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April 23, 2020

For journalists of color, tracking by race during COVID-19 is about equity

A deserted Crown Fountain in Chicago's downtown Millennium Park, March 2020.
Crown Foundation in downtown Chicago in late March 2020. Photo by Raed Mansour

By Lolly Bowean
Field Foundation Program Officer, Media & Storytelling

Many residents were just starting to feel the fatigue of mandatory quarantines and self-distancing to prevent the rapid spread of the deadly COVID-19 virus when Charles Blow of the New York Times, Michael Harriot of The RootElliot Ramos of ProPublica Illinois and Maria Ines Zamudio of WBEZ took to social media to demand data correlated based on race.

It wasn’t an attempt to divide, Harriot explained in a Twitter thread last week. But rather it was an effort to call attention to the most vulnerable communities that have less access to health care while suffering from many underlying conditions. Harriot pointed out that African Americans are often dismissed by health care professionals and are most likely to be on the front line working in low-wage positions at grocery stores, gas stations, restaurants and other places deemed essential. 

“People keep wondering why we want to inject race into a global pandemic,” Harriot explained. “Seriously, Coronavirus is racist. Not only does it seem to target black areas, but the CDC’s list of factors that may exacerbate COVID-19 all disproportionately affect blacks.”

These journalists were simply doing their jobs—asking the tough questions and publicly shaming institutions for not responding to information requests. Yet, buried in their push for statistics was the validation that African American, Latinx, Asian, Arab, Native American (ALAANA) journalists and journalism organizations are needed now more than ever.

Throughout the region, small ALAANA owned and focused news organizations are filling the information gaps and using their limited resources to spread the news to their communities.

Here in Chicago, The Crusader began chronicling the death toll and publishing obituaries for African American residents who died because of the virus.

In their emailed newsletters, The Chicago Defender and Bronzecomm have been publishing lists of resources: where lower-income residents can access free food, how they can sign up for rental assistance and where they can find protective face masks and gloves.

On top of their full-time reporting jobs, Maria Ines Zamudio of WBEZ and Laura N. Rodriguez Presa of the Chicago Tribune started a Spanish-language podcast to translate the message for non-English speaking audiences. That effort, Zamudio said, came in part because she had to call her mother every morning and translate the COVID related news for her.

“This is for your mom, your tia and la vecina chismosa,” she wrote on her Twitter feed, which means your uncle or aunt and gossipy neighbor.

On the national stage, it has been ALAANA journalists using their platforms to call even more attention to the disparities and call out the inequities and racism attached to the response.  

Take the columnist Charles Blow, who has criticized the federal government for politicizing the crisis by first racializing it as a “Chinese virus,” and later failing to acknowledge how it impacts the black community. 

“I’m particularly frustrated by the lack of data,” he said in a recent Twitter Live conversation that he hosted to discuss the virus’ impact on minority communities. “I do not understand the lack of race-specific data being made available. It should be there.

“Tell people who is most affected and it saves lives,” he said. 

The work of these ALAANA journalists means that organizers can advocate for resources and community servants can focus on the people most in need.

As one of the only black journalists in the White House press corps in the 1950s, Ethel Payne said doing her job often meant asking the questions no one else would, and putting race and disparity at the center of the conversation. Payne, who wrote for the Defender, would use her questions to force even the mainstream media to pay attention to issues that plagued black America, she said.

“The white press was so busy asking questions on other issues that the blacks and their problems were completely ignored,” Payne said, according to Eye on the Struggle, a best-selling biography that chronicles her life. “I would think carefully about what kinds of questions I would ask …”

By asking questions about race relative to COVID, today’s journalists of color are doing just what Payne did decades ago—putting the focus right where it belongs. And making a conversation that was isolated to one community a national priority.


This post was originally published on the Field Foundation’s blog. Lolly Bowean is the Media & Storytelling Program Officer. The goals of the Field Foundation’s Media & Storytelling program, a partnership with the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and Democracy Fund, are to: create more just and inclusive narratives about Chicago that foster policy change; amplify the voices and impact of African, Latinx, Asian, Arab and Native American journalists, media makers and storytellers in the local media landscape; and support more reporting and storytelling by traditional and alternative journalism platforms about the root causes of the city’s inequities. Learn more about the program here.