The New York Times’ Coverage of Race

In February this year, New York Times did something it had never done before, something in many ways pioneering in the paper’s coverage of race – a whole series of unpublished images of black history for the whole of Black History Month. Each day of the month, photos were published of famous celebrities and prominent figures in hip-hop and the ballpark, as well as ordinary people going about their daily lives, in a project that sought to uncover significant moments in black history that have been unfortunately left out. Out of more than five million photos and 300 000 negatives that had been buried in NYT archive, 54 made the cut, each revisiting a historical moment in American and black history, each telling the long untold stories that were very possibly deemed not newsworthy at that time. These were the photos that were taken but never made it to print or when they did, were taken out of the powerful context from which they emerged.

One prime example is that of Martin Luther King Jr., whose face and power is known to us all living outside of that period with portrait shots like the first photo.This portrait is the only photograph in the Unpublished Black History series that has been published and one that has been published many times. 

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However, little do we know, as readers the what, when, why and how this photo of such an iconic figure was taken. To many of us, it was simply a portrait of one of the most important men in history.

What the Unpublished Black History project reveals of this photograph was that it was shot during the summer of 1963 on a day when black protesters threw eggs at Dr. King as he arrived at a church in Harlem. The belief is that it was a response to his criticism of black nationalists earlier in the day, saying that those who called for a separate black state were “wrong.” That day itself, Dr. King was part of a round table discussion that was broadcast on NBC (second picture). The portrait was a crop of that original photo, an image that is now so familiar to us all yet so dissociated from the larger, intense events of the day. The isolation from context is not the only problem unveiled by this project. As much as the project revealed what was happening at significant moments, it also disclosed how much was missing from coverage of the African-american life. The collection is described as far from comprehensive, with many gaps in identity and information.

“You know, there are a number of reasons why photos doesn’t go — published. And the truth is, we won’t know the whole story behind them. But, you know, one of the things we discovered as we were digging through the archives is that, as powerful as the photos we’re showing to readers, as powerful as they are, what is almost as powerful is the photos that we cannot find.

The whole question of who was shot and who was not is a real one. And the photos that are missing, that’s a big question. And there are reasons why some of these people are not in our archives. And we didn’t have a whole huge staff of photographers at the time.

You know, the newspaper didn’t put a premium on images, like it does today. We were called the gray lady because we put a premium on words, lots of them. But we have also really got to be frank and honest and acknowledge that this was a time period when African-Americans were marginalized in society and in media.” – Rachel Swarns, NYT metro columnist and one of the founders of the Unpublished Black History project.

This is exactly one of the ethical issues in the coverage of race in America that led to my interest in writing about this topic. The idea that a significant amount of news about a major segment of the population was left out of the news cycle and hence buried under history raises many questions about how minority communities continue to be covered today, and what stories are told of, about and by them? How do news organizations choose which news to cover on stories about racial minorities? How much of race is infused in every day stories that are on the surface unrelated to it?

The Unpublished Black History project gives an introduction into how race has historically and controversially been covered by the Times, and how the paper is striving to critically reform the way it has covered race in the past. In 2015, the paper received backlash for ending its race and ethnicity beat which was run solely by Tanzania Vega, who was reassigned to the metro section covering a criminal courthouse in the Bronx. Then, executive editor Dean Baquet issued a statement saying that the paper believed race is a big story and that they would cover it aggressively.

A year later in April, Baquet stayed true to his words as the NYT expanded its coverage of race by enlisting a team of reporters across all departments to conceive and develop stories related to race. The Times National Editor Marc Lacey said that Baquet “didn’t want to do one project and then out. He wanted something that acknowledged that race is part of so much of what we cover and is infused in so many things.” The core team is made up of Damien Cave, John Eligon, Marc Lacey, Michael Luo, Haeyoun Park, Sona Patel, Rachel Swarns while “extended-family” staffers also contribute. They represent the national, metro, sports and culture staffs in addition to representatives from the graphics, social media, video, photography, digital design and magazine departments. It is a newsroom-wide collaborative effort that encourages Times reporters and readers to share personal experiences, ideas, questions and thought-provoking material that evaluates how race is experienced by a wide range of individuals. The idea is that a diversity of skills and life experiences are vital to race coverage. This philosophy and initiative towards race have materialized in the form of Race/Related, a weekly newsletter that promotes greater, deeper conversation and coverage of race.

