront of the conversation during the 2016 presidential campaign, perspective shapes the coverage of stories. Sharing these points of view allows members of an outside community to know what is going on and why they should care. Samuel’s story shed light on the experience of someone growing up in an African-American household and the frustrations when Carson ran for the Republican Party.
Journalists of color made up 31 percent of the Post’s newsroom last year, according to the American Society of Newspaper Editors annual newsroom census, which is 18 percentage points higher than the national average.
ASNE reports newsroom diversity is at about 13 percent, which fails to achieve parity with the 37.2 percent of minorities in the nation, according to U.S. Census data. But with Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric dividing the nation politically and racially, newsrooms struggling with diversity face the risk of losing their audience.
“Readers will feel that they’re not properly served,” said Post reporter Ed O’Keefe, “so they’ll look for another source.”
“They will not be considered a trusted source.” he added.
For Jose DelReal, a Hispanic reporter in his mid-20s who grew up in Anchorage, Alaska, covering Trump was an advancement in his journalism career. The reporter said Trump’s critics have spun a narrative that pegs the candidate as the person responsible for racial tensions in the country.
“That narrative misses decades of economic anxiety and decades of inability to discuss race relations that provides really important context to what is happening in the bloc of voters who have catapulted Trump to be the nominee,” he said.
To combat that, DelReal said, he talks to as many people as possible, especially about race.
“I am quite comfortable asking questions about racial attitudes and having discussions with voters about race and picking their brains about race relations,” he said, “and those are questions in a way that I sense other reporters might not be so comfortable doing.”
DelReal wrote a story about the Jewish community’s response to a seemingly anti-Semitic image Trump tweeted in June. Other mainstream media outlets focused on Trump’s response or attempted to explain the events, giving him the media attention instead of the group that the tweet attacked.
But even if a newsroom is diverse, journalists of color can still be marginalized. David Pritchard, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, wrote an article about racial profiling in newsrooms that typically excludes minorities from covering certain beats, such as business or politics.
“Practices that channel journalists of color into covering minority issues while white journalists cover the centers of power in modern American society reinforce white privilege and marginalize journalists who were intended to be the beneficiaries of diversity initiatives,” Pritchard said in an email.
The Post’s reporters of color covering this year’s campaign are finding that politics and race are becoming one beat making them less likely to be racially profiled.
Before working at the Post, Samuels was assigned to be a crime reporter that he said was the opposite of what he wanted to do.
“People thought I would have an easier time to go into those communities,” he said about covering the crime beat. “It gets tiring when you feel like you’re pigeonholed. Like the only time you’re being called on is when they want to hear things about the black community.”
Samuels said the Post has allowed him to fulfill his dreams of being a narrative features writer. He focuses on how candidates’ policies affect voters’ communities. The emphasis on race during this campaign is prominent in Samuels’ interviews, especially as an African-American reporting in mostly white rural communities.
“People are really eager to talk about race and the racial disparities that we’re seeing and why they think that is because people almost want to prove that they’re not doing this out of an idea of hate or racism even if they might disagree with what they’re saying,” Samuels said. “They see some value in telling this story to someone who’s black.”
Pritchard said that when people of color hold management positions in newsroom, he has seen improvement in coverage as far as less racial profiling.
And while the Post has made strides to increase diversity, Samuels recognizes that there is still work to do at the managerial level.