Note: This article is adapted from “Reporting Inequality: Methods and tools for covering race and ethnicity,” to be published by Routledge in 2017.
Investigative and beat reporters who like to dive deep are among those journalists most driven by the field’s foundational tenets to give voice to the voiceless and shine light on injustice.
But what’s the line between exposing injustice and pressing for a particular type of change? Remaining independent or taking a stance? Taking affirmative action to find diverse voices or skewing the story?
The traditional mission and ethics of journalism, along with historic examinations of the role of the press, offer insight into reporting on inequality both fairly and well.
SPJ’s Code of Ethics spells out journalism ideals in its preamble. Journalism serves justice, democracy and public enlightenment. Ethical news gatherers strive for “free exchange of information that is accurate, fair and thorough.” In reporting inequality, the tenets of justice and fairness underpin journalists’ goal of impartiality, but they reach further.
“Justice” asks journalists to serve the overall public interest. This idea can be split into two types, theorists suggest.
“Conservative justice” strives to preserve stability in order to ensure that social institutions can address competing interests. “Reformative justice” addresses social wrongs and embraces marginalized groups, Patrick Lee Plaisance writes in his book, “Media Ethics: Key Principles for Responsible Practice.”
Journalism straddles the tension between the two. In the process of truth-seeking, reporters work within a beat structure that reflects a stable social order. Journalists follow the workings of government, police and health agencies and hold them accountable to the public.
In reporting inequality strictly through the social-order lens, however, journalists can be complicit in perpetuating beliefs about minority groups. Uncovering harsh treatment of African Americans by police officers, describing the ravages of hepatitis C in Appalachia, and even showing the sordid quality of public housing in some cities can activate preconceptions about cultural and group behavior. Without further information about the reasons behind inequality, readers and viewers turn to their own belief systems for explanations.
Stories pointing out health disparities such as the high rate of breast cancer mortality among African Americans and Latinas can seem to point to some unnamed biological difference or a failure to access available mammogram services. Audience perceptions would be quite different if the same stories revealed their obstacles in getting a mammogram, the atmosphere and cultural competence of the clinic, and the quality and availability of treatment once breast cancer is diagnosed. This latter approach provides a more complete understanding of the issue.
We have developed a tool called the “responsibility continuum” to assist reporters with such an approach, which can reveal the complexity of disparities. It provides a means to think through the forces at play in inequality, reaching beyond outcomes and individuals alone. The continuum looks like this:
This continuum illustrates the hierarchy of influence that ultimately leads to disparate social outcomes. News stories that focus on an individual’s actions or the harm they experience fall into the “personal responsibility” frame. We placed this box farthest to the right because individual decisions are not made in a vacuum. They are influenced by living and working conditions, which in turn are directly influenced by institutional and structural practices or policies. These, in turn, are directly affected by social hierarchies and privileges such as racism, sexism, classism, and disenfranchisement around sexual orientation and gender identity.
The shift in thinking that this continuum encourages can be illustrated in the story of high rates of diabetes and heart disease among African Americans. We know that some foods reflecting African American cultural traditions can contribute to these diseases. Each of us must decide whether to allocate time to exercise or cook up dinner at home, rather than relax with a video and meal from a fast-food restaurant. That’s the far-right box. Cultural traditions and personal choices, however, are just the outcome of a bigger story.
Public health experts have developed a way of understanding the forces behind individual decision-making and health inequities overall by studying the relevant structural components of society. They call these “social determinants” of health. Social determinants are the interacting economic and social conditions built into society that affect how we grow up, live, work and play.
These include our social and physical environment; workplaces, health care and other institutional structures; and the resources we can access. At root, they are shaped by the distribution of wealth and power throughout society.
Looking at the orange box in the continuum, consider how families’ living and working conditions influence their choices. For example, some African American families in urban areas who rely on public transportation have to travel an hour or more by bus to get to the grocery store. How might that affect their eating habits? In some communities, cracked sidewalks and speeding cars make walking along the street unsafe. Decaying or dark parks present danger. How likely are residents to exercise?
On the other hand, more affluent communities benefit from buses that run on time, well-lighted bus stops and traffic-calming measures that keep pedestrians in mind. How might this contrasting environment affect how residents behave?
Further up the continuum, institutional policies directly affect living and working conditions. Along with market forces, zoning laws dictate the types of businesses established in communities. In a 2010 study, Ethan Berke and his colleagues at the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice found that poor African American and Latino communities have a greater density of liquor stores than affluent communities. Other research has found the same over-representation of retail tobacco outlets. On the other hand, well-off communities rarely lack full-service groceries, including those that offer fresh, organic produce. Farmers’ markets are common.