I got in touch with John Eligon, Marc Lacey and Rachel Swarns, all part of the Race/Related team. Eligon, who has written many powerful and important stories on race, such as Affluent and Black, and Still Trapped by Segregation and When Police Don’t Live in the City They Serve passed me his email via Twitter, but has yet to respond to my email. I had planned to ask him the following questions to get his opinion on the Times’ new approach of covering race.

1. How has Race/Related changed overall NYT coverage of race in both print and online? What was crucially missing before and why do you think it took this long to reform the paper’s coverage?

2. Why is it so important to make sure race is being covered across all departments, beyond a single beat?

3. How has the readers’ response been to Race/Related and the invitation to tell their own stories? How has this shaped the stories NYT wants to tell?

4. What sort of stories have you sought to do as a journalist who has covered many issues related to race? What are the challenges you’ve faced reporting these stories?

5. What do you think will be the most significant impact this new coverage can have in the era of Trump?

Lacey was quoted in a Poynter article as saying that the newsletter now has 50,000 subscribers and a higher-than-average open rate, which means it’s receiving positive response. The newsletter is clearly very interactive with articles such as Police Body Cameras: What Do You See? whereby readers go through simulated interactions with police officers along with questions in a quiz that worked to provide moe clarity and understanding of the situations and issue at hand. Readers were invited to submit their responses and explain why they responded a certain way if the wanted to, which is an innovative way to engage the public on important and pressing conversations on race. This type of engagement with the public has set the newsletter and Times apart from other mainstream media outlets and undoubtedly generates attention to the issue of race in all sorts of news.

Another way in which Race/Related has opened itself up to the public is to invite readers to tell their stories. The section Share Your Stories about Race begins this way: Many people have said that Trump’s election “flipped a switch” and changed how they view and interact with friends, family members, neighbors and the world around them. We’re interested in finding out how YOU are responding to the election – whether you’re a Trump or Clinton voter.

Overall, I find this approach a really effective and interesting way of making the topic of race more visible and remain a steady part of public dialogue. Asking readers to share their own experiences also makes the stories more personal and connects readers to other readers, while eliminating various forms of ignorance that are not always addressed in traditional news articles. The Times can only widen and deepen its coverage with collaboration of not only reporters from a variety of departments but with its readers – the public – as well, whose lives are all pretty much affected by race in one way or another. 

In my opinion, the Times’ reform of their coverage of race is headed in the right direction, one that serves to fill in the gaps of what was missing from their coverage before and one that will be even more enhanced by the experiences of its own staff and readership.

Extra credit: Nightline segment “The color line and the bus line”

In 1995,  Nightline went to Buffalo, New York, to report on the controversy that stirred over the death of Cynthia Wiggins, who was a victim of a tragic road accident. Her death sparked an outcry from the black community who believed that she was a victim of racism due to the circumstances that led to her having to dodge traffic and getting crushed under truck. To the white residents of Buffalo however, it was simply a traffic accident and not a case of racism.

I generally thought that the Nightline segment was good and revealed several important dimensions on covering race and reporting on multicultural societies. However, I found myself a bit confused at the beginning when the segment immediately opened with emotional and opinionated responses from interviewees about the incident. Although the segment intended to explore and report on the racial aspect of the incident, I felt that details of the accident should have been clearly presented from the beginning so the viewers understood the objective facts of the story that laid at the center of the debate before they could form any conclusions.

The inclusion of various voices and perspectives in the segment is one of the better ways to report on a newsworthy incident of racial relevance. Nightline did a good job of getting many sources to respond to what happened. However, I think interviewing people at a nightclub/bar wasn’t the best decision. I think that people should be given a better chance at coming up with thoughtful yet honest responses, which such an environment would not allow.

It was interesting to know that Ted Koppel, Nightline’s anchor did not necessarily understand the significance of the story at first and Eric Wray, the African-American editor and producer of Nightline that initiated the story senses its importance right away. This brings up relevant questions to reporting on diverse societies such as the relation between the race of the journalist and that of his/her subject.

