Hire them, then disempower them

Watching how news organizations covered the recent Atlanta shootings is a master class in why representation matters, and why modern objectivity conventions are broken.

Welcome to The Unraveling, a weekly brainpurge that will cover current media issues and internet culture with a mix of theory, scholarship, and practice. Now with extra shrimp.

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Hey, let’s play a game. What is wrong with the fact that the Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA) has to tweet this out?

“Besides everything?” you might ask. And you wouldn’t be wrong. We will get to that in a bit.

The Twitter statement thread came out a few days after the Atlanta spa shootings that left eight people dead, six of whom were of Asian descent. The incident is a story-within-a-story-within-a-story in that there are layers to it beyond the actual shooting incident. It exists in a framework of toxic masculinity, racism and a pattern of escalating anti-Asian violence in the U.S. since the emergence of COVID-19. The last one is particularly crucial because the rhetoric of last summer, when President Trump was desperately trying to attach China to the name of the virus as a means to cynically exploit electoral political incentives. At the time, some people claimed the words were harmless and this was just heated bluster that didn’t do individual-level harm. The data say otherwise; one estimate says that anti-Asian violence is up 1900% over the past year in New York City alone, and similar patterns have been on display across the U.S. These things don’t happen in a vacuum, particularly during a season of widespread lockdowns.

The story about media coverage of the violence and how newsrooms react to the moment is particularly important, because it’s an issue of how the news influences both what the public knows about how and how the public sees those issues.

On the gatekeeping side, the issue in play is whether the past year of violence has been covered with enough volume to make a dent in the public’s level of attention. This is a particular challenge because of the fractured media landscape. We no longer have a handful of agenda-setters determining what we come to see as important. News comes at us from everywhere, so the public is more likely to be cued to think of something as urgent if they see it in lots and lots of venues.

With that in view, it’s likely that most white Americans first learned of the ongoing rise in violence against Asians in the U.S. as a result of the Atlanta shootings, or that this crystallized in their mind an issue that they’d seen some headlines about on occasion. It’s not that the issue has gotten no coverage, but rather whether it has gotten enough. Early on in the pandemic we got stories of individual bias incidents—people reporting being harassed outside their homes or in parking lots at places of business—that could be written off as isolated events if you don’t use the news very much. But covering initial incidents is supposed to be the first step in coverage, and better long-term news-making is supposed to decide whether there are dots to connect so that readers can make sense of patterns. This can be one of the most difficult processes for a reporter, deciding when there is enough data to legitimately call something a trend and escalate coverage. It doesn’t feel particularly difficult to see a trend in the case of anti-Asian violence the past year, but newsrooms have layers that affect coverage such that a reporter seeing it would have to convince someone up the chain that something is going on and that it’s a story that deserves more space. All this amidst a shrinking hole for news coverage during a time when there is a lot of news being made.

This is an issue of representation and empowerment, and what kind of space is being made at the table for people who offer a different perspective on events and trends. Newsrooms in the U.S. remain woefully un-diverse relative the population (about 83% white, by one study), a statistic that is even more damning considering that some of the most critical and contentious issues the past 10 years are at least partially located in discussions about race. The aforementioned violence is but one example. How long has it taken for newsrooms to respond to a movement such as #BlackLivesMatter with appropriate levels of coverage and resource devotion relative to the movement’s size? George Floyd was killed nearly six years after Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, MO. Brown’s death, about 2-1/2 years after Trayvon Martin was killed, is considered by many to be the start of a more visible phase of BLM.

So think about this: from Trayvon Martin to George Floyd we are talking about more than 8 years. Yes, I’m being reductive, because this story has been going on for centuries, but this is to point out that even in a short frame it has taken a long time to get better at covering this. It wasn’t until last summer that the media writ large began to pull away from covering BLM as a society-wide argument between two views or episodic coverage of protests that would last a few days before the news system moved on to the next controversy or Trump tweet. There was good coverage, but it was not widespread except at publications that committed to this work amid dwindling resources. For too long there was plenty of room for better coverage, more rigorous and rooted in accountability rather than focusing on the protest dramatics that play well visually on television. But from a process perspective, once you realize how little representation Black journalists have in most newsrooms, you understand why this happened. With few there to spot the problem or trend and pitch the story, with few Black editors there to shape coverage decisions, the news is going to be subject to inevitable blind spots even amid reader blowback.

Representation isn’t a numbers game where you try to get the demographics roughly the same as society in general and just assume everything will get better. That’s magical thinking during a time when magical thinking won’t do.

It’s partially about who is in the room, yes, but also about what you empower people to do once they are there. There’s a qualitative difference between hiring people from underrepresented populations to do entry-level reporting jobs and giving them leadership roles with commensurate power and budgets to change coverage patterns. To be clear, we need both. We need reporters and editors from underrepresented groups at all levels to create and shape more well-rounded coverage, but we also need them in management. That 17% should be much higher, but it should be sprinkled across newsroom leadership (and while I’m here, media ownership and management as well).

