The Associated Press earlier this year shifted a national race and ethnicity reporter to its 2020 election team, an acknowledgment that race has become a defining element of President Donald Trump’s campaigns.
That beat, assigned to reporter Errin Haines Whack, is fairly unusual among major news organizations. And media outlets’ approach to covering race is frustrating some prominent journalists of color at a time when Trump’s language — including calling a civil-rights leader a “con man” and referring to a majority-black district in Baltimore as a “disgusting rat and rodent infested mess” this week — is threatening to define the campaign.
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Some nonwhite journalists are growing increasingly vocal in their push for media outlets to take race head on in political coverage — and they are publicly highlighting the ways they say Trump’s words and the semantic debates over whether to call them “racist” weigh on them personally.
CNN anchor Victor Blackwell, a Baltimore native, went viral over the weekend for a reported and emotional segment Saturday in which he detailed how the president uses words like “infested” to refer to people of color.
“The president says … no human would want to live there,” Blackwell said of Trump’s tweets about the district represented by Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings. “You know who did, Mr. President? I did, from the day I was brought home from the hospital to the day I left for college, and a lot of people I care about still do.”
New York Times reporter Astead Herndon said last week during a Buzzfeed News panel that reporters of color sometimes feel they have to be “the black public editor of our newsrooms.” Axios’s Alexi McCammond recently said on MSNBC that it is “an incredibly difficult time to be a person of color, to be a woman of color, to be a journalist.”
And New York Times Magazine correspondent Nikole Hannah-Jones tweeted Saturday that “while some of y’all reporters are out here talking about how reporting on Trump is ‘fun,’ your black and brown colleagues are having to deal with the psychic impacts of his racism.”
“Sometimes we as an industry don’t understand how psychologically and emotionally tolling these conversations can be,” Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery told POLITICO, adding that white colleagues are “having a high-minded conversation about things that impact your life every day.”
Lowery wasn’t in the room two weeks ago when Post senior editors concluded that Trump’s tweet telling four Democratic congresswomen of color to “go back” to their native countries was racist. But hours before that decision became public, he tweeted to accuse the media of cowardice and journalists of contorting themselves to avoid using the word.
Lowery told POLITICO he hoped decision-makers in his newsroom and others got his message.
“Social media provides an important outlet for minority journalists to speak clearly and decisively about how they see things and create external pressure that forces institutions not only to respond, but to consider perspectives they might not hear,” he said.
On Saturday, he also tweeted that Trump’s Baltimore comments were racist: “Racism often manifests as subtext and implication,” he wrote. “Black & brown ears can hear the racism clearly while our white colleagues engage in fruitless, if earnest, pedantic games.”
He said that news outlets’ hesitance to label as racist Trump’s tweets about the four congresswomen known as “the Squad” — Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar — was part of a larger phenomenon. “Institutions and media organizations have been slower over the course of Trump’s entire political career, his political rise, to accurately describe how he’s used racial grievance and racial prejudice for his own benefit,” he said.
Tanzina Vega, who covered race for the New York Times and CNN and currently hosts “The Takeaway,” wrote in late 2017 that one of the biggest media mistakes in the previous election “was underestimating the power of racist rhetoric” and noted “a disconnect between what journalists of color were seeing and what white reporters were seeing.”
Vega told POLITICO there has been incremental improvement in covering race and politics since the 2016 campaign, citing both Whack’s and Herndon’s work this cycle as examples.
The Times reporter wrote in March that some white Pennsylvania voters fear “the replacement of traditional, white American culture,” and he has said that part of his job was to show that “it’s not only marginalized groups who view their identity as an important lens for their political choices, but white voters also.”
But Vega said “the leading voices” on race heading into the 2020 election are largely the same as they were in the last campaign. She said news organizations should be covering race on a more sustained basis, with reporters — and not only journalists of color — able to report on the issue effectively.
“You can have a race beat. You can not have a race beat,” Vega said. “But your reporters need to be versed in dealing with the sensitivities and nuances and comfortable with the language being used.”
“It is a myth that calling an action or speech or stereotype racist is an indictment of that person’s soul,” Herndon said at the BuzzFeed event. “It is a myth that people have used to stop us from accurately describing words or actions or things that we know.”
Whack, the AP reporter and a veteran on the race beat, said journalists “need to get past our discomfort in talking about and covering race” and honestly and accurately describe what is happening.
“We’re in a hyper-racial moment in the country,” she said. “To cover politics right now means to have an understanding of that.”
“Race and politics,” she said, “is really the story of our time.”