Advancing a story

Earlier this month, GroundTruth’s Kelly Kasulis and NPR/WGBH’s Elizabeth Ross published a story on Boston’s working homeless. I chose to advance this story I because I care about the issue and was shocked to learn that so many people with jobs are homeless. I think the homeless on our streets has sadly become such a fabric of the cityscape that we don’t think about their situation anymore. But little do we know as well of the homeless among us, who work in places we frequent and struggle hard to have a roof over their heads. I thought it was great reporting by both Kasulis and Ross. While I shared the story done by Kasulis, I thought the shorter WGBH one was good too.

As a way to advance this story and push for better policy on housing and wages, I wrote to Mayor Walsh and Governor Baker’s office both by email and the online form on their respective websites.

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The full text reads:

Dear Mayor Walsh,
My name is Zafirah Mohamed Zein and I’m a journalism student at Northeastern University. I’m writing to refer you on the following article about the city’s working homeless: 
I believe it is obvious to any Boston resident that the city has a worrying population of homeless people. It has saddened and troubled me the last 4 years I’ve been here as a student. This article however sheds light on a segment of that population that is employed. It shocked me that almost half of the country’s homeless population are working part-time or full-time and that so many people around us are struggling to put a roof over their heads. This should not be the case in such a great city like Boston, where many have been allowed to thrive in the comfort and security the city provides. 
I think serious and active steps should be taken to address and fix the problem of housing affordability in Boston. The fact that the minimum wage is $9 less than that bare minimum to afford rent in Boston is a huge concern. Robyn Frost, the executive director of the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless, put the problem simply: “Families work their butts off to keep the roof over their heads, but the folly is that the rent is too damn high and the income is too damn low.”
While I’m aware that much has been done to provide support to the homeless, more can and should be done, especially under your administration.  I hope that you work towards addressing and finding solutions to this issue so that more members of the Boston community are given a fairer chance of a stable life in Boston. 
Sincerely, 
Zafirah 
Homelessness – While this is an issue/story I feel has been done many times, I believe it deserves dedicated reporting each time it is covered in order to enact more effective change and remind readers how very real these lives are.

Reporting Rape: To name or not to name?

One of the ethical topics we discussed in class with Professor Dan Kennedy is the current case of Northeastern student Morgan Helfman who has filed a lawsuit against the university and several university administrators and staff linked to the Office of Student Conduct and Conflict Resolution (OSCCR), residential life and student affairs. She filed the lawsuit based on the accusation that the university had mishandled the campus proceedings that found him not responsible for violating Northeastern’s Code of Student Conduct (CSC)’s definition of sexual assault. The Huntington News wrote an excellent article of the whole case and got to hear from Elise, who took part in the reporting.

The ethical issue at hand was omitting the name of the accused rapist in the article. While Helfman was intent on making this case known and her name out there, the alleged rapist had declined to comment and requested HuntNews not to publish his name. My initial response to the case was that his name should be published, since it was on public record as part of the court documents anyway. However, I knew that besides his name being public already, I knew that one of the reasons I leaned towards that decision lies in my emotional reaction to the case and Hellman’s plight. It seemed that she had tried everything in her power to avoid seeing him again, but the university failed to help her in any way. Northeastern’s mishandling of the case made me angry, and I knew I had taken a side. However, I knew that since he had not been charged and there is no concrete proof that he raped her, his name should not be published. HuntNews ultimately took the same position, deciding not to publish because it would tarnish his reputation and definitely stay with his name forever. He was also not part of the ongoing lawsuit that was the news at hand here. In my opinion, this was a touch decision to make and choosing not to name him reflected understanding and compassion from HuntNews who I believed did a solid job of telling Helfman’s story.

I think it’s interesting to talk about reporting on rape from this angle – should we publish the rapist’s name or not? Most of the time when we talk about rape, the issue is on naming the victim and the effects of reporting on the victim’s history and the case itself. This is the first time I’ve been part of a discussion on rape from this angle. We have spent time in previous classes however talking about how rapists and victims have been unfairly portrayed by the media such as the case of Brock Turner, which I found completely disgusting.

Ethics angle of an event: To be a journalist, to be human

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On October 22nd, I was at the Boston Globe for the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA)’s New England Driving Short Course. It was a program featuring talks and sharing sessions by experienced photojournalists and visual storytellers of the region, such as John Tlumacki, who covered the Boston Marathon bombing and Jessica Rinaldi who won 2016’s Pulitzer in Feature Photography.