In order to exercise, shop for groceries or conduct any other aspect of life, we all rely on institutional decisions and practices. Local governments decide where to place high-speed traffic routes and how to allocate resources to maintain parks and safety across neighborhoods. Some big employers run their own private buses for workers, potentially weakening community support for expanded public transportation.
Finally, at the far left of the continuum, consider how social hierarchies and privileges shape policy decisions. Many predominately non-white communities lack the socio-political clout to push agencies to change their policies, be they funds for transportation, decisions about zoning, or the distribution of resources to parks and recreation programs.
As carefully detailed in a 2012 Environmental Health News series called “Pollution, Poverty, People of Color,” historical patterns of segregation have often led to the establishment of polluting factories and high-speed transportation corridors in neighborhoods where African Americans, Latinos or immigrant Asians often live. On the other hand, higher income neighborhoods have the political muscle to influence policies regarding parks, zoning and local transportation.
The most enterprising journalists highlight ways in which social institutions themselves are organized to give favor to some demographic groups over others. They follow the money, uncovering funding and other policy decisions that have eased the path of the white majority for generations and continue to do so. They not only portray victims of discrimination, they also explain the policies, practices and procedures that give rise to it. In addition, they show the benefits that white people, men or other groups in power reap from the very same policies.
These reporters avoid the habit of attending to non-whites or women only as victims or problem people, and instead also show members of these groups as part of the norm, including acting positively on their own behalf. They make a conscious effort to include all segments of society and present their voices as equal. They shine light on issues and events in a manner that seeks to achieve institutions, policies and practices that are fair to everyone. They take the stance of “reformative justice.”
Fairness requires even deeper awareness of our habits as journalists. Without care, even investigative reporting can indirectly justify the very social organization and institutions that lead to unequal outcomes.
The work of social psychologists Anthony Greenwald and Mahzarin Banaji on implicit bias supports the idea that audiences unconsciously categorize people, assigning traits to race, gender, religion and other groups. Journalists do so, too, and frame their stories accordingly.
We all engage in a perception cycle that influences what we see and notice, what we think and what we say. But journalists’ words, visuals and text deeply influence others. We can take responsibility by being deliberate in our reporting and language, aiming for a more well-rounded portrait of the world in which we live.
The first step to challenging our own buried biases is humility. We must recognize that our entire upbringing has shaped the world in a particular way for us, and that as journalists, we must seek out and listen more closely to other versions of the world.
Journalists often defend their commitment to fairness and accuracy by saying, “I write what I see.” But what we “see” relies on our own cultural and social norms.
To use a gender-based example, one journalist covering a technology conference might “see” the powerful male leaders in the room and notice their dynamic calls for creativity and entrepreneurship. Another may “see” that there are very few women in the room and notice that speakers are peppering their comments with sexual innuendo. Both accounts are true. Neither is neutral.
For some journalists, consciously focusing on gender, race, sexual orientation or other identities might seem contrary to fairness. But in truth, being conscious of our own identities and those of the people we are covering leads to greater fairness. That’s because being “identity-blind” requires ignoring the experiences that people without historical power live with, every day. Language and approaches that seem “neutral” often instead give favor to groups that hold the most power in society.
One tool to open up the lens shaped by our personal experience is the Maynard Institute’s Fault Lines. It’s a conceptual framework that helps journalists consciously develop coverage that is more inclusive, complete and nuanced by thinking about a story’s significance and key stakeholders through a series of identity perspectives. People make sense of the world through five major aspects of identity, according to this approach:
2) Gender/sexual orientation
By considering how to investigate or write about any issue, disparity or policy through each of these Fault Lines, we can gain a fuller understanding of its impact. By acknowledging our own Fault Lines, we can check our hidden assumptions.
The Hutchins Commission, which convened for four years starting in 1943, also suggests that the identity-conscious point of view is the path to greater fairness. A socially responsible media, the commission wrote, represents all groups in society and offers historical context, providing a forum for exchange of ideas from a variety of society’s segments. At their best, journalists facilitate the hashing out of society’s values and goals in an inclusive public square.
An ethical journalist follows basic principles of giving the accused an opportunity to respond, exploring alternate explanations for supposed wrongdoing, and the like. But considering the deeper elements of justice and fairness supports more responsible, and more effective, investigative work.
Sally Lehrman is a senior fellow at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. Venice Wagner teaches journalism at San Francisco State University and previously reported for the San Francisco Chronicle and Examiner.