But even when they’re in the room, we have to deal with ridiculous journalistic conventions, which brings us back to the tweet atop this piece.

It’s difficult to look at what AAJA is talking about here and not see the big problem, that conventions about objectivity make a newsroom stop and think it’s a bad idea to have an Asian journalist covering news about violence against Asians. Even if we take that point of view at face value, the shooter was a white male. Does this preclude a white journalist or a male journalist from being able to cover the issue?

And think about how far we could take that. You can’t cover sports if you like sports. You can’t cover religion if you have an interest in spirituality. The notion that identity is a disqualifier rather than an asset is nonsense on its face, but more importantly it is not universally applied. In fact, being interested in those things, identifying as part of particular communities, often is a reason to encourage a journalist to pursue certain beats or topics. It just works in the background for white journalists, because their identity functions in the background when it comes to systemic processes.

When a newsroom takes the stance that reporters of Asian descent can’t cover violence against their community fairly, they are telling you something about their blind spots and their unworkable vision of what objectivity is for. The blind spot is that they can’t imagine asking that of a white colleague, though that is a helpful way to reframe the argument. The objectivity thing is more complicated.

One of the problems with the modern American conception of objectivity is that it’s asking reporters to lie. The way Americans and many journalists would define it is that a journalist has to hide their biases in order to keep at bay questions about whether the reporter has been fair in their coverage. In this line of thinking, a reporter has biases, and the only thing to do with them is keep private about them. You just don’t talk about it.

I call this image-driven objectivity, the idea that objectivity isn’t really a method of reporting, information-gathering or even truthtelling so much as a public relations effort to keep the public guessing about what a reporter really believes. But the thing is that the coverage is the coverage. It’s hard to imagine a world where a news story would end up being materially different if a reporter’s views were known. You produce the news based on where your reporting process leads. A reader or viewer might interpret what you produce differently based on what they know about a reporter’s views, but that has nothing to do with the content itself. This is sales, not good journalism. It’s also hella dishonest for a business built on truth and trust.

Image-driven objectivity is how Americans expect journalists to behave, not report. “A reporter shouldn’t have bias,” people say, as if such a thing were possible. As if they’d hold themselves to such a standard when consuming the news.

No, it’s not a belief that a reporter shouldn’t have bias. It’s that they shouldn’t show it. It’s an act. Lie to me!

The thing is, this is not the original conception of journalistic objectivity, laid out most prominently by writers such as Walter Lippmann about a century ago. Others such as Tom Rosenstiel have done good work on this topic; you should read this piece but I’ll share here the key quote: “The method is objective, not the journalist.” In Lippmann’s view, a journalist should act as a social scientist, putting their biases on the table and testing them against evidence. This method of objectivity argues for the opposite of bias suppression. Instead, good journalism incorporates bias into the reporting process as a way to actively keep the reporter accountable. It requires a journalist dedicated to the truth above all else, but really how is that any different than how we expect a reporter should act? With an objective method, at least there is a systematic way of testing assumptions against evidence to make possible a better conclusion.

The idea that someone from an Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community cannot fairly cover news about people like themselves shows how deeply broken the modern, twisted view of objectivity is. But I would take it a step further. This view of objectivity also keeps newsrooms from doing better coverage on these communities. You can’t disempower the few people in your newsroom who offer a different perspective on issues that affect them and expect your reporting process is going to be well rounded. True representation is about bringing more voices into newsrooms and putting them in decision-making processes, but you are just playing a numbers game if you subsequently take them off the beat for the purpose of image-driven objectivity.

Consider the alternative, then. Having white journalists handle the coverage leads to more problematic frames on the story, terrible tweet frames, and bad headlines. Ones like we saw last week that focused on the Atlanta shooter having a “bad day” or stories about his childhood and background that soften his image (and contrast that with the infamous Michael Brown “no angel” story, how news framed from white viewpoints tries to “balance” the news by telling us why people of color who get shot aren’t perfect).

The point is that blind spots are everywhere. They cannot be avoided but they should be interrogated as a matter of systemic process, not self-created crisis. But by taking reporters off beats because of blind spots that disempower marginalized viewpoints while keeping others on because whiteness works in the background, you reinforce the tendency to perpetuate problematic frames that already exist in news coverage. It defeats the very point of newsroom diversification.

I do want to highlight one other AAJA comment from that excellent Twitter thread that you absolutely should read:

Giving AAPI reporters more ability to influence and create coverage is a good thing, but we also can’t just outsource it to them and call it done. It is a collective effort that has to span the newsroom, which means more listening to people from that community about gaps they’ve identified in processes and coverage, and then devoting more resources to filling those gaps. That means more people from underrepresented backgrounds, but also training and education opportunities to help the whole newsroom level-up their knowledge. We can’t have these conversations without diversifying newsrooms because people from diverse backgrounds need to be there to bring it up, but the responsibility to do better should be a newsroom-wide initiative.

Media stories I’m keeping an eye on this week:

Jeremy Littau is an associate professor of journalism and communication at Lehigh University? Find him on Twitter at @jeremylittau.