Shereen Marisol Meraji kicked off an episode of “Code Switch,” a podcast taglined “Race and Identity Remixed,” with a confession: “My mom’s Puerto Rican; my dad’s Iranian. And I, too, suffer from racial imposter syndrome.” Meraji went on to dissect a thorny subject at the heart of any discussion of race in the media: Who gets to claim authenticity?
She nodded to the fact that a fast-growing number of minorities in the U.S. are multiracial or children of immigrants. And many, like Meraji herself, experience guilt about whether they have the “right to claim this part of who I am.” “I actually had an acute flare-up last year” of the syndrome, Meraji said on the show, sharing the example of feeling conflicted over incorporating Persian traditions into her wedding even though she was “much more rooted in my Puerto Rican-ness.” She related that someone once even called her “off-brand” because she didn’t seem to fully fit into either category.
Her “Code Switch” co-host in Washington, D.C., Gene Demby, joined her as the duo spoke to a linguist, a social scientist, and the founder of a cultural festival for multiracial people. They peppered the discussion with clips of readers talking about their own frustration, confusion, and pride over how—and if—to claim racial and ethnic identity. They ended with few answers.
NPR is often mocked as overly formal and too steeped in tradition, but the coverage at “Code Switch” is anything but. The network has a team of reporters around the country devoted to covering race who contribute to Meraji and Demby’s podcast, where conclusions are hard to come by—on purpose. Race is messy and complicated, the hosts often say.
NPR and other news outlets are striving to make sense of this messy, complicated issue at a time when political and social divisions over race are once again in the headlines, from the white supremacist march over the summer in Charlottesville, Virginia to activists’ defense of sanctuary cities to campaigns against businesses for racism, like the recent NAACP-led protest against American Airlines for allegedly routinely discriminating against black passengers.
A 2017 Gallup survey found that 42 percent of Americans worry a “great deal” about race—the highest percentage to say so in 17 years. Criticism has continued to hit newsrooms over their own lack of racial diversity. In March, dozens of Wall Street Journal staffers signed a letter to top management, demanding more gender and racial diversity and pay equity. In April, Fox News employees sued the company, citing “abhorrent, intolerable, unlawful and hostile racial discrimination” from managers. According to the 2017 annual newsroom diversity survey by the American Society of News Editors (ASNE), racial minorities make up just 17 percent of online and print newsroom employees; in the U.S., racial minorities account for 39 percent of the population. Among the 661 organizations that responded to the survey, the group found that nearly 26 percent of newsrooms had at least one racial minority among its top three editors.
Today, those creating journalism about race are far more likely to look like the people they cover
Of course, race has long been a focus of media coverage, but as veteran journalists Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff wrote in “The Race Beat,” the Pulitzer-winning chronicle of journalism during the civil rights era, it was largely white men who reported and edited national coverage of the fight against Jim Crow laws. Oftentimes, local reporting was scant and left to black newspapers.
“Journalists need to invest in and build trust with communities that have been ignored or feel they have been erased,” says Michelle Ferrier, associate professor of journalism at Ohio University whose research focuses on community engagement in media and coverage of underserved communities. “Covering race is one first step at doing that in a world where it’s long been obvious to under-covered communities that they are missing from the media.”
Today, those creating journalism about race are far more likely to look like the people they cover. “Code Switch,” whose team is made up entirely of racial minorities—African Americans, reporters with Hispanic origins, and an Asian-American—is just one example of how things have changed. “I just knew in my heart of hearts that discussing race, a subject many people don’t want to get near, wasn’t going to feel satisfying in a four-minute feature on ‘Morning Edition,’” says Meraji, who is based in Los Angeles. “We needed a place to wrestle with ideas and return to them. We needed to be able to tell a story without a pithy kicker at the end.”
Take, for example, the episode on being a racial imposter. The source for the idea was not an editorial brainstorm but an email from a reader, Kristina Ogilvie, who wrote to the show about her experience “living at the intersection of different identities and cultures.” With mixed heritage that includes an Afro-Panamanian father, she likened her racial experience to “stumbling around in a forest in the dark.” Ogilvie asked, “Do you hear from other listeners who feel like fakes? God, I hope the answer is yes.”
