Reporting on race and ethnicity

Posted by Rachel Ward

Roberto Zurbano, was reportedly removed form his post  as an editor of a publishing house in Cuba after his opinion piece on racism on the island was published in the New York Times. Zurbano claimed  that when the headline was translated from Spanish to English the meaning begame  “For Blacks in Cuba, the Revolution Hasn’t Begun,” but his version read, “Not Yet Finished,” according to the Times.

To read the rest of the article click here.

This made me wonder, what is the best way for journalists to report on race?

First, lets make the important distinction between race and ethnicity — no people, these words are not interchangeable. Race is a group of people with genetically transmitted distinct physical characteristics. Ethnicity is a group of people who share a national culture or tradition resulting from racial/cultural ties.

Race and ethnicity are topics journalists often  avoid in articles, and in many cases rightfully so, unfortunately racial identifiers have served as rationale for genocide, slavery and general prejudices in many cases. However, sometimes race and ethnicity are pertinent to a reader’s understanding of an article.

Shortly after Thanksgiving in 2011 Cleveland, Tex. authorities found out 18 men and boys (charged thus far) ranging from young teens to adults participated in a gang rape of an 11-year-old girl. Many articles reported on many details of this story, but Mallary Tenore believes they forgot an important factor. In her article “New York Times, Houston Chronicle explain relevance of race & ethnicity in Cleveland rape coverage,” published on Poynter, she explains why journalists can’t always tread lightly in the face of race and ethnicity. The girl was Hispanic, and all the men convicted of rape thus far are black. Tenore believes it is important to distinguish this because the distinction raises important questions. Such as, in Cleveland do racial tensions exist between these two groups? It is also important to question, since all the convicted are black, is this specific race being targeted? Maybe race does not play a role, but  these questions can not be answered if they are pushed to the wayside.

Read Tenore’s full article here.

NewsU, Poynter’s News University, course Handling Race and Ethnicity concentrates on how journalists use race and ethnicity in reporting. Here’s what I took from it:

  1. Be careful not to lump people into a label with one racial comment, for example many Native American tribes exist in the United States, and it is not accurate to lump them all into one racial label.
  2. When mentioning a person’s race or ethnicity in a story make sure it adds needed information — don’t throw these words around willy-nilly.
  3. It’s nearly impossible to tell the ethnicity of a person from looking, and if you are going to report it in an article you have to know for sure. This means you have to ask.
  4. A persons race should never precede the mention of their name in any news source.

Handling Race and Ethnicity is a free course (though you have to log in to the site), so if you’re interested in learning more about reporting on these topics check out class here.

Would you have run the race and ethnicity of the victim and convicted rapists if you were to report on this story?                                                                                                 In your own work, how do you distinguish if race and ethnicity are important? What are some examples of when race and ethnicity should not have been reported?

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9 responses to “Reporting on race and ethnicity

  1. Taking this online course through NewsU really helped open my eyes as a journalist to how reporting on race and ethnicity can really affect the desired outcome. In certain cases, revealing the race and ethnicity is necessary in telling the story. If a person is targeted because of their race, for example, reporting this is necessary in the understanding of the crime that could have occurred. Reporting that a robbery occurred and the perpetrator was African-American is not necessary and shouldn’t be considered in the writing of the story. All in all I feel that it is a judgement call for all journalists to make.

    • I agree, and I think this is where diversity in the news room is important. The more view points journalists have to pull from, the more likely they will make the right call.

  2. When I took J66 last semester and did the NewsU course I was really surprised at how little I knew about the difference between race and ethnicity and how they should be used in a story. I found it really interesting that one of the main points it stressed was that we usually don’t know someone’s background just by looking at them. We need to be careful when writing to be 100 percent sure we are presenting true facts. This goes for any topic of course, but it can’t be stressed enough when talking about race and ethnicity. I agree if it’s not important to the story and doesn’t have any purpose being in the story then it can just be left out. It’s a hard decision that both the writer and editor need to make together.

  3. I believe we all had similar experiences with the J66 NewsU course. Even as someone who identifies with being a part of a diverse group, I still blurred the lines of race and ethnicity. I feel that the definitions of the two is something that journalist don’t fully understand and often confuse. I agree with the second tip “When mentioning a person’s race or ethnicity in a story make sure it adds needed information — don’t throw these words around willy-nilly.”

    Which ties in to answering the question would I have included the ethnicity of the victim and the rapist in my story? Yes, especially if it was clear that there was one race specifically being targeted. But if all of the rapist had of been different ethnicities mentioning it would have been irrelevant. I believe thats were a lot of journalist get tripped up in misplacing when reporting the race/ethnicity of someone is important and when it isn’t.

  4. I took this course last semester when I was enrolled in J66 and it really opened my eyes. It was difficult when to know when race was important and when it wasn’t. There wasn’t ever a seriously obvious case of when to report someone’s race. Will that hurt the greater population of that race rather than just the person who did it? By stating their race or ethnicity are you then blaming that instead of that individual person?
    I personally have never had to report on something that I felt like needed me to state someone’s race but maybe I was doing that person or story justice.
    Now I am questioning everything I have written about! Race has always been a touchy subject and I think it is wise to get several people’s opinion on what you should before actually publishing your story. I ask yourself if the race is really important and if the story would mean the same with or without it.

    • I completely agree. It’s a hard topic, and a hard decision to make when it comes to some stories. I think if you ask yourself if it adds something to the story, and it does, then you should report on it.

  5. I also remember taking the J66 course and having this conversation, so I’m glad you’re continuing to bring up issues of reporting race and ethnicity. I think it’s impossible to set one generic rule for when to include a subject’s race/ethnicity, but I think the basic rule is to include characteristics that are relevant to the story. Obviously, this is a very subjective standpoint, which can cause a lot of trouble and questions for writers. Thus, I think it’s important to have a knowledgeable editing staff who can help talk a writer through the important issues of a story. Editors need to set consistent guidelines for their publications and help writers enforce the race and ethnicity policies. The odds of making a mistake in identification go down significantly when there are multiple editorial voices weighing in to make the ethical decision.

  6. I would not have included the race and ethnicity of the victim and the assailant(s). The newsworthy aspect was the rape of an 11-year-old girl not the races. I think details are important; however, race and ethnicity tend to be overused identifiers in my opinion. I think the reporter was correct not to report on the races initially.

    The approach I would take when deciding on race and ethnicity comes from the Poynter’s News University course you mention that I took last spring in J66. The course gave examples of acceptable and inappropriate uses of race and ethnicity. One major lesson that I remember from that course was making sure that the race and ethnicity references are balanced. If you mention the victim’s race and ethnicity, you also need to identify the suspects race and ethnicity. If the victim and suspects were of different races and ethnicities and if there is a problem in the city with tension between the two groups then I may spend more time thinking about including race. I think the Treyvon Martin case from last year highlighted the impact including race can have on the discussion of newsworthy events. I do think race and ethnicity should have been included in that news coverage but it seemed to become a Hispanic versus African American conversation. My general rule is if the story and its context make sense without including races then they can be left out as descriptive factors.

  7. I agree. Like Raquel touched on, sometimes the fear behind mentioning race/ethnicity is that it will make the story about that instead of the individual.

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