Jessica Rinaldi won the Pulitzer in Feature Photography for her work in The life and times of Strider Wolf, written by fellow Globe reporter Sarah Schweitzer. The story followed the life of Strider Wolf, who was abused as a young child, and his grandparents (the Grants) who became the main guardians of Strider and his brother, Gallagher. It is a story of hardship in rural Maine, centered around Strider and his family’s struggles and little joys as they moved through the maze of trauma and poverty. Rinaldi and Schweitzer spent 5 months with the family, staying a few days at a time like embed journalists, arriving at the campground where they lived early in the morning and staying till they went to sleep.

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In an interview on Longreads, Schweitzer brings up transparency when talking about approaching the Grants for the story and how they would conduct documentary work that entailed being so physically present in the life of this family. She said, “I tried to be transparent and explained that Jess and I wanted to be flies on the wall for as much time as they could stand us. I said that there might be times when they’d need privacy and that they should feel like they could say they needed space. Lanette and Larry were tentative, which I totally understood. We were strangers asking to come into their home. But they got to know me and Jess, and after a while they (more or less) forgot about us when we were there.”

I believe the principles of privacy and respecting the subjects we cover, especially the subjects we cover so closely on an extended period of time, is an important ethical issue that deserves much thought because there is a strong aspect of humanity involved. Journalists must always be careful and conscious of how their presence and their work affects the people we write about or photograph. We require their permission and they deserve our respect. The witnessing and recording of people’s lives and events that are raw and tragic is a responsibility that requires balancing what it means to be a journalist and what it means to be a human being. As much as we want to get the story, it is less important than making sure the subjects we cover are comfortable with our methods of unearthing and arguably even presenting that story. At the Boston Globe event, many questions were posed to Rinaldi on this issue of being human. Her reply was: You’re not a friend. You’re a journalist. But in journalism, you have to be human first

How we carry out our job as journalists and how we interact with our subjects also affects the trust we hope to gain from them in such a short amount of time. Journalists are basically strangers being allowed into the lives of other people to uncover significant instances of humanity and/or inhumanity. Rinaldi and Schweitzer were able to produce such a raw narrative that uncovered several layers of the human experience because they were able to gain this trust.

Stories such as Strider’s are told to show the intensity of human experience as lived by other people – their very real struggles but also moments of happiness.

On why she did this story and how she chose to document their life:

“I thought, this is awful but I want to explain what’s happening.”

“Nobody’s life is all misery.  It is important to show the joy.”

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The Ethics of Reporting Conflict: Syria

On August 17, 5-year-old Omran Daqneesh was pulled out from the rubble after an airstrike on the rebel-held city of Aleppo. A video of him in an ambulance circulated around social media and  captured the world’s attention as the new face of the Syrian conflict, as Alan Kurdi did almost a year ago. The video was distributed by the Aleppo Media Center, and most news organizations identified Syrian photographer Mahmoud Raslan as the one behind the footage, even though there were others who filmed Omran and his family being rescued.

Aside from the fact that the Syrian conflict troubles me deeply, I chose to bring the case of Omran up because it presents many ethical dilemmas related to reporting on conflict and the sharing of graphic images of war. As journalists, documenting the horrors of war falls within our responsibility to unearth humanity’s truths and record the history of mankind. Reporting and documenting conflict I believe is one of the most challenging and conflicting jobs to do within the field of journalism, especially since the humanitarian aspect of conflict is so devastating.

One of the main questions I have in relation to conflict reporting: How do we report on conflict accurately and responsibly from a neutral standpoint, while maintaining our humanity?

Reporting on conflict

The key journalistic principles that come into question when reporting on conflict are that of truth & accuracy, minimizing harm and independence.

In such a complex, intractable conflict such as Syria’s, there is so much urgency yet sensitivity needed in its reporting. It has reached such an unprecedented scale, with more than 4 million registered Syrian refugees and more undocumented and caught in the massive refugee exodus. The regional and international repercussions of the conflict, as well as its evolvement into a proxy war between the U.S. and Russia has shaped international news coverage of the conflict and allowed journalism to bleed into advocacy. The following was posted by journalist Anne Barnard who wrote the accompanying article on NYT.

 

The dire circumstances within Syria has cut off almost all access to foreign journalists and many news agencies have been getting their information from citizen journalists inside Syria. These journalists tell the world what is happening inside the country through social media channels such as Facebook and Twitter. Aleppo Media Center, which uploaded the video of Omran, has a Facebook page that provides updates on the latest attacks, mostly by the Russian-backed regime. AMC is referred by the mainstream media as a group of anti-government activists and citizen journalists. 