Meraji and the “Code Switch” team solicited other stories from their listeners. They quickly received 127 emails, including one from Angie, whose “mother is a Panamanian immigrant and my father is a white guy from Pennsylvania.” She said that made her feel out of place among both Latinas and whites. Another listener named Indigo, whose mother is Jamaican and whose father is African-American, wrote about her experience growing up and discovering how differently people perceived “blackness.”
The episode flipped the traditional script on reporting. It wasn’t journalists who were the experts on what the story should be; it was listeners.
But Meraji and Demby weren’t simply conveying the stories of their audience. As an African-American man—Demby—and a mixed-race woman—Meraji—they interspersed their own experiences into the storytelling. Part of that was the conversational, personal tone of podcasting and radio. But it was also the fruit of at times putting aside traditional journalistic sensibilities of objectivity and the third-person perspective. Meraji, whose own racial, cultural, and ethnic backgrounds frequently make it into the podcast, says it would be inauthentic not to talk about where she comes from and share it through her opinions and experiences.
“The journalists on the team are all living the [people of color] experience and, to add to that, just like any other beat reporter, we’re developing expertise in the subject-area, so we also share our well-informed insights,” she says. “When appropriate, and in the spirit of full transparency, we even add insights from our personal lives.”
One issue Meraji, Demby, and other contributors to “Code Switch” have struggled with is how to appeal to a broad audience while also staying relevant to particular groups of racial minorities. “Our audience is younger and browner than NPR’s, but it still skews white,” says Meraji. “How do we speak directly to an audience of color, who have some common understanding of what it means to live as ‘minorities’ in a majority-white country, and to our white audience who haven’t lived that experience?”
The answer, she says, is walking the line between explaining too little and explaining too much. In an episode about Puerto Rican identity, Meraji—who often forgoes anglicized pronunciations of popular names and words for their Spanish pronunciations—spoke of her love for Puerto Rican pasteles. For the uninitiated, she explained that the traditional foods are “like tamales but way better.” But if the listener had never heard of a tamale—meat, beans, or cheese in masa dough that’s wrapped in a corn husk—they were out of luck.
“Our podcast/blog/broadcast stories are not black-and-white,” Meraji says. “We talk about the Asian and Latino experience, immigrant-of-color issues. We get into multiracial identity and Native American issues, and we’ve realized that the key really is to bring along audience members who aren’t directly a part of the story we’re telling, while giving the group reflected in the story we’re reporting something to chew on, too.”
Jessica Prois, Asian Voices executive editor at HuffPost, shares a similar point of view. The news website, where I worked as the senior religion reporter until early 2016, has always published articles, commentary, and multimedia on race. But as Prois wrote in May to introduce ramped-up coverage, “There aren’t enough Asian-American spaces on the internet.” Racism, she says, was at once part of the reason they were missing and a reason they needed to exist.
Asian-American groups have long complained that representations of Asians in the media are lacking but, in recent years, the protests have gained more traction. When the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite arose, the lack of blacks among Oscar nominees was the initial focus before the discussion widened to include media representation of all non-white groups. A spate of films in which white actors play Asian characters has ignited complaints of “whitewashing” in Hollywood. The casting of Scarlett Johansson in “Ghost in the Shell,” an adaptation of a Japanese manga, and that of Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One, originally a Tibetan character, in 2016’s “Doctor Strange” particularly hit a nerve among critics.
Critics also point out the lack of many prominent Asian-American journalists. Around 85 percent of TV news directors are white, according to a 2016 survey by the Radio Television Digital News Association. Asians make up 2.3 percent of TV news directors, just a slight increase over their percentage a decade ago. In U.S. newsrooms, the latest ASNE survey found that Asians make up 4.3 percent of staffers. NPR statistics show that Asians make up 8.3 percent of its staff. Numbers are harder to come by for websites; BuzzFeed said recently that 12 percent of its U.S. news staff was Asian. According to the U.S. Census, Asians are the fastest-growing demographic and stand at more than 21 million, or nearly 7 percent of the nation’s population.
