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Covering Education With Cultural Sensitivity

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Most education journalists probably remember last year’s viral video depicting members of the University of Oklahoma’s Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity singing a racist chant.

“I thought it was a really isolated, terrible incident,” recalled Kimberly Hefling, then an education reporter for The Associated Press. But her colleague, Jesse Holland, didn’t see it as a major news event at all.

“From my perspective, that happens all the time,” said Holland, who is black and also serves as the race, ethnicity and demographics reporter for the AP. They collaborated on that story for the AP, an experience that they said helped them learn from each other’s markedly different viewpoints and overcome some of their cultural blind spots.

The anecdote opened an honest, difficult discussion among three reporters about cultural sensitivity in education journalism. Hefling and Holland were joined by Kristina Rizga, a senior education reporter at Mother Jones, for the discussion last month at the Education Writer’s Association’s National Seminar in Boston. Given the lack of diversity in most newsrooms, the vast majority of the journalists covering stories about people of color in education are white, which can lead to a disconnect between reporters and their sources, Holland said.

“You need to be sure you understand what they’re saying, even if it breaks the flow of the conversation,” he said. “Don’t feel uncomfortable saying, ‘I don’t understand. Can you explain this to me?’”

Holland suggested finding ways to become plugged into communities that aren’t like you. Facebook groups and other social-media venues are a good starting point, but he encouraged journalists to find time for an occasional in-person chat with someone who brings a different cultural perspective or identity to the table. In black communities, for instance, reporters could start with church leaders, he said.

“Those conversations, while they may not lead to stories, help you understand better what’s going on in those communities than just sitting back and reading,” he said.

Rizga, who is from Latvia, has made forming such relationships a priority over more than a decade of writing about youth and student issues and publishing “Mission High”, a book about a diverse high school in San Francisco. She has kept in touch with many students and teachers of color she’s reported on in the past, and she has developed a circle of racial-minority writers and teachers she trusts for advice. Sometimes, she shows them drafts of her stories.

“I’ve never found a single teacher of color who doesn’t want to talk about how we write about schools,” she said.

She also participates in a book club with two journalists of color once a month over Skype, where they tackle literature that addresses race and equity issues. Taking the time to sustain these connections is crucial, she said: “You can’t solve these things on deadline.”

Questions about language choices often came up during the EWA panel. Holland implored journalists to eliminate sweeping racial terms — for instance, “black leaders” or “the black vote” — from their writing.

“We would never say ‘white leaders,’” Holland said, or “the white vote thinks this.”

Several journalists in the audience posed questions about word use. One asked whether it was appropriate to include racial slurs used by a student in a quote or a social-media post in a story. Holland said he often writes such words out — instead of using, for instance, “the n-word” — because he wants to retain the original meaning behind the source’s quote or statement. But such decisions should be made on a case-by-case basis, he said.

Then an audience member asked whether to use “black” or “African American.” Per AP style, “black” is preferred, and “African American” can only be used when hyphenated, Holland said. But he emphasized that neither could be used as a noun: “I’m not ‘a black.’”

Another question: Should reporters use “minorities,” “people of color,” or something else? While many journalists use “minorities,” Rizga said that’s often not accurate, as many of these students and teachers are not racial minorities in their local communities; she prefers “people of color.”

Holland said it’s best to be more specific: perhaps “some black and Hispanic students,” or “students from a range of cultural backgrounds,” depending on the situation. “Sometimes you have to fight for three extra words,” he said.

One of Holland’s biggest criticisms of education coverage of racial issues in the news media is the “savior narrative” — the idea that a white teacher comes into a predominantly minority neighborhood and all of a sudden, things get better. He said he doesn’t often see newspapers or TV broadcasts describe the face of the change as a teacher of color.

One audience member noted that in Illinois, roughly 80 percent of public-school teachers are white, so it’s likely that educators who appear in the news will be white. Still, Rizga stressed that journalists should try harder to find and represent diverse perspectives in their writing, because there’s often more to an education success story than a single savior.

That’s not easy in a news environment where reporters often find themselves crunched for time. But “we don’t want to sacrifice accuracy for expediency,” Holland said. “It’s critical if you’re dealing with minority communities to understand that.”