Cover image of the Scott family in front of Stanton Elementary School from last week’s controversial Philadelphia Inquirer piece.
Last Monday, the Philadelphia Inquirer published what was intended to be a feel-good story about a family that chose an inner-city neighborhood school rather than a well-regarded charter school and wound up happy with their experience.
But instead, the story ignited a mini-controversy over how the story had been reported, pitting the Inquirer’s Pulitzer-winning education reporter Kristen Graham against the New York Times’ highly-regarded Nikole Hannah-Jones.
According to Graham and her defenders, her story wasn’t really about the race of the family that chose the school or the race of the parents who were already there. According to Hannah-Jones and others, the story was all about race, and ignoring the topic was a form of journalistic erasure all too common in media coverage of communities of color.
A few observers thought that Hannah-Jones’ critique was overblown and off the mark, but many thought that — however imperfectly — she’d raised an important and compelling issue that education journalism needs to explore.
The issue of journalistic diversity and racial awareness in white journalists’ coverage of communities of color has come up numerous times in the past year, here and elsewhere.
“What was useful about the criticism being public is that it did call attention to this issue,” said Education Writers Association board member Dakarai Aarons in a recent phone interview. While stopping short of endorsing Hannah-Jones’ decision to make her criticism so public, Aarons nonetheless observed that “journalism gets better when we’re able to have these conversations that are uncomfortable.”
“I rarely see journalists hold other journalists accountable for their craft,” added Chris Stewart, a blogger with Citizen Ed who often clashes with Hannah-Jones. “Who is going to hold mostly white newsrooms to account if it isn’t other journalists?”
Four years ago, according to Graham’s story, the Scott family (pictured above) chose to send their eldest son to the local neighborhood elementary school, even though he could have gone to one of the district’s top charters. He and his family had a great experience, and the parents became evangelists for the school.
Their eldest son “has done as well as we could have hoped for him anywhere,” said the boy’s father in the piece written by Graham. “We have no regrets,” said the mother. Four years later, offered a spot at another top school, the parents decided to transfer the boy (now in 5th grade) out. But they were sending their younger child to the neighborhood school.
However, New York Times reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones objected to the story in a series of tweets:
The Inquirer story was “ALL about race without ever mentioning it… The story “erases all the families who were already at the school, dismissed not gentrifying residents as invisible, unimportant.”
“This story sites[sic] every racial stereotype — safety, academic rigor, whether kids would be “nice” without mentioning race… This wink-and-nod writing about race in 2016 is just unacceptable.”
“This wink-and-nod writing about race in 2016 is just unacceptable.”
The piece doesn’t mention that about 99 percent of families at Stanton are of color, or describe the voices and contributions of the African-American families who have sent their children to the school for years.The principal of the school was reported as having tears in her eyes about the departure of the Scott’s eldest son. The image accompanying the story features four smiling white faces — and nobody else.
A prominent journalist of color who writes about race and education for the Times, Hannah-Jones previously wrote for ProPublica and reported a much-discussed 2015 “This American Life” segment about school segregation in Missouri that was re-aired recently.Her most recent major piece detailed her decision to send her daughter to a segregated Brooklyn elementary school rather than higher-performing or more diverse alternatives.
She has discussed the concerns surrounding racial blind spots in covering education in a recent Media Matters for America video:
“What’s important [for white reporters] is to say, ‘I know I’m coming from this perspective. How do I mitigate that with my reporting to make sure that it’s fair?’
She’s also known for calling people out on Twitter, including famed writer Gay Talese, who made some oblivious and objectionable comments to her at a conference this past summer.
“I’ve called out various racial blind spots in reporting on twitter through the years,” said Hannah-Jones. “I don’t know that [the Graham story] was particularly egregious… But we know this is a common story. I see this all the time.”
The response to Hannah-Jones’ concerns about the Inquirer story was swift and strong.
EdWeek reporter Christina Samuels wrote (on her personal Twitter account) “This story hurts my heart b/c as a reporter, I know EXACTLY how it got written. But, OMG.”
“This is journalism that normalizes gentrification, and erases those families of color who haven’t been pushed out,” wrote MTV reporter Jamil Smith.
A local Philadelphia website called BillyPenn began covering the controversy.
According to many of those who weighed in publicly, Graham’s piece deserved the criticism that it had received. In comments and on social media, Graham was called a racist. There were calls for her to be replaced. The family depicted in the story was pilloried for being entitled and self-interested.
One of the comments Graham came across was especially direct: “Burn in hell, Kristen Graham.”
At the time of its publication, the piece didn’t seem particularly controversial to Graham, an eight-year veteran of the beat who was part of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize-winning team that produced the “Assault on Learning” series about violence in the Philadelphia schools.
Though she’d taken flak for stories in the past, Graham – who is white – said in a phone interview that her previous experiences had been “nothing like this.”
Being accused of writing a racially insensitive piece is nothing anyone looks forward to, especially for someone like Graham who’s spent a long time writing about communities of color and considers herself sympathetic and knowledgeable. That the accusation was coming from perhaps the most prominent education writer in the nation – openly admired by many of her peers – only made it worse.
“I take this work very seriously. This story mattered — to me, every one does,” wrote Graham. “Could this story have been done better? Clearly, it could have. I will do better.”
Graham’s central defense against the charge of being racially insensitive in her writing was that she had covered these topics in other stories at other times, and had assumed that readers would respond to her story with that in mind.
“For me, look, I can only bring to the table what my personal experiences are,” said Graham. “I’m from Philadelphia, I went to public schools here for 13 years, and I’ve been covering the district and talking to folks for years now, and I’ve written lots of stories about issues where black people were treated unfairly because of their race.”
