Dig deeper: Tips for covering complexities of race relations

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A 2015 report by the Aspen Institute offered these recommendations for journalists looking to produce comprehensive and inclusive coverage of racial issues:

Question the data. The goal of every journalist is to find the story that’s not been told before. Once you’ve gathered studies and statistics relevant to your area of interest, examine those numbers by disaggregating by race, gender, age and ZIP code to look for patterns, inequities and inconsistencies. Reporting your numbers and explaining what they mean can illuminate the roots of long-running racial disparities and inspire a wealth of story ideas.

Know the history and the laws. When it comes to race, exploring the history and familiarizing yourself with significant federal, state and local laws governing your beat is especially important. Sometimes a story that seems to be about one thing — for example, de facto segregation in neighborhoods or public schools — is actually rooted in a history of race-based policies rather than the result of cultural or personal preferences. Making connections between past legislation and current conditions can illustrate the profound effects policy and practices can have on the well-being of individuals, families and communities.

Go behind the numbers. While reporting on racial disparities, be sure to tell the story behind the statistics and illustrate with up-to-date data where appropriate. While always good practice, it is especially important with race-related reporting to explore structural forces driving disparity because data alone can reinforce notions that certain groups are inferior, less willing to work or prone to criminal behavior. Explaining how the numbers came to be is critical to shaping informed opinions and building public will for racial equity.

Cultivate diverse sources and experts. Reporters have lists of reliable experts — often academics or government officials — whom they tap to provide context and analysis. But to offer audiences the most comprehensive reporting on race, it’s important to give prominence to the opinions of those most impacted by the events, policy or legislation at the heart of your story. Local community leaders, activists and residents can provide keen insight, knowledge and historical context. Bilingual sources are particularly valuable in bridging English-speaking audiences and immigrant communities.

Partner up. Even newsrooms with tight budgets and short turnaround times can explore the complexities of race by partnering with nonprofit news organizations, researchers and advocates to share context, conduct research, analyze data, and interpret legislation and court orders. The Center for Investigative Reporting, ProPublica and the Solutions Journalism Network are examples of the best in national nonprofit news organizations committed to collaborating for the public good. Locally based nonprofits and university research centers can also be excellent sources of context.

This excerpt is adapted from “Reporting on Race in the 21st Century” by Gretchen Susi and Jeannine Amber. It summarizes a series of recommendations developed by a panel of leading journalists, many of whom work in public media, during a 2014 Aspen Institute Roundtable on Community Change. The Annie E. Casey Foundation, which provided a grant supporting Current’s special coverage of diversity in public media, funded the roundtable and the report.