“So, what are you working on?” a friend asked me recently as we waited in line to see a movie. I told him about a story I was writing about racial tensions in an upper-middle-class suburb outside Washington, D.C..
“Oh, you’re still writing about that stuff,” he said dismissively as we bought popcorn. “When are you going to give it up?”
Such is the plight of reporters trying to write about race and class during this new—though now perhaps slightly tarnished—gilded age. Back when I started reporting in the late 1970’s, veteran reporters around the newsroom used to groan about “mego” stories—the ones that made “my eyes glaze over.” They were the assignments everyone dreaded: cover the Federal Reserve; write a story about changing interest rates; report on the stock market. With the memories of the 1960’s still fresh, many of us wanted to do the stories that would make a difference: expose racial injustice and class division, write about poverty and people with no voice or access to power.
These days, of course, what was once considered “mego” is now a front-page staple with reporters lined up to cover it. Television stations interrupt their regular programming to report on Federal Reserve meetings. The stock market, still, is just about all people want to talk about. It’s the stories about race and class, social justice and inequality, that provoke rolling of the eyes, distracted nods, impatient dismissals—not just from readers but from editors, too. “There you go again,” their expressions seem to say.
I don’t think this skepticism about such coverage is necessarily a bad thing. In many ways, coverage of race and class has become too predictable during the past 15 years. Readers picking up a story about a neighborhood devastated by drugs, or an African American complaining of discrimination often feel, I think, that they’ve read this story before.
Coverage of race or poverty has begun to mirror the intractability of these problems. I sometimes worry we have succeeded too well in communicating the bleak prospects of the inner-city underclass. Stories and then books such as Alex Kotlowitz’s “There Are No Children Here” have portrayed in harrowing and memorable detail the life of poor blacks. Have they also had the unintended consequence of making these problems seem beyond solution or hope? Faced with bleak statistics of poverty, single-parent families, dropout rates, and incarceration, most readers throw up their hands. They read these stories the way many of us read about tragedies in distant lands, like the oft-parodied bus plunge in Bangladesh that kills 50. It’s a shame, but it doesn’t really affect us and, therefore, it is not news to which we find connections.
This distancing from the problem of the poor and disadvantaged is especially true at a time when, despite the economic boom, middle-and upper-middle income readers seem increasingly focused on their own lives and concerns. Even the “haves” today envy the “have-mores.” This dynamic leaves little room to feel empathy for the poor. And as the economy slows down, this lack of interest and compassion will only increase.
So how do journalists connect our largely middle-and upper-class readers to these stories? One approach I’ve tried is to find those stories that show places where poverty and wealth and the races intersect—and then cast an honest light on how these forces play out. Last year I reported a story about Menlo-Atherton High School in Silicon Valley. It’s a fascinating school: One third of the school’s students come from well-to-do white families drawn from the high-tech boom; two-thirds come from poor black and Hispanic families who live in East Palo Alto.
As I brainstormed the story with some editors, a black editor said to me, “You know, I already know the story about the minority kids—the obstacles they face. I want to know what the white parents are thinking.” A light went on in my head. The story ended up being largely about the influence of the well-to-do white parents in this school and the way their power and anxiety about their own children’s success contributed to tracking and other policies that hurt many of the poor and minority kids. The story received a huge response in part, I think, because it touched a nerve among white readers unsettled to see aspects of themselves exposed in the paper—such as white students in advanced placement courses referring to regular, minority-filled classes as “ghetto” classes or teachers describing how powerful well-to-do parents had blocked a science program designed to help poor students by mixing students of different races and incomes.
To avoid the glazed eye syndrome in writing about poverty, journalists need to push themselves to find both new stories to tell and new ways of telling them. A few years ago we decided to write about the high rate of imprisonment of black men in inner cities. The story would be told not from inside the prison but outside, in the neighborhoods in which they no longer lived and among the people whom they’d left behind. What’s it like to live in a neighborhood where 40 percent of men in their 20’s are either in prison, on their way to prison, or have just been released from prison on probation?
I spent several months in Baltimore speaking with families, prisoners, ex-cons, social workers, and ministers. I eventually focused on Vernon Branch, a small-time drug dealer just released from jail, and his extended family. The story as I initially wrote it followed Branch as he left jail and the impact his repeated imprisonments had on his mother, his siblings, his mother-in-law, and his 10-year-old daughter, Sabrina. After my editor read the story he called with bad news. The story didn’t work. It was well reported and well written. But it was essentially a story about a drug dealer who gets out of jail and, by the end of the story, ends up in jail again. Branch wasn’t someone about whom readers would feel much sympathy. “But,” my editor continued. “I could read 100 inches about Sabrina.” I ended up refocusing the story, telling it through the eyes of a 10-year-old girl who lives in a world in which not only her father but her mother, uncle and most of the men in her life are in jail. It worked in a way my previous structure never could have.
Writing front-page stories for The Wall Street Journal, of course, gives me the luxury of time and space to develop these ideas. But on a day-to-day basis, The Washington Post does a terrific job tracking the evolving race and class issues in Prince George’s county, which is home to one of the country’s largest concentrations of middle-class blacks. At a recent conference I attended at the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University on race and ethnicity, West Coast reporters berated those of us based on the East Coast for failing to understand the changing diversity of the country, missing stories about Asian Americans and Hispanics—and pointing to ways in which their coverage is breaking new ground.
They are onto something, and so is my friend at the movie. For those of us committed to writing about race, class and poverty, the bar is higher now. We need to work harder to leap over it and pull our readers along.
Jonathan Kaufman is a reporter and editor at The Wall Street Journal who specializes in stories about race, class, poverty and the workplace.