The Missouri School of Journalism invited Nikole Hannah-Jones, an award winning journalist, to come to campus last month and spend the day with journalism students. The visit culminated in a talk for journalism students called “Covering racial injustice in the age of Black Lives Matter.”
When Hannah-Jones came to MU, she talked to students, faculty and staff in the journalism school about how to cover issues of race. She also talked about how she practices a blend of data-driven and narrative journalism.
Hannah Jones currently writes for the New York Times Magazine, but has worked for ProPublica, Politico, The Atlantic and This American Life. Hannah-Jones’ This American Life segment, “The Problem We All Live With,” discusses what happened when the Normandy school district in St. Louis tried to integrate with another district.
As a journalist, Hannah-Jones is largely focused on covering educational policies that maintain segregation.
“What’s very clear is that we are in a unique time, probably a time we haven’t seen for a couple of decades,” Hannah-Jones said. “Race and civil rights and racial inequality is really at the forefront of our country’s attention and also increasingly in the forefront of coverage of the media.”
Hannah-Jones says she sees atrophy among journalists who haven’t been covering these issues and are now grappling with how to suddenly get up to speed in writing about racial inequality. She says an added challenge comes when journalists may not look like the people they’re covering.
“It also has a lot to do with trust,” Hannah-Jones said. “When you are in a marginalized community and reporters are coming in to your communities to cover stories and none of those reporters look like you, I think that a lot of times people do not believe that that news organization represents their communities and they’re not trusting of those institutions. So I think that if we want to be good journalists and we truly want to be democratic institutions, then we should be ashamed that our newsrooms are not reflecting the demographics of our country.”
Hannah-Jones says, of course, people of any race can cover any story. But she says identity is an important factor too. Earnest Perry is an associate professor of journalism at MU who teaches, among other things, Cross-Cultural Journalism and Historical Methods. He was at Hannah-Jones’ talk.
“I think it was good to have sort of a retrospective of how you covered an event,” Perry said. “Was it meaningful for the audience you were seeking to serve? Did it reach the audience you were seeking to serve? Were the stories being told in a way in which the audience could have an authentic understanding of the events that were taking place? And that helps when the next event happens because we are the school of journalism and these are teaching moments – this is probably one of the biggest that many of our students will see in the time that they’re here.”
Perry is referring to this fall at MU, which saw activism and campus protests that made national headlines and the resignations of former UM system President Tim Wolfe and former Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin. Although the dust is far from settled as the legislature and the University butt heads, Hannah-Jones’ talk was designed to keep young journalists thinking about the roles they play.
“Journalism is like any other progressive minded organization. We like to think that we get race and that we’re sensitive to these issues, yet we’re still replicating these systems that we see in almost every other facet of American life and we have to actively work to disrupt that."