Farai Chideya is a journalist whose career has encompassed academia as well as broadcast and print journalism. She has worked at news organizations including NPR, CNN, ABC News, FiveThirtyEight, and The Intercept. Chideya, who has reported from 49 states and continues to do on-the-ground reporting, has covered every presidential election since 1996.
She spent four years as a distinguished writer‑in‑residence at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute and she studied the lack of diversity in American newsrooms as a fellow at Harvard Shorenstein Center. Her books include “Don’t Believe the Hype: Fighting Cultural Misinformation About African Americans” and “The Episodic Career.”
Currently she is the program officer for journalism at the Ford Foundation. In addition, she is the creator and host of the podcast, “Our Body Politic,” which is by, about, and for Black women and women of color.
She spoke with Nieman Fellows in November. Edited excerpts:
On understanding culture war communication
You have to understand the dynamics of culture war communication. I feel the political press and all press lost touch with the idea that you can’t fact-check a culture war. That’s just not how it works. You have to have the cultural competency to understand how you got into this culture war, who’s perpetrating it, who are the so‑called bystanders.
The reality is no one’s a bystander in a culture war. You’re usually either a perpetrator, a resistance fighter, or a victim. I feel there is a fundamental misunderstanding of how the act of telling the truth through journalism is simply not enough without understanding why disinformation and lies work. They’re very appealing, and they go viral much faster than the truth. Journalists have been slow on the uptake about that.
One of the things we talked about a lot this election cycle is the constant mocking of working income whites by the American press. In some ways, it’s more acceptable now to be mocking and scornful of working class whites than it is to be so openly [mocking] of people of color. It’s completely unhelpful to mock working class white Trump voters. It is helpful to go and talk to them and understand both the realities that they face and the manipulative messaging going on.
People in eastern Ohio are much more likely to think that the U.S.‑Mexico border is a problem to America than people who live on the U.S.‑Mexico border, including other white conservatives. Why is that? You need to understand the culture of disinformation relies on and thrives on distance, physical or ideological.
On potentially fatal beliefs
The thing is it’s not disparaging of working class white Americans to point out where some of them have bought into a culture war that also kills them. It’s doing good reporting, which is very different from mocking. In Jonathan Metzl’s “Dying of Whiteness,” which I highly recommend everyone read, he talks about different policies including white Americans who are poor who have been against Medicaid expansion through the Affordable Care Act, gun laws that empirically allow more white people to kill and be killed, etc. It’s an embrace of cultural nationalism, which is also tied to white nationalism through public policy.
There was a white nationalist, who I DM‑ed with on Twitter for over a year. Someone was like, “Why would you want to talk to a white nationalist?” I said, “To understand why so many people are attracted to an ideology that then can be weaponized to gain political power like now.”
They were like, “Well, I don’t think there’s that much you can learn from them,” and I was like, “Au contraire. If you understand why people choose white nationalism over money and health and survival, you have unlocked a whole Candy Crush bonus.”
The reality is that a sense of belonging, a spiritual-cultural sense of belonging, is something that people will die for, for many different reasons, good and bad. People who died during the civil rights era died to make the world better for people of color and everyone.
People who are dying for whiteness also believe that they are making the world better. You can discuss that without endorsing their point of view, but to not understand it is part of the reason that we are where we are, because we just pretended it wasn’t happening.
There are a lot of people who are willing to die for a supremacist or nationalist view of whiteness. Rather than saying, “All these Trump voters are stupid because they won’t wear masks.” For the ones who don’t, start asking what is more important than life itself? Why are you following a political ideology that is leading you to die? Which is what’s happening, measurably. That’s an interesting question, and it produces interesting answers, which is a lot better than just being snarky.
When I’ve interviewed white supremacists and nationalists, they talk about coming home to family when they join active white supremacist movements. It reminds me very much of what people have said about joining gangs.
You could have a guy who is black or Latino who joined a gang in L.A. They may have the same motivation for joining a gang that a white nationalist has for joining a white supremacist movement. It is that sense of belonging that transcends your day‑to‑day life.
It doesn’t mean that having a sense of belonging is wrong. The people who have done the most good to this world have a passionate sense of belonging that drives their actions. What I’m saying is that the sense of belonging itself is neither inherently right nor wrong.
You can have a sense of belonging to the Nazi Party. You can have a sense of belonging to the KKK. You can have a sense of belonging to any number of movements or affiliations that do harm or good in the world, and so to figure out why people feel that they have a sense of belonging rooted in racial resentment and terrorism is important.
On asking the right questions
When journalists cover science, we can be culturally competent about the reasons why people deny science. For example, one study found that half of Black people in America don’t intend to take the vaccine because of fear of the scientific institution’s racism, which is well documented.
Instead of saying, “Half of Black people are crazy and don’t want to live,” you could say, “Because of the long history of medical malpractice and deliberate use of Black people as test subjects, we find now that 50 percent of African Americans don’t want to take the vaccine. What would it take to prove to Black people that this is safe?”