“We needed a place to wrestle with ideas [about race] and return to them. We needed to be able to tell a story without a pithy kicker at the end.” —Shereen Marisol Meraji, Code Switch
Harder to determine is how frequently—or infrequently—Asians are in the news. The vast number of groups that fall under the term “Asian”—from people with origins in Pakistan to the Philippines—also makes it challenging to measure representation. While dozens of independent journalists and commentators have filled some of the void with podcasts, blogs, and popular social media feeds, mainstream media coverage devoted to Asian-Americans has lagged. Some newspapers based in places with large Asian populations, like the Los Angeles Times, where I cover race and justice, have assigned reporters to cover Asian communities and neighborhoods and maintain bureaus in Asian nations. But that’s a rarity. NBC Asian America is another outlet that has focused on Asian-Americans, where the wider NBC network and an array of freelance reporters help extend its coverage and distribution.
The difference at HuffPost, where editors encourage writers to have their own takes on the news, is that the coverage of Asian-Americans often comes with sharp points of view. The site has two staffers—Prois and Asian Voices editor Kimberly Yam—who spend the bulk of their time reporting and editing on Asian-American issues. Since formally launching in spring 2017, Asian Voices has featured coverage of anti-Sikh hate crimes and the fact that elderly Asian-American women have higher rates of suicide than other racial groups. Prois and Yam frequently recruit writers from the newsroom to write about personal experiences, temporarily shift their beat coverage toward Asian issues, or chime in on wider cultural conversations from the lens of being Asian or from a particular ethnic background.
The Atlantic, in its June issue, published a lengthy cover story by the late Alex Tizon, a former Seattle Times reporter, in which he shared his family’s secret of passing down for decades ownership of a Filipina slave. The family brought Lola to the United States where she lived her last years with a $200 weekly allowance. The viral story drew praise and criticism. Tizon and his family were lambasted for taking decades before offering Lola money and a trip back home. People came out against The Seattle Times, which had written an obituary at Tizon’s urging when Lola died years before but failed to find out the key detail about her identity. Others came to the defense of the writer, who had died of cancer before publication, saying critics should try to understand the story in its full cultural and historical context.
As reaction spread online, three Filipina-American HuffPost staffers dissected it via a group chat on Slack. Prois then helped them turn the chat into a piece for the site. “Who gets to tell Filipinos how their stories should be told?” asked the article, which drew upon the views of staffers who had family members who had either worked as servants or hired them in the Philippines or the U.S. “I appreciated that the author was trying to sort out growing up in dual cultures and, eventually, reckoning with his guilt over the normalcy of having a ‘slave,’” wrote Carla Herreria, a HuffPost reporter based in Hawaii. “Many Filipinos don’t have much, so I wouldn’t be surprised if some took people in as help … feels like a way for them to take care of each other,” said Danielle Datu, a HuffPost social media editor. “Many of us (non-Asian, or non-Filipinx, or even non-nationals) don’t have answers. And that’s okay even if it’s also unsettling,” wrote Dzana Ashworth, who at the time was a HuffPost video producer in New York.
The conversation went beyond opinion into global history and economics. Should global human rights standards outweigh cultural traditions particular to Asian nations? In separate articles, HuffPost writers in India and elsewhere weighed in about slavery in South Asia and other Asian nations. There were few conclusions.
Prois, who has Korean heritage, says the idea of Asians writing about Asians is not only about authenticity and accuracy, but about elevating her section’s brand. The pieces on HuffPost Asian Voices are frequently written in the first person as reported essays. There’s no firm rule about what kinds of stories must be written by Asian writers, Prois says, but certain topics may be perceived better by the audience if they come from an “insider”: “The way you build an audience is content that specifically speaks to a specific identity group,” she says. “Readers come to you for these types of stories that they can’t find anywhere else. And that type of content is typically done by someone from that community. In the case of the Tizon story, discussing ethnic caste systems in article form is probably better left to someone who identifies with that group in some way.”
At The New York Times, it’s been a time to amp up coverage of race in nontraditional ways, with a substantial number of story ideas and content bubbling up from readers. In 2001, the paper won the Pulitzer Prize in National Reporting for the “How Race is Lived in America” series. But in subsequent years, it has faced criticism over the diversity of its staff and its coverage. At times, readers have said it fell into racial tropes on major stories—like a profile of Michael Brown, who was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, that described him as “no angel.” More recently, readers accused the publication of normalizing white supremacy in a controversial viral article on a Nazi sympathizer living in Ohio.
