Tasneem Raja on how NPR’s Code Switch navigates the increasingly crowded race-and-culture beat

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This article first appeared on Nieman Lab and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Freddie Gray. Sandra Bland. Rachel Dolezal. Dylann Roof. Viola Davis. In 2015, there is no shortage of stories that sit right in the middle of the intersection between race and culture in America. Increasingly newsrooms around the country are having conversations about how to cover things like the Black Lives Matter movement, or, for that matter, how covering police shootings of people of color are taking a toll on their staff. This is the place where NPR’s Code Switch unit lives.

First launched in 2013 with a $1.5 million grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Code Switch was conceived as an attempt to “deepen coverage of race, ethnicity and culture, and to capture the issues that define an increasingly diverse America.” A forward-thinking effort given the rapidly changing demographics in the U.S., Code Switch has grown into a place where reporters tries to consider issues around race with nuance, whether that’s the myth of the colorblind millennial, or going deep on the hit Broadway musical “Hamilton.”

In January, Tasneem Raja took over as digital editor of the Code Switch team. What’s changed from the day Code Switch was launched, Raja said, is that mainstream news outlets have been forced to explore race in America beyond the tragic moments like the shooting of Tamir Rice in Cleveland, or presidential candidates’ thoughts on immigration. “So now our interesting challenge is to figure out what can bring, how do we keep moving forward on having these conversation in a smart way,” Raja told me recently. “Cause now, the good news is simply having them isn’t novel. I see words like ‘white privilege’ and ‘inclusion,’ and ‘microaggression.’”

Raja and I were recently on a panel together at the Online News Association annual conference. In the days afterward, we chatted about how Code Switch plans to differentiate its coverage and how the unit interacts with the rest of NPR on big stories. We also discussed how her team uses Twitter to shape stories, a potential Code Switch podcast, and how they’re approaching an upcoming project on the history of Black Twitter. Here’s a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.

Justin Ellis: What’s it been like for you to figure out what makes for a good Code Switch story? Especially at a time when there is so much to be written about race and culture?

Tasneem Raja: One of the reasons I wanted to work at Code Switch was I really, truly, believe that NPR starting this team back in 2013 kind of changed the way that mainstream, big, general-interest, national publications, thought about what it meant to cover race and ethnicity and culture.

Everything from the name of the team, to the way that is was staffed, to the stories out of the gate sent a signal that we’re going to be doing this differently now.

NPR is not going to be doing, on this team, race stories that are sort of “A is for African American,” like Race Studies 101 kind of stuff. The way I always talk about it is our job is to talk to a broad audience that is not necessarily a white audience.

That’s very different, I think, from the way we’ve seen big outlets handle these kinds of stories in past. In this year, it’s really been fascinating to see this beat deepen and widen and get more crowded, frankly, and more saturated.

It’s a good thing for us, a good thing for readers. A good thing for the issue. So now our interesting challenge is to figure out what can bring, how do we keep moving forward on having these conversation in a smart way. Cause now, the good news is simply having them isn’t novel. I see words like “white privilege” and “inclusion,” and “microaggression.” These now have just entered the parlance.

You’ll see them at The Washington Post and The Guardian and The New York Times. Now what does it mean for Code Switch to keep moving the ball forward on making sure we’re all having these conversations in the smartest possible way?

What I’m really interested in what does it mean to wrestle with messy issues of identity and make that a deeply reported beat. We’ll keep doing what we’re doing on the commentary front, in the essays and in the philosophical sense. What does it mean to marry that even more strongly with the fact that we’re all reporters as well as writers and radio producers?

Ellis: How does audio and multimedia play into that discussion about what’s going to make a good Code Switch story? I’m sure they want you guys to work across as many dimensions as possible.

Raja: And we do too. One of the things that’s interesting about the Code Switch audience is that we’re so different from the broader NPR audience. We are, unsurprisingly, much younger, much browner.

One of the things we think about a lot — and I talked about this at the ONA panel — our audience isn’t just the audience outside NPR. It’s also our job to share our lens with the rest of the newsroom.

One thing NPR has done very purposefully is put us in the middle of the newsroom, on the third floor where news happens. We sit in a very strategic spot where we are next to the digital news team. We’re also in an area where a lot of people walk around.

