Key Quotes: COVID-19 and Reporting on Communities of Color

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The International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) is connecting journalists with health experts and newsroom leaders through a webinar series on COVID-19. The series is part of our ICFJ Global Health Crisis Reporting Forum — a project with our International Journalists’ Network (IJNet).

The pandemic has disproportionately affected minority communities and communities of color around the world, panelists said in an ICFJ Global Health Crisis Reporting Forum webinar on Monday. 

“When this started happening, it was really clear to me and my team that this was going to be impacting working class people of color,” said Anna Lekas Miller, communications manager at the Media Diversity Institute in London. “This was going to be impacting people that couldn't necessarily stay home and work from home.”

She said that although the mainstream media has covered these inequalities, they were slow to do so, only recognizing the disparity when the infection and death rates were significantly higher for these communities.

However, publications around the world dedicated to covering minority communities have been covering these disparities for years.

“The favelas always existed, but it seems like everyone — and especially the mainstream media — started to look at this place thinking, ‘wow people, there's a lack of water. People don't have access to the internet,’” said Vagner De Alencar, co-founder of Agência Mural, a publication based in São Paulo, Brazil, dedicated to covering the favelas. 

“The coronavirus pandemic showed all of these inequalities that have always existed. My work at Agência Mural for 10 years has been to show these inequalities,” Alencar said.

Miller and Alencar joined Thomas Bwire for a panel discussion. Bwire is the co-founder and editor of  Habari Kibra in Kenya, which covers life in Kibera, one of Africa’s largest slums. The panel discussion was moderated by WGBH New England Center for Investigative Reporting’s Phillip Martin.

Below are key quotes from their discussion:

On what is a minority community

  • “From my perspective, I'm talking about people who live in the favelas in Brazil. There are a lot of favela peripheries here in Brazil,” said Alencar. “Just in São Paulo, there are more than 12 million people living in the outskirts here. I grew up in the largest favela in São Paulo, so I know what it means to face discrimination, segregation.”
  • “It's been a term of contention in the United States. We basically toggle between the term people of color and minority because in so many places, the minority is the majority, and the minority connotes ‘otherhood,'” said Martin.

 

On media diversity

  • “It's not only white, but also very wealthy backgrounds, which just means that these lived experiences of poverty or racism are very rarely actually in U.K. newsrooms. So then when you have a story that's affecting people of color so much, that's affecting working class people so much, it takes them that much longer to first get to this story, to have access to people, to interview, to even understand it,” said Miller. “When you have this lack of newsroom diversity, you have this lack of perspectives.” 
  • “I just think that also people from marginalized communities need to be treated as experts as well,” said Miller. “Often you have this dynamic with journalism where it's like, ‘oh, I'm going to talk to this person from a marginalized community and then I'm going to confirm it with an expert.’ But why aren't the people with the lived experience experts?”

[View past webinars and key quotes]

On why coverage of minority communities matters

  • “In Detroit where I grew up, I got into journalism… because it was problematic to see how the place where I live was being portrayed by newspapers and television and magazines. It bore no resemblance to what I was experiencing in my own neighborhood,” said Miller. “The notion of coverage on the ground is so absolutely important.”
  • Alencar said: “We want to empower them to have information, and to fight for their rights, because if we can't see ourselves in the media, we think we don't exist.”
  • “If on the one hand we talk about socioeconomic inequalities, on the other hand, we're talking about inequality of information. That's the reason we exist…. it's to show residents of the peripheries what they need to do to take care of themselves. Because if the president says ‘no, it's not a problem, it's a little flu,’ but more than 6,000 people are dying, we are facing a big, big problem,” said Alencar.

 

On gaining access to minority communities

  • “People need to understand the diverse culture of our communities. In Kibera, we have diverse tribes and diverse cultures,” said Bwire. “Then to understand the way of living, for example. They need to do a lot of research into how people communicate, how people dress — even the appearance matters, a lot because you can't just come to Kibera wearing a suit.”
  • Bwire added that reporters need to take time building a rapport “so that by the time you are coming [to the community/region], it's easier to identify with this community or your sources. Sometimes it's not very easy for us to just let people come out here with cameras. It's intimidating.”
  • “There are a lot of young journalists — these students from rich schools — that don't have access, and don't know what it means living in that favela. One thing we say is to be careful with senseless journalism and avoid cliches,” said Alencar. “ And another one: don't underestimate the political capacity of the residents of the periphery.”

 

On keeping inequality at the forefront of media coverage:

  • “We all know reporting as journalists to be episodic. One day it's a story, the next day it's not. But I guess what's asked here is how do you make sure this stays on the media's agenda?” asked Martin. “In the United States, we cannot talk, for example, about COVID-19 without racism and about how systemic racism is wreaking havoc on communities of color, on black folk primarily, but also on brown folk and Latinx people. It becomes important for me as an investigative journalist to take a close look at this issue ... and the relationship to the lack of healthcare and supermarkets that are nowhere to be seen in those communities and so on.”
     
  • Miller: “People need to be talking about these ideas. People need to be talking about these inequalities. And people need to be talking about rectifying these inequalities. Journalists do have a very, very valuable role in that. I don't think that they're taking advantage enough at this moment.”

 

On going forward

  • Miller: “Right now we are in a situation where ideally we want to be hiring a bunch of people from a bunch of diverse backgrounds. But also COVID-19 has been slashing budgets left and right. So we need to be clever about how we go forward. The most important thing is to accept structural racism and structural inequalities as facts, not as debates.”
     
  • Bwire: “It's good to read widely and do your research. I've never, never stopped learning.”
     
  • “[We need to] expand our framework of assumption,” said Martin. “And my idea of a framing comes from my experience growing up in Detroit, experiencing the uprisings in Detroit as a kid — seeing those in the 1960s — and what's happening now in the streets with Black Lives Matter and elsewhere. My framework of assumption is influenced by everything from The Economist magazine to The Nation to talking to folks on my block, to talking with you... It's a question of expanding your knowledge base and basically gathering facts and letting those facts help dictate and influence your story.”

[View past webinars and key quotes]

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