After a couple of days, the paper decided to hold a webchat for readers to engage with reporters about the story. “I heard from plenty of people who said they loved the story and appreciated the Scotts’ choice and their work,” wrote Graham in the webchat announcement, “and many weighed in saying they found the story offensive, insensitive, glib, and tone deaf.”
Graham said that she still thought it was a story worth telling but that it was clear she could have done better. “I regret and am sorry that I didn’t include more of the very complicated background of what’s been going on in that neighborhood,” she said. “I wish I had included more context and acknowledged race and class.”
However, she avoided digging in and trying to defend her story. It probably helped that her top editor supported her publicly in interviews and her editor participated in the webchat. “I’m not in trouble at work,” said Graham.
It’s important to note just how differently the reporter and at least some of her readers experienced the story.
Graham hadn’t thought of the story as a racial one. According to her interview with local news outlet BillyPenn, the story was intended as a feel-good update and wasn’t overtly about race. “That’s not how I approached it.”
“Was it about race? Clearly for some people it was. That’s their truth, and I want to honor that,” she said. “Was it overtly a story about race? That’s not how I approached it.”
Inquirer editor Bill Marimow described Graham’s intentions in much the same way: “Kristen saw this as a couple who you may not have expected them to be sending their kids to this school. But they have embraced this school. And that’s interesting.”
But, according to Hannah-Jones and others, Graham’s article was “an entire article about race that is clearly about race but doesn’t mention race. There was “no other reason you’d write this story.”
The contrasting perspectives illustrate important differences between how people with different backgrounds can see the same situation so differently, and highlights the instinct of some white reporters to downplay or avoid addressing race explicitly– in so doing erasing the contributions and perspectives of parents and teachers and students of color.
“I think it’s a matter in general many journalists having – how to phrase this? — having a really hard time figuring out how to write about race,” said Hannah-Jones. “They’re much more comfortable with race being implicit rather than explicit.”
“In whitewashing any mention of race out of an article about nothing but race,” wrote blogger Justin Cohen, “Graham feeds that outdated notion that the safest way to address race is to ignore its existence.”
—Pictured: Reporter Kristen Graham, EWA Board Member Dakarai Aarons, retired Philly teacher Lisa Haver, & education activist Chris Stewart.
A few other observers — most of them unwilling to talk about it publicly — thought that Hannah-Jones’ critique had gone too far and generated unfair and unwarranted attacks on Graham and the Scott family:
Local readers Graham serves doubtlessly know that the district is overwhelmingly black and brown, and that many neighborhood schools like Stanton aren’t the school choice of most gentrifying white families.
Hannah-Jones should have made note of the fact that the Scott family was trying to make a socially responsible decision about where to send their children, just as she had done so publicly in the Times Magazine.
As a much-celebrated New York Times employee, Hannah-Jones was commenting on Graham’s work from a position of professional privilege. (Speaking of privilege, I am white, private-school educated, male.)
If Hannah-Jones’ own views about gentrification and integration were part of the issue, that should have been made explicit.
“People are concerned about gentrification, that is an issue,” said Lisa Haver, a retired Philadelphia teacher and education activist who is white. “But I thought a lot of concerns were being projected onto the story.”
Haver also thought that Hannah-Jones’ critique was missing the bigger picture. “The closure of 25 schools in 2013, nearly all of them in black parts of the city, that’s a racial issue to me,” she said. “Here in Philadelphia, we have a white corporate power structure that determines the futures of children who are mostly of color. To me that is a racial issue much more than what one family in one neighborhood is doing.”
Last but not least, nobody who’s won a Pulitzer and who has no track record of flawed coverage in her past should be judged so harshly and publicly based on one story.
Nobody who’s won a Pulitzer and who has no track record of flawed coverage in her past should be judged so harshly and publicly based on one story.
And yet, however flawed or incomplete they were, Hannah-Jones’ remarks kicked off an important and much-needed public discussion about how education reporters – most of them white – sometimes struggle to communicate the racial dynamics going on among educators, parents, and elected officials, and to report and write about racial differences.
Looking back, a controversy of this kind seems close to inevitable: a veteran white reporter covering a school system predominantly serving African-American students, shamed on the Internet for writing about gentrification in 2016.
There’s been a dramatic increase in media attention given to race, cultural sensitivity, and inequality in the last two years.
The fate of neighborhood schools in big-city school districts is perhaps the most sensitive education topic out there, given their historic role in disadvantaged communities, their struggle to educate children to high academic levels, and the process of gentrification and the disruption of the traditional education system via charter schools.
Fewer than half of American schoolchildren are white, and the number is much lower in urban school systems like Philadelphia. The vast majority of education journalists in the US are white women, according to a recent Education Writers Association survey.
After a slow start, EWA – the national organization focused on high-quality coverage of schools – has been making moves to address racial awareness in its members’ journalism. It’s held at least one session on covering race and/or culture at each of its national conferences over the past three years. The 2016 session, Covering Education With Cultural Sensitivity, focused on helping reporters “be aware of their own perspectives and biases when covering students and families of color,” as well as “how to avoid tired tropes and stereotypes.”
Programming for the 2017 conference has not yet been announced, but the board of EWA just met and approved a new strategic plan that includes diversity as a core value, according to Aarons. Diversity has always been important to the organization, he said, but the board decided that it was “important to be explicit about it.”
The organization is also forming a new Diversity and Inclusion Task Force, composed of board members and others, to advise ways to “advance demographic diversity and inclusion among the EWA membership and in the field of education journalism more broadly.”
Hannah-Jones says she’s supportive of EWA’s efforts on this front, though uncertain about what she or anyone else can do to make white reporters more aware of what they’re doing.
“I don’t understand,” said Hannah-Jones. “Why would anyone need a guideline to know that they needed to talk about race in that story? Some of this just seems to be good reporting. I don’t know what guideline would make someone understand that.”
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