We end up just having a lot of conversations and have purposefully built up relationships with a lot of folks who are primarily radio. Of course, we have three of our own radio reporters. So this is all to say that NPR wants us to think across platforms, and we want to think across platforms. It’s really important for us to be in the mix on stories, whether it’s on NPR’s Tumblr, All Things Considered, or when the homepage folks are thinking about what the homepage mix will look like.

When there’s breaking news, it’s really important for them to know we’re working on an essay that’s going to be a Day 2 or Day 3 story that is going to jump off of the Freddie Gray story, or the season premiere of Empire. And then it’s really important to let the radio folks know that this is coming, so that they can start thinking about, Do we want Gene Demby on the air to have a conversation about the piece he just did?

A really good example of this is our piece on what it’s like to be a black reporter covering policing and issues of law enforcement right now. This just really worked for us across platforms. And it also got at that mission of really thinking about what it means to do deep, meaningful, personal essays that are also deeply reported. Gene talked to three other black reporters at national publications about their experience of covering stories like Ferguson and Baltimore and Sandra Bland and the personal toll of covering those stories. We let the big flagship news shows know this was happening. Morning Edition was able to create a space for Gene to talk to Steve Inskeep about his experience. Then we also had tape from his conversations with reporters that he interviewed.

There was this whole lifecycle for this story that felt really satisfying for us. It felt like, OK, we’re doing the work we need to do to make sure we’re getting the most out of this story for all of our platforms.

Ellis: You guys have been in the potentially tricky position of being reporters of color, reporting about being reporters of color. There’s Gene’s piece, another talking about public radio voice. How do you navigate that when it can get very close to where you work?

Raja: To me it’s really important that your team looks like the audience you’re trying to reach, and that we talk and think and ponder in similar ways to the audience we’re trying to reach. We are the audience. So a lot of the conversations that we have just amongst ourselves on the desk end up becoming pieces that we do.

So with the black reporters piece, I knew that this was bugging Gene. It was bugging me as his editor, to every time something popped off to be like “Hey Gene.” I cringed every time I asked that question — “What are we going to do about Sandra Bland?” There was something that felt so fundamentally off about that.

It was just deciding that we were going to have that conversation. And recognizing that this is a conversation that I think needs to be happening in every newsroom right now, especially as we’re talking about these broader issues of diversity.

It’s not just math, right? If we’re going to be bringing in people who look different from the people who have traditionally covered issues of black and brown life in this country, then we need to think about what that editing process looks like, or that reporting process looks like. Because it’s different.

So just being able to have that conversation with him personally, and then we felt like this is a conversation that is bigger than us and needs to be had more broadly. That’s how a lot of our stuff starts. We all sit next to each other, we all talk all day, and it starts when we have conversations and we keep hitting a dead end, or we’re dancing around an issue. A lot of times what we’ll do is we’ll end up turning to Twitter. We’ll literally say, “We’re sitting here having this conversation right now and we’re not getting anywhere — what do you guys think?”

An example was during the awful Rachel Dolezal saga when this whole question of “transracialism” kept coming up on Twitter. And we were at the desk just having this conversation, and all of us in our bones felt like there’s no such thing as transracial. But we were having a hard time articulating why. So what we did was we just turned to Twitter. That one actually we decided that the Twitter chat was enough. We knew that based on the conversation we might turn this into a piece. Or we might go and see about doing a two-way on air, or something like that. But we were satisfied by the end of the Twitter chat. So we went, “OK, we’re done with this story.” So I guess, to answer your question, a guiding principle is, Do we feel satisfied by the answers we’re coming up with? And if not, we just have to keep going and maybe we have the conversation on a different platform. But when it comes to sensitive issues, I think we have the luxury of starting with a lot of trust amongst ourselves. This is a team of people who have lived a lot of these experiences. Or we’ve been steeped in these issues for a really long time. Like Keith Woods always says, with this beat, there’s tremendous value when you get it right and tremendous peril when you get it wrong. Our job is to really talk to each other and push back on our story ideas and the lenses we’re applying to these stories, and then try to invite the audience into the conversation as much as possible. Ellis: I’m glad you brought up Twitter. I’m curious how your team uses it. You hold discussions; they turn into pieces. How do you make that effective and manageable? Raja: It certainly helps that we’re all Twitter junkies. It just feels like the most natural thing in the world for us. We build it into the editing process more than you may realize. Kat Chow was doing a piece about the character of Dong on The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. She was just bothered by the response to the character and the conversation about the character and she wanted to hash it out. She and I were sitting down in a story meeting to figure out what it was she wanted to say about this character. People were upset about his name; they found it to be a very reductionist character, with echoes of the way Asian American men have been portrayed on American TV, like Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles. There was something more she felt the character and the show were doing — she thought it was smarter and more layered than that. She came to me and said, I’m having a hard time, I’m wrestling with this — I should throw it out to Twitter. Basically reporting the story, that one thread of the story out loud, on Twitter. So she’s getting all these fascinating responses and my job is to help her parse the responses. There’s this camp that feels this way, and this faction that feels that way, and we need to put that all into conversation with each other through your piece. More and more, Twitter will just be part of our reporting toolkit. As we’re sitting here trying to hash out, like, what do we do about the fact that a lot of people like the Redskins logo for reasons that have to watching the game with their dad when they were 10? What do we do with that? That’s messy. So let’s take it to Twitter.  

