Because most of the reporters covering urban education are white and know nothing about the neighborhoods they’re being asked to cover, a gap exists.
By ALEXANDER RUSSO
There’s been a LOT of discussion this past week or so about important issues surrounding race, class, and privilege among school reformers and reform critics.
But what about the editors and reporters who cover education issues– and whose work is read by the public and policymakers who are making real-life education decisions every day?
The truth of the matter is that it’s not just the education reform movement and its critics who are predominantly white and appear otherwise privileged.
I know, race is just a social construct. Class is probably more important. Not everyone identifies according to the apparent color of their skin or their national origin. A person doesn’t have to be from the community they’re writing about to do the job well. (For the record, this post is being written by a white male who has been private-school educated for all but a few community college Spanish language classes.)
But let’s be clear: Many, if not most, of the journalists writing about education for national audiences are white too, and do not appear to come from the neighborhoods and schools that they may spend much of their time covering. For example, there aren’t any people of color covering national education issues at The Washington Post. The education team at Politico is entirely white (and female), though founding education editor Nirvi Shah may identify as a person of color (and in fairness, most of the staff at Politico is white, and male). Last I looked, the education team at NPR is entirely white other than Claudio Sanchez (Juana Summers, who identifies as African American, was briefly on the education team before moving over to cover Congress).
You get the idea. No matter how smart, hard-working, or privilege-aware these journalists may be, it seems hard to imagine that the cultural distance between reporters and poor minority students doesn’t play a role of some kind.
The issue of cultural sensitivity and journalism has come up most recently among a handful of critics of NPR’s “Serial” podcast, which was (tangentially) about magnet school kids in Baltimore. I wrote about this line of thinking – and the lack of similar criticism for last year’s “This American Life” segments on Harper High – not too long ago (Why’s “Serial” Getting So Much More Pushback Than “Harper High”?). You can listen to the Harper High episodes here, parts one and two.
But the best examples may come from recent conflicts between reform advocates and critics in which race and class have been explicit topics of the debate – when Newark’s Cami Anderson is under attack for being a white interloper in a black community, or when Chicago’s Rahm Emanuel is accused of being a racist murderer by the head of the Chicago Teachers Union.
These are situations in which a white reporter is probably somewhat less comfortable than a person of color, and although I have no way of knowing for sure, I’m imagining that there’s some influence on the coverage that’s produced.
The current reality is that most education reporters have more in common, racially and otherwise, with educators (still mostly white, college-educated women), and with well-educated parents who are making decisions about their own children’s education.
The good news is that there are a handful of people writing about education who are (or may consider themselves to be) people of color.Last year, the Education Writers Association held a panel session on covering communities of color, which was to my knowledge the first such occurrence.
But there’s obviously a lot more work to be done in terms of diversifying the community and educating it as well, so let’s get started!
In the meantime, here’s a partial list that I’m hoping you can help me complete:
- Daarel Burnette II is the bureau chief of ChalkbeatTN
- Brian Charles is a Chalkbeat New York reporter
- Nikole Hannah-Jones writes about education, as does Marian Wang, for Pro Publica
- Cynthia Liu is the founder of K-12 News Network
More names, in no particular order: Juan Perez at The Chicago Tribune; Dropout Nation’s RiShawn Biddle; Melissa Sanchez at Catalyst Chicago; Christina Armario at the Associated Press; Vanessa Romo at LA School Report; Motoko Rich at The New York Times (also Brent Staples on the editorial page and columnist Charles Blow); Teresa Watanabe at The LA Times. The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehesi Coates doesn’t write about education but he writes about issues that surround education.
Alexander Russo is the founder and editor of This Week In Education, where this column first appeared. It is republished here with permission from the author.