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Understanding How Race Affects Reporting Is Crucial for Education Journalists

Pulitzer Prize winner Nikole Hannah-Jones to white reporters: Study race intensely.

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The fusillade of insults and threats aimed at The New York Times Magazine’s “The 1619 Project” is evidence of the power journalism has to create change, Nikole Hannah-Jones told a remote audience during an appearance at the Education Writers Association’s recent National Seminar.

The project, named for the year the first slave ship arrived in the English colony of Virginia, launched in August 2019 with an issue of the magazine dedicated to reframing 400 years of racialized American history. In April, Hannah-Jones, who conceived the project, won a Pulitzer Prize for her lead essay.

The project also includes instructional materials for schools developed by the Pulitzer Center, part of a larger movement for American history education to highlight systemic racism. That has provoked ire from some GOP leaders, including President Donald Trump, who in mid-September announced he was creating a commission to promote “patriotic education” and create a “pro-American curriculum.”

During the session with Hannah-Jones, who won first place for her reporting on segregation in EWA’s 2015 National Awards for Education Reporting, she said that understanding and contextualizing race in education stories is especially crucial for white reporters.

“We’ve always treated racial inequality as something that you just know or don’t know based on osmosis, like just being a person in America, you will understand how to cover this,” she said. “Those of us who are good at writing about racial inequality are good at [it] because we have studied it. And if you are white, you actually probably need to study it even more intensely because you don’t even have the lived experience of what that is like.”

Further, she said, reporters need to make sure that their pitches are bulletproof if they suspect a story is one their editor may be reluctant to assign — a category she said segregation is too often lumped into.

“You know what stories your editor is likely to be drawn to and what stories your editor’s likely to reject,” she said. “And if the story that you really want to tell is one that your editor is more likely to reject, you report the hell out of that story before you ever pitch it.”

A Need for Change in Education Reporting

Hannah-Jones began her career as an education reporter, which provided vital inspiration to The New York Times’ Erica L. Green, who introduced the session. Hannah-Jones “laid the groundwork for us to be able to write not only the stories that were expected of us, but required of us to effectively cover a system that was supposed to be the great equalizer in this country,” Green said. “It’s been incredible to watch her continue to inspire.”

During the EWA session, moderated by education bureau chief Chastity Pratt of The Wall Street Journal, Pratt and Hannah-Jones talked frankly about the disproportionately white composition of the education press corps and the impact on coverage of K-12 education of white reporters’ own educational backgrounds and lack of expertise on racism. In 2017, Pratt reminded listeners, Hannah-Jones tweeted that white reporters’ “fear, complicity and guilt get in the way.”

White reporters’ children are often enrolled in schools that are segregated or better resourced than those attended by students of color, Hannah-Jones said. “A lot of times, white journalists — their experiences of our educational system is completely different from the experiences of most of the kids that they cover,” she said. “And we would be willfully naive to think that that has not and does not impact coverage, but you can’t get around that.”

Political Pushback

Hannah-Jones and the project have provoked criticism from numerous Republican leaders, ranging from U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who described the series as espousing a “Marxist ideology,” to U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, who has sought to ban the use of the stories and related materials in public school classrooms.

“The New York Times’ 1619 Project is a racially divisive, revisionist account of history that denies the noble principles of freedom and equality on which our nation was founded,” Cotton said in a statement about the bill he introduced the day after Hannah-Jones’ EWA appearance. “Not a single cent of federal funding should go to indoctrinate young Americans with this left-wing garbage.”

Hannah-Jones told education writers attending the conversation that she believes the pushback she has received from some political leaders is related to the fact that many schools throughout the country are now teaching materials from The 1619 Project.

“No one’s been more surprised than me that a year later, Trump, Pompeo or Tom Cotton are feeling the need to try to discredit a project that’s a year old,” she said. “I think, if anything, that really speaks to the power that ‘The 1619 Project’ has had and the power of journalism to not just report on what’s happening, but to actually move the narratives that we’ve all long accepted.”

The project is being taught in at least one school in every state in the country, Hannah-Jones said, and is mandatory curriculum in several, including Chicago Public Schools.

“There’s this understanding of the power of a narrative about the challenges, the deification of our founding, that really centered slavery and the Black experience,” she said. “The power of our children actually learning that history at a younger age, as opposed to those of us who didn’t learn it at all.

“That’s been deeply, deeply gratifying as someone who began my career as an education reporter.”

During the EWA panel, Hannah-Jones reflected on news coverage of education during the pandemic. She said she’s concerned that coverage of school shutdowns has not focused enough on “the lack of instruction and the lack of accountability during COVID.” Even many children who have technology and internet access are not being served well, she noted.

“I’m really worried about what that’s going to look like in the fall,” she said. “I’m worried that, because there was so much of a focus on reopening schools, that not enough time has been spent on preparing for schools not to reopen, or on instruction if schools are not able to fully reopen.”