That just helps us take the temperature I would say. This makes sure we’re cover the angles of ways that people are thinking about these issues.

Ellis: At ONA, you mentioned an upcoming project on Black Twitter. How did that come about? Black Twitter is a community where people are quick to look at people who are coming at it sideways or without the best intent. How are you managing that?

Raja: The story came about because I was having dinner with Errin Haines Whack, a freelancer and contributor for Code Switch. And she mentioned a project that she had done recently, which was an oral history of Freaknik.

And like a lot of people who love the Internet, I love the oral history genre. I’ve read a bunch of these at Grantland and Vanity Fair. I was asking her questions about how you do an oral history — how does it work? And the next day I thought: Oh my god, an oral history of Black Twitter.

So I went to Gene and was like “Is it too soon?” And he said no, it feels right. But the first thing we both said was this is not going to be “Why Black Twitter” or “What is Black Twitter?” This is not going to be Black Twitter 101. What we wanted to do was capture especially the early days and really be able to recreate the timeline of who were the early adopters — were there hashtags people were organizing around really early? What’s the relationship between early adopters of Black Twitter back in like ’06, ’07, and Black Planet or LiveJournal, or some of the blogs that were riding high at the time?

We wanted to come to it much more as a history than a sociological head-scratcher phenomenon. Gene has been in this world for a long time. I’ve been paying attention for a long time. The reporting process has just been really fun. It’s been one of the most ambitious, and certainly the most fun reporting I’ve ever done.

We’re learning a lot, especially about the early days and how all of this coalesced, that we didn’t fully understand. It just feels really important to us to capture this history. So we knew going in that a bunch of the people we were going to talk to, we needed them to understand that there wasn’t going to be an icon of a black Twitter bird — unless it was ironic. We really weren’t going to try to do this meta, 30,000-foot-view thing.

I think this is a case where the team of reporters looks like the sources, looks like the audience. We already know a lot of these people. We’ve been really happy with the response from the people we’ve been wanting to interview. I think they get that we’re trying to do something that is more about capturing the history and less trying to explain it for audiences that don’t get it.

Ellis: Is there anything you can tell me about a Code Switch podcast at this point?

Raja: We get 10 tweets a day asking where the Code Switch podcast is. We’re really excited to be at a place right now where we feel like we can start answering that demand.

It’s completely nascent. Everything’s on the table, and it’s really exciting because people are having this conversations in ways that feel really inspiring to us. We all love Another Round, of course. We love Call Your Girlfriend. There are podcasts that feel like they would be play cousins for us. Obviously there’s Gene’s PostBourgie podcast.

We’re excited to enter this family and we’re excited about having this extended family of play cousins that we get to hang out with — and hopefully invite to our podcast, and they’ll invite us to theirs, and we can all hang out. It’ll be a lot of fun.

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  • MarkJeffries

    Unfortunately, the Code Switch articles on the NPR web site tend to attract the most notoriously racist of commenters who continually challenge Code Switch’s existence, using that hackneyed “don’t we have a black President?” claim. For those who think that public radio has turned to the right, it just happens that race, gender and climate change stories seem to push the buttons of the extreme right as much as military, Middle East and pop culture stories seem to push the buttons of the far left. Which seems to make NPR (if anything) centrist–which in my mind is not a bad thing.