What are the best practices for journalists covering race in America?

One of the core functions of journalism is to provide citizens with the information they need to make the best possible decisions about their lives, their communities, and their societies. When it comes to journalism about the lives of black people in America, it’s obvious that this information must include crucial historical context, data, robust storytelling and sourcing, and cutting-edge academic insights.

But it’s one thing to know what makes this type of coverage good, and another thing altogether to understand what conditions in various journalism environments support it, and what constraints tend to get in the way. That’s why I conducted a qualitative study, asking editors and reporters about their biggest challenges, their priorities, and the elements that must be in place for them to do their best work.

One surprising thing I’ve learned through both informal conversations and interviews with people who are interested in this topic — from Stanford undergraduate students to the other JSK Fellows — is that news consumers are curious about how to identify high-quality coverage about race in America. This was solidified for me when I participated as a volunteer in a Stanford study about how adults decide whether information on the Internet is trustworthy. Forced to think out loud about my judgments for the researcher, I realized that making these assessments takes experience, and is far from obvious. The take-away: As journalists, we must not only produce quality content about race — we also have to find ways to signal to our audiences, who are inundated with information, what they can trust and what they should value.

By the Spring Quarter, I had a robust set of findings, including:

  • From my courses and conversations with Stanford professors: Academic insights from the social sciences that could enrich reporting about race in America.
  • From a graduate seminar, The Sociology of Race: Important warnings about how and why journalists should scrutinize the methodology of academic research on race, any time they report on it.
  • From my qualitative study: An enhanced understanding of the real-life challenges and limitations faced by journalists and editors, and insight into their personal priorities and best practices.
  • From my exploration of entrepreneurship and human-centered design: Ideas about how newsrooms can investigate and harness the unmet needs of their audiences to fuel changes in the way they approach stories about race.
  • From consultations with Stanford inclusion specialist Dereca Blackmon: Fresh perspectives on how to spread excitement and responsibility for improved journalism about race beyond people of color (a focus on “equity” versus “diversity”) and on how to teach a “cultural humility” vs “cultural competence” outlook as a framework for guiding coverage.

I had the opportunity to present my findings at an interactive workshop for the staff of NPR member station KQED in San Francisco, in partnership with fellow JSK Fellow Tonya Mosley, who spent her year studying how journalists can protect their work from their own implicit biases (including about race). Thanks to an enormous interest in these topics, we’ve agreed to present the curriculum post-fellowship at conferences, journalism schools, and additional newsrooms.