When Dean Baquet became the paper’s first African-American executive editor in 2014, journalists inside and outside the Times thought having a non-white editor at the top would translate into improvements on race in the paper’s reports. He hit some hurdles early on. In 2015, Baquet faced critics after the paper axed its race and ethnicity beat on the national desk and transferred a reporter covering the topic to the Metro staff to follow Bronx courts. The following year, former public editor Liz Spayd chastised managers for not substantially increasing the paper’s racial diversity.
At the same time, staffers credit Baquet for mandating changes to race coverage that helped break down departmental walls and incorporate new ways of storytelling. In 2016, he encouraged editors to think of ways to “beef up our coverage of race but do it in a way that was not a series,” says national editor Marc Lacey. Now, every week, dozens of New York Times editors and reporters join or dial into a meeting at the paper’s Manhattan building where an array of section representatives brainstorm stories related to race. The resulting coverage includes a Facebook Live series, where reporters and editors talk via webcam about racial issues in the news, and the Race/Related newsletter, which has gained more than 100,000 subscribers since its launch in April 2016.
“We have a handful of reporters who cover race full time,” Lacey says. “But this is really about involving a much larger group across the newsroom. Big news organizations have set themselves up in departments, and those departments have had leaders that operated covering certain areas, but race is not an area that by any means sticks to those boundaries.” Race, he says, is “metro, is culture, is national, is sports—it’s a part of all of those things.”
One live video discussion featured on the NYT Facebook page was between Rachel Swarns and freelancer Clarissa Wei. Swarns’ coverage typically focuses on race and history, such as her reports on how the sale of slaves helped finance the construction of Georgetown University. Wei, a Chinese-American freelancer, talked about “The Struggles of Writing About Chinese Food as a Chinese Person,” her article for Vice. “Food feels political for us, for many people of color,” Swarns, who is black, summarized Wei’s arguments, saying in the chat, “When it comes to making money, building a name as a food writer, or building a high-profile successful career, sometimes the people who are doing that and are building careers about, say, Chinese food, aren’t actually Chinese Americans.”
Wei cited a recent study, on the blog Intersectional Analyst, which found that of 263 Chinese recipes in the Times’s food section, just 10 percent were written by Chinese authors. “What really bothered me and what struck a chord … is the lack of representation of Chinese food writers and chefs in the mainstream,” Wei said during the conversation. “Storytelling and cooking is a means by which we form our realities of the world and certain issues. And if our realities are consistently told from the viewpoint of a white lens … then I don’t think we’re doing the best that we can.”
Incorporating reader submissions has been a key part of changes in race coverage at The New York Times
Many reporters, though not all, have been receptive to such new approaches to storytelling, Lacey says: “It’s nice to get on the front page, but that is not the only way to make an impact,” especially with younger, more digitally-native audiences.
Reporters and editors, including Lacey, rotate writing the Race/Related newsletter each week, which often includes an original story or presentation in addition to a roundup of links to coverage of race in the Times. In early June, the newsletter led with a report by domestic affairs correspondent Sheryl Gay Stolberg, on the 50th anniversary of Loving v. Virginia, the Supreme Court case that struck down laws banning interracial marriages. Stolberg reported the piece from Central Point, Virginia, where Richard Loving and his wife, Mildred, once lived.
But it wasn’t a traditional report. The piece clocked in at 557 words—short enough to fit within a few swipes of an iPhone screen. It also included a solicitation with a link: “To explore the effects of Loving vs. Virginia, Race/Related would like to hear from you. Has being in an interracial relationship united or divided your family? Please tell us how, using this form.”
A little more than a month later, Stolberg introduced another issue of the newsletter following up on the prompt, which featured profiles and wedding photos of six mixed-race couples who had responded with stories of how they met. The newsletter linked to a piece from nearly a month earlier from the Opinion staff that celebrated the anniversary of the full legalization of interracial marriage with additional profiles of couples.
Incorporating reader submissions has been a key part of changes in race coverage at the Times, according to Lacey: “We decided right from the beginning that we would not focus on the print newspaper but on our digital audience. We vowed we would do a lot of callouts. We also decided we’d be less defensive as journalists than we often are when covering contentious, delicate topics like race. We knew if we fessed up right from the beginning that there will be times that you disagree with us, and that we want to hear from you, it would only help.”
