The Ethics of Reporting on Underserved Communities

By Matthew Beagle

The city of Richmond, California has one of the highest crime rates in the nation. You can read about it almost daily in the California press. There are stories of rape, murder, manslaughter, armed robbery and aggravated assault.

But there is a lot more to Richmond, like community barbeques, backpack giveaways before the opening of the school year and stories of every day people working to improve their city and its image. Richmond community activist D’Wanda Joseph says that it’s dangerous to paint an entire city with one brush. Cities are comprised of different neighborhoods with different demographics and issues and each one deserves focused attention and accurate reporting, reporting that shows the entire picture.

Yes, Richmond is often described as an “underserved community,” but Joseph says that the term doesn’t account for grass roots efforts to fill gaps in service, “While a community or neighborhood may lack official governmental services, people in my community are doing something every day.”

Covering such communities is a challenge for journalists, both seasoned and new. In this essay, I would like to discuss some of the ethical issues involved with reporting on underserved communities. Oftentimes, inner cities — areas with high crime rates and poverty — take on a reputation in the news media that is hard to shake. New reporters to an area are influenced by stories they’ve read and it comes out in their writing so the reputation lives on.

Here are some of the issues involved: Why is it important in the first place to report on these communities? What are common mistakes that are made and what are the implications? Does reporting in these areas have to be different in any way? What are some solutions to produce more honest and reflective reporting?  What can news organizations and reporters do?

I spoke with community residents and also news editors and reporters at the public radio station where I am working in the Bay Area.

I became interested in this topic through my own reporting experiences in journalism school. I am currently reporting in Richmond, a city of about 100,000 across the bay from San Francisco. Although from 2009-2014 homicides dropped seventy six percent according to FBI Data, it is on the rise again, and I am attempting to document and raise awareness about this disturbing trend. In 2014, Richmond saw its lowest number of homicides in decades, 11. In 2016, months before the end of the year, there have been over twenty. Most of the victims are young people of color.

Ethan Lindsey, managing editor of KQED, told me about how his station, which covers news from the entire Bay Area, is tackling this problem. It has adopted a system where daily reporters, while continuing on their assigned beats, also work on longer term projects in lesser known areas and are given time to develop sources, find compelling characters and narratives.

Devin Katayama is reporting on one of these series. While normally assigned to the East Bay Area, focusing on more prosperous cities like Oakland and Berkeley, Katayama is now working on a yearlong series on the city of Antioch, a small suburban enclave about 40 miles east of San Francisco. Though most people have never heard of Antioch, it is experiencing a new and common phenomenon as many metropolitan areas, the suburbanization of poverty.

As the economies in San Francisco and Oakland surge because of the growth of the technology industry, many who are left behind are forced to leave because of rising costs of living and move to more suburban areas such as Antioch.

Through his reporting, Katayama and his colleagues have been able to dig deeper into stories and have produced articles focusing on the economic climate that is driving families to the city from more urban areas. They’ve also added nuance by reporting on the positive changes in peoples lives that come with moving to a supposedly safer and more rural area, but also the challenges they face. The team has already reported on several instances of alleged police brutality.

Katayama says handing over trust to reporters and giving them time is one of the best things news organizations can do to cover underreported areas ethically. “Time is huge,” Katayama says. “The stories I originally thought we’d report became much more complex.”

While he expressed some fear of being seen as a “parachute reporter” even after embedding in Antioch for a year, Katayama says there are benefits to not knowing everything about a community that you are reporting in. “I wanted to stories to be driven by my original sense of curiosity, I feel that if I’m curious, then the readers will be too.”

There are ethical considerations even in using the term “underserved community.” Joseph argues that the term should be used literally, as opposed to a blanket term for places that we think of as, crime ridden, black or scary. Instead it should be used to describe areas that receive less basic services proportionally than other surrounding areas — and reporters should try and answer why that is.

Embedding may be a way to more responsibly cover under served communities, but, why is it important to cover them at all.

Ethan Lindsey of KQED said areas that seem remote, or underserved are more related to other communities than people think and it is journalists’ job to connect the dots. For instance, in an economic downturn, people from more established cities and neighborhoods may be forced to relocate to an underserved community. These communities form and earn their reputations not in a vacuum, but as part of an inner- connected socioeconomic climate that affects a broad range of readers.

Lindsey sees producing entertaining and engaging news from underserved communities as an ethical responsibility. “Simply reporting on these areas is not enough, you have to engage your audience and make them care.”

Honest and accurate reporting may be a crucial step in changing public perception of these communities. Politicians campaign on platforms to turn these communities around, regularly paint stark pictures of them with little nuance.

In his recent presidential debate against Hillary Clinton, Republican nominee Donald Trump answered a question on race relations by saying, “We have a situation where we have our inner cities, African-American, Hispanics living in hell because it’s so dangerous. You walk down the street, you get shot.” Many have already criticized this statement as a gross generalization and not at all grounded in fact.

Given this kind of rhetoric from the presidential nominee of a major political party, the role of journalists looms even larger in the effort to accurately describe underserved communities. By focusing on causes of inequality and highlighting solutions, journalists can play a role in improving outcomes for people who live in them. As I see it, this is our ethical responsibility as journalists.






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