Racist attacks and economic hardship add stress to minority journalists covering the COVID-19 pandemic. Employers can support their efforts to report the stories of under-served communities by listening to their needs and making newsrooms safe places for difficult conversations.
Representatives of seven journalism affinity groups spoke with Freedom Forum fellow Jill Geisler in the second Power Shift Project webinar focusing on caring for journalists and journalism while covering the COVID-19 story.
“COVID-19 knows no boundaries,” said Hugo Balta, president of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. “It does not matter what race you are, your ethnicity or sexual orientation.”
Balta paid tribute to CBS News journalist and NAHJ member Maria Mercader, who died from the coronavirus on March 29, 2020. “She wasn’t just a champion of diversity and inclusion, she was a loving and caring human being,” Balta said.
The Asian American Journalists Association issued a statement denouncing the racist attacks that people of Asian descent have endured because the virus first struck in China. Other minority journalism organizations signed on to AAJA’s call for civility.
“Our members are not just coping with the disease and how it has upended their jobs but are in fear of personal attacks, both physical and verbal,” said AAJA president Michelle Ye Hee Lee. Journalists are being yelled at during stand-up reporting shots, with racist terms such as “kung flu” and “Chinese coronavirus.” That hatred, Lee said, is based on misconceptions and ways the disease is being portrayed, sometimes in the news media. AAJA issued guidelines for news coverage of the disease to counter that misinformation.
Mihir Zaveri of the Southeast Asian Journalists Association agreed: “How you portray people matters in how people develop narratives, whether in a crisis or not.”
Studies have shown that women and women of color, in particular, are being targeted during the crisis, Geisler said.
In the aftermath of President Donald J. Trump’s sharp, personal attacks to questioning by Yamiche Alcindor of PBS’s “NewsHour,” the Journalism & Women Symposium and the National Association of Black Journalists issued a joint statement in protest.
“We felt strongly it was time to take a stand against the abhorrent treatment of her and other journalists who are just trying to do their jobs,” said JAWS’s Mira Lowe. “We want to show we are behind her and encourage other women to know we are behind them as well … this is a life and death situation we are dealing with and covering right now.”
To counter racist narratives and produce coverage that is more inclusive and diverse, newsrooms should be safe spaces for difficult conversations about race and gender, said NAHJ’s Balta. “In times of crisis more than any other time, diversity and inclusion is important in newsgathering and reporting. This is when our job as communicators has to be sensitive, reflective and inclusive of all the communities we cover.”
Sterling Cosper of the Native American Journalists Association said that journalists need to build ongoing relationships in under-served communities. “Don’t just parachute in.” Referring to a headline about Navajo Indians that was generalized to refer to all tribes, Cosper cautioned, “Remember each tribe is its own sovereign nation with its own culture.”
COVID coverage teams should be diverse and inclusive, said Lowe. “The question should be: Who is missing from the table, whether the virtual meeting table to talk about it or the source list. I call it the supply chain of people.”
The undocumented community is being left out of the coronavirus story even as the service, hospitality and health-care industries – where many undocumented Americans work – are hit hard by layoffs, Balta said. “We in news media need to do a better job of telling the stories of undocumented workers. If they aren’t getting resources to combat it, it affects all of us.”
Drew Berry of the National Association of Black Journalists said journalists should listen to stories being shared by families and friends, even myths and “crazy stories” that are being spread online, and then urge newsroom leaders to counter the myths with facts, and listen to different story ideas.
“Educate your editors, educate your newsroom,” said Zaveri.
Lee suggested monitoring Google search trends, especially geographic breakdowns, to figure out what geographic and demographic communities are seeking in terms of information.
She also encouraged use of the Conscious Style Guide as a tool when referring to minority communities.
“Most of the mistakes that are being done are being embarrassed to ask the question,” said Balta. “I’d rather have a conversation that more often than not is uncomfortable to the person who is speaking to me than our news coverage was patronizing or worse, discriminatory and biased. We don’t know what we don’t know. If we don’t have a diverse newsrooms, organizations like NAHJ are great resources. It’s a partnership with news media.”
Sharif Durhams of NLGJA: The Association of LGBTQ Journalists, said the idea of sheltering with family during the pandemic is challenging for the LGBTQ community. “Our relationships are our friends. We build family that way.”
He suggested stories on what businesses are now operating online. Deejays have been reaching out to their fans with online parties on Twitch video streaming service. “What businesses are only operating online? That’s key for our community. Ask, ‘what are people trying to do to bring people together?’”
Journalists covering the coronavirus story have concerns outside the newsroom.
AAJA’s Lee said her newsroom leadership told the staff that if it comes to “a choice between being a good parent and being a good journalist, being a good parent comes first.” That was a powerful message to hear.
“It’s important for employers to be reminded that journalists are also human beings,” said Durhams. Cutbacks and furloughs at major news organizations such as Gannett have taken a toll. “Our members came into this in a precarious situation. There are stories that are probably being missed right now.”
Lowe said JAWS members are losing wages, as many are independent journalists. JAWS has been providing links to resources, such as the International Women’s Media Foundation’s journalism relief fund. The Association of Independents In Radio (AIR) is also providing emergency relief to audio storytellers. “The more we can push and share, the stronger our members will be.”
AAJA’s Lee said her group’s younger members are seeking budgeting help as income becomes less reliable. “It’s time we think about providing both those practical as well as theoretical resources for them.”
NAHJ’s Balta said managers need to tell employees they are empowered to say they aren’t comfortable about exposing themselves to certain environments.
“We are reinventing our news gathering, how we are communicating with experts and how we are packaging content. This crisis has certainly put a light into being innovative. It’s also creating new muscles. After this is over, what we’ve adopted we will keep. Our mission is to inform, educate and empower the community.
Durhams, senior editor at CNN Digital, said top management set the standard early in the pandemic by working from home and asking what staffers needed to be comfortable at home, and not to worry about time off to care for family. “They are continually thinking of ways to take extra burdens off of us.”
CNN also created a Slack channel “about this new world of working from home,” Durhams said.
Lee said many of her members are asking about testing for the virus, and what their rights are as employees.
Lowe said that self-care and fighting anxiety are critical needs. JAWS hosted a virtual cocktail party for members. “One woman saw it in a tweet and came in from Turkey to join this community of 60-plus women to hear what they are going through.”
NAHJ has offered mental health resources for its members in both English and Spanish.
Amid economic and coronavirus uncertainty, all of the organizations are rethinking their plans for the near future for conventions and programs. SAJA’s Zaveri said his group has suspended dues. “It’s only like $40 a year but that makes a big difference to a lot of our members. People are relying on freelance work for income. For student members, their internships are being canceled or postponed.”
SAJA is also offering some grants for freelancers, Zaveri said.
Lowe said JAWS is surveying members and working on resources to keep them afloat amid job uncertainty and unemployment. They are planning a conference in December in Austin.
“Post-election, we think will be a great chance to talk and reflect on all of what 2020 has been,” Lowe said. “We are all in this together. Let’s ride it out together the best we can.”