One thing that was interesting is in Mississippi at first Black people were the most likely to die of Covid. Now it’s white people because Black Americans are wearing masks more than white Americans. I think Black Americans know that we’re dying disproportionately.
Also, in that question, it’s not, why are white people in Mississippi so stupid? The question is “What political and cultural factors make white Americans not want to wear masks in Mississippi?” It’s about finding the right question.
A lot of times, we’re just not asking the right question, or we’re just saying, people are stupid. I think so much of dealing with information in a culture war era where there’s racial tensions is not going for the easy mocking answer.
On election polls
I am a huge fan of combining field reporting and data from other sources. The story that I was seeing [during the 2016 election] about the enthusiasm for Trump, by doing field reporting, far exceeded what the polling numbers were showing. I don’t feel that journalism that relies on polling alone is going to be remotely accurate for the foreseeable future.
When you’re a political operative and the question, why polling comes up, it’s like, well, I want to know where to place my ad buys, I want to know who to try to reach, who’s persuadable. When you get to why polling for journalism, we have to ask some serious questions like, why are we obsessed with polling?
We need to start looking at political polls that way in terms of news for general interest audiences. It’s incidental to most people consuming news whether someone is up three points or down three points. If you were a voter who, for example, is voting to end the Covid pandemic, increase the minimum wage, or decrease the minimum wage, or have freedom from mask mandates, the polling shouldn’t affect your choices.
We as journalists have created a whole meta‑narrative industry around polling that’s really, I think, more about enriching ourselves than it is about enriching public knowledge.
On what white male editors ignored
When I talked about the role of racial resentment in affinity for Trump [in 2016], I was shut down by a lot of my editors who were all white men. I have had one of my former editors apologize to me for basically not paying attention to what I said. The reality is that I wasn’t just saying this; I think there was an assumption that I was saying this because I was Black. No, I’m a Black woman who’s been a reporter for three decades, and who’s been out in the field, and who is out in the field now.
My lived experience plus my reporting experience actually means I know things, but in newsrooms, the truth that makes the printed page, or the digital page, or makes air, is often shaped by what editors think is true.
If you come in with a totally true story that’s a man bites dog story, to them, they may genuinely think, “Oh, that’s a man bites dog story, and it’s just not true. It’s got to have been made up.”
If you’re someone like me who’s a Black American who’s taken rental cars through 49 of the 50 U.S. states in America and talked to white nationalists, and talked to people working on labor rights, and immigration rights, and shutting down evictions, and real estate speculators who are buying buildings, and all these different types of people, I haven’t seen a man bite a dog, but I’ve seen a lot.
There is a question in newsrooms of how people who hold the top editorial power perceive the work of the people in their own newsrooms, let alone outside of them. It’s a huge problem.
If the news media had listened to Black and other non‑white reporters more in 2016, I don’t think there would have been this breathless clutching of pearls like, “Oh, my God. This isn’t the America I know.” That’s because you don’t leave the house.
Honestly, the reality is that people who get to decide the news also have to decide what uncomfortable truths we tell about our nation. No group of people, Black, white, or purple, is perfect, but there was a conscious stifling of narratives around white racial resentment out of the misguided idea that somehow that made the news more fair. It does not.
What makes the news fair is listening to people who use racial resentment as one of the indicators for who they should vote for, and finding out why. Not to suppress that they believe that but say, “Well, what makes you think that?” and get into the circumstances of their lives.
Even when I interview a white supremacist, I don’t view them as people without merit. I don’t view them as inhuman. I view them as human beings, making a set of choices about their life, choices that I may not agree with, but that I choose to understand rather than to suppress the knowledge of.
In many cases, media organizations basically said, “I can’t cover this, because it’s too hot. I can’t talk about this.”
On assessing the cultural competency of coverage
One of my friends is a woman named Marie Nelson who’s a senior vice president at ABC News. Part of her job is to develop a running analysis of whether ABC’s coverage has the cultural competency to deal with a diverse America.
Whether she succeeds or not, is only partly up to her, but the whole question of examining whether there is cultural competency across all of your coverage, to examine what stories are getting the most oxygen and what stories aren’t, where resources are applied etc., is very different from saying, “Oh, we’re going to hire an urban affairs reporter, and they’re going to cover our ass on this race thing. Then, nobody else will have to deal with it.”
On knowing when to leave
If the place you’re working has no willingness to change, stop trying to change it. Get out. I am here to tell you that it is better to break for the fences if there is no willingness to change than to keep beating your head against a cinderblock wall. That doesn’t mean to abandon newsrooms, or to give up too easily. It’s to ask yourself, is your job to try to use a toothpick to break through a cinderblock wall, or to figure out where the door is and get out?
It may not even mean getting out of a company. It may mean getting out of a department, or it may mean getting out of the mindset and saying, “All of us are overworked. Half of our team is parenting from home. When can we reasonably expect to have this discussion at a time where we can be more focused about it?”