Sometimes, staffers unwittingly hit upon explosive ideas. In October 2016, Lacey noticed his former colleague Michael Luo (now editor of NewYorker.com) venting on social media about a woman who harassed him and his family on a Manhattan street by yelling, “Go back to China!” “I called Mike and said, ‘You’re clearly really animated about this. Why don’t you write something?’” Lacey says. Luo’s letter written to the woman went viral. By Tuesday, it ran on the front page of the newspaper. Lacey says staffers “were stunned by that.”
The piece resonated “more than a straight news story because there was something about a New York Times editor who felt the sting of discrimination,” he says. It was followed with a video of people sharing stories of discrimination, and it was translated into Chinese for the paper’s Chinese-language website.
Like The New York Times, BuzzFeed has also recently tried to tap into the changing conversation on race. It’s done that through aggressive live coverage, such as First Amendment Live, a widely watched Facebook broadcast that often shows civil rights protests and right-wing events across the country. It’s also done it through beat assignments, including a reporter in New York who reports on Black Lives Matter and African American civil rights groups.
But BuzzFeed is also upping its coverage of another slice of race in America: the increasingly vocal white Americans who have showed up at protests and at the polls with claims that their concerns are going unheard. Some identify with so-called “alt-right” and neo-Nazi groups; others include the broad swath of white Americans who helped Trump win the presidency, among whom distrust in the media is at a high. “A lot of publications are trying to grapple with how to cover ‘flyover country,’ for lack of a better word,” says Anne Helen Petersen, a senior culture writer who left New York in 2017 and returned to her native Montana to cover the Mountain West.
“Journalists need to invest in and build trust with communities that have been ignored or feel they have been erased. Covering race is one first step at doing that.” —Michelle Ferrier, Ohio University
Petersen, whose articles range from cultural analyses of celebrities to news and political coverage of Montana, Washington state and Idaho, is now based in Missoula, Montana. The city is a liberal and relatively diverse place in a state that is one of the whitest in the country and in many areas leans libertarian. “Wackadoodles, Establishment Hacks, and the Big, Ugly, Local Battle for the Heart of the GOP,” read the headline on a more than 8,000-word feature Petersen published in October. Ostensibly, it was about a fight for the Republican party in rural North Idaho, where various factions of the GOP were at war in an area where Democrats and liberals barely exist. But it’s subhead revealed a strong undercurrent to the piece: “The ‘whiteopia’ of North Idaho has become one of the most desirable places in the West for conservatives to relocate. So why is the local Republican party tearing itself apart—and who’s responsible?”
“I think of my beat regionally much more than about race,” says Petersen, whose coverage zone spans an area from Arizona to North Dakota. But the story of the region, she said, “becomes a story that is often about whiteness.”
Petersen, whose reporting on North Idaho politics took her to breakfast and political committee meetings with far-right figures in the ‘whiteopia’, says her own background frequently gets her access and gives her unique insight. “All reporters try to play up their strengths,” says Petersen, who grew up in Idaho and was a PhD student and professor in Texas and Washington state before becoming a reporter. “Sometimes, it means you play up your strengths by talking up people who share characteristics with you. It gives you a lot more credence as someone who understands and can empathize with what it’s like to live in a certain place. I’m absolutely aware how my whiteness and the fact that I’m also blonde fits into” gaining interviews and trust when reporting on white conservatives. (It’s not only journalists who are becoming aware of how race can tie into access or understanding. A debate erupted on social media after activist Erica Garner died in late December and a family representative tweeted that only black reporters should reach out for interviews.)
In her piece on rural Republican politics in a one-party region, Petersen says she in part focused on how race relations function when there are so few people of other races with whom to relate. One man she interviewed was Jeff Tyler, who moved to North Idaho from California after first visiting in 1994. He said he liked it because it “felt like America in the 1950s.” Petersen believes many she interviewed spoke in racial code and held views against non-whites, though it was hard to explicitly identify their views as such in the story with Tyler and others.
“Like so many things with reporting, you look for patterns in how people talked about issues, places, and people, and then drew conclusions from there,” she says, explaining that she interviewed 25 people in the region and deeply researched local news, including digging up letters to the editors in publications. The conclusion in the article, and in her reporting: the people she interviewed rarely spoke in direct terms about race but frequently were, nonetheless, uncomfortable with the idea of racial diversity in a region that’s 98.4 percent white.