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When news of Omran broke out, alternative and independent media channels challenged the authenticity of the video, calling the whole incident a tool of Western propaganda that would justify American intervention in the conflict.

http://www.mintpressnews.com/219649-2/219649/

http://21stcenturywire.com/2016/09/20/exclusive-aleppo-media-centre-funded-by-french-foreign-office-eu-and-us/

China’s state media has also called the video fake. In news articles on the matter, the fact that  China supports Russia in its backing of the Assad regime is mentioned.

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/omran-daqneesh-photo-video-aleppo-boy-syria-injured-china-state-media-western-propaganda-war-a7205296.html

https://www.rt.com/news/356734-aleppo-child-image-china/

In this situation, where foreign journalists cannot be on the ground and facts are hard to obtain what more corroborate, how do we make sure we get the facts right? When the information we receive is colored through intense, emotional and harrowing experiences from sources that might align themselves to questionable sides, how do we make sense of it and seek its truth? How do we even begin to verify the information? What should the public, so far removed from such areas of conflict and strife, believe? How do we stay impartial in the face of inhumanity?

Visual Diary of War

A journalist’s depiction of war serves as a lens into which the public is informed of human suffering elsewhere. The media has the power to turn the tide of public opinion and push governments to change a course of action. Public opinion against the war in Vietnam played a role in ending the most publicized war in American history. Photographs of the horrors being played out in Vietnam had rallied public protest and triggered the peace movement.

With the advent of social media, graphic images of war circulate way faster and without the contextualizing narrative that typically accompanies traditional news stories. Videos of Omran were rapidly shared on Facebook along with the viewer’s emotional response. I did the same when I first watched the video – I shared it without questioning the source of the video or the context in which it was taken. I took it as one of the horrors going on in Syria and Omran, as fast as he became the “symbol of Aleppo’s suffering,” ceased to become so. 

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Although Omran became the face of the Syrian war, we later find out that he was just one of a dozen children being treated at the hospital he was at that Wednesday, and that his 10-year-old brother, Ali Daqneesh had died. A still image from a video by the AMC taken shortly before his death was included in the following TIME article on the day Omran was rescued. The article also  raises issues mentioned earlier on relying on citizen journalists as sources. The whole article is a transcript of interviews with five sources, four of which were either at the scene of the rescue or at the hospital that treated Omran. What do we think of this sort of reporting?

The ethics of war photography is a vast and deep topic that I could discuss forever so I’ll just pose a few more questions:

  • What rules should news organizations follow when publishing photos of war, especially of children?
  • How does social media impact the coverage of war and how we feel about war?
  • Is it ethical to visually document death and suffering, knowing that coverage of the war so far has not spurred the international community to act enough?
  • By publishing images of suffering, have  traditional and new forms of media numbed the public even more to tragedy?

Personal Ethics Code

  1. Ask myself why this story is important and how best to cover it while both presenting the truth and minimizing harm. Go through all aspects of the story and the ethical dilemmas that I might face. Ask myself: Is the story worth the harm it might cause? Consider all stakeholders. How will this story affect them?
  2. Never go into a story adopting a specific position or assuming how the story will play out.
  3. Seek all sides of a story. Remain independent. Strive to question and detach my inherent biases but always stick to the truth.
  4. Remind myself that my loyalty is to the readers and they deserve the truth. It is my job to turn information into knowledge, and know that my work has an impact on the average reader, as well as society as a whole. Thus, strive to be honest, fair and independent.
  5. Be loyal to my sources by keeping my promise of confidentiality. Also remember that my sources and the people I engage with while covering this story are human. Always practice empathy and compassion.
  6. When faced with an ethical dilemma, consider different ways of thinking. Seek the opinion of my editor/organization but also trust my instinct. Believe that I will be able to defend my decision.
  7. Research thoroughly. Verify every fact and piece of data. Do background research on all my sources and take every information given to me with a pinch of salt. Strive for accuracy and seek an opinion about any fact I remain unsure about.
  8. Strive for perfection in grammar, spelling and style. My work will reflect my precision, credibility and dedication to journalism, as well as to my organization. 
  9. Own up to my mistakes when I make them. Hold myself accountable for every detail of my work.
  10. Be fearless.