But while Petersen says she recognized coded language about race—it was clear over the course of interviews that fears of blacks and Latinos ran high in Northern Idaho because they were wrongly tied to crime and violence—Petersen says she didn’t bring up any variations of the word “racism” in interviews.
“I’d rather have them elaborate on their ideology and ideas,” she says. That way, she keeps her sources and portrays them accurately, while giving readers all the information they need to understand the racial dynamics at play.
“I don’t ask questions like, ‘Don’t you think that’s racist?’ Instead, I just ask them to say more,” she says. During the reporting of a story in 2017 that touched upon anti-Islam activists in Montana’s Flathead County fighting against efforts to resettle refugees in the state, she would frequently hear false information from those she interviewed. “If they claim something that’s factually wrong—like the fear over, say, Sharia law spreading into Missoula, or the refugees in Montana, I’ll counter with more specifics, like, ‘Oh, what do you think about the fact that most of those refugee families were actually Congolese Christians?’” Petersen says.
“I try to connect the dots between the beliefs articulated, which the subjects may not claim to be ‘racist,’ for example, and how those beliefs enact racist policies,” she says.
Keeping the focus local is the core of Unite Rochester, a years-long engagement effort at the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle to tackle lasting racial inequalities in upstate New York. A major component involves getting residents to cross social and economic barriers to get to know each other—and staffers of the newspaper—in person.
Unite Rochester started with a fairly routine news-gathering effort. Five years ago, journalists ran an investigative series on disparities in criminal justice, housing, education, and jobs in Monroe County, a place where the African-American population largely lives in the city of Rochester. They found that Monroe County schools were some of the most segregated in the nation and nearly half of city residents lived “neighborhoods of extreme poverty.” But instead of leaving its reporting results for others to act on, newspaper leaders took it upon themselves to do something.
One of the first steps was an editorial board-led listening tour. In Monroe County the goal was to simply hear residents’ concerns and offer a space for people to talk to one another. Few people showed up to initial meetings—just eight at the first—and one woman accused the paper of “stirring the pot.” But dozens came to later gatherings, including political and civic leaders. Partnerships grew with museums, churches and civic foundations. The city’s power brokers bought in. So did the newsroom, which had broad institutional backing to pursue coverage of race that went beyond the news.
For reporters, Unite Rochester’s greatest result is the growth in trust in the paper to write deeply and in a sustained way about race and inequality:
Those relationships were key in the summer of 2016, when shootings in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and the St. Paul, Minnesota area ignited protests across the country over race and policing. Locally, reporters covered the arrest of more than 70 people at a Black Lives Matter protest, a large number for a demonstration in a mid-sized American city. The paper quickly pulled together a forum on the rising racial tensions. Panelists included representatives of a dispute settlement organization, the police chief, and pastors.
The paper reported on the event like it would on any other, but it also kept the conversation going beyond a single gathering. Longer-term efforts included a new Community Response Team, made up of more than a dozen leaders from criminal justice, civil rights, religion, and education-related nonprofits and community groups. Rochester is now part of a study at Ohio State University called the Divided Communities Project, which looks at how cities address causes of violence—like racial tensions—before they arise.
The paper has also taken the lead on programs like the Unite Rochester Challenge, which solicited proposals for projects to bridge the racial and socioeconomic gaps in the region. Among 89 entries, the winner was a group called Art Force Five, which used the $5,000 it received to launch a project to recruit people in the area to create mosaics on themes of violence, education, and incarceration. A staff reporter wrote about the art series for USA Today’s “I am an American” project. The community events, from the contest to forums and an outpouring of new op-ed contributors, have given reporters a wide array of new sources and stories to follow as they consider future coverage of race.
For reporters, says Karen Magnuson, Democrat and Chronicle editor and vice president/news who is also co-chair of ASNE’s diversity committee, the effort’s greatest result is the growth in trust in the paper to write deeply and in a sustained way about race and inequality: “The relationships we’ve developed increased our credibility with communities of color, and it’s helped us improve our coverage of the total community.”
*This article was updated to clarify that the New York Times eliminated its national race beat in 2015 before later expanding on race coverage. The change was made to give a more accurate picture of the evolution of race coverage at the Times.