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Writing Through the Lens of Social Justice

WD Editor-at-Large Tyler Moss makes the case for reporting on issues of social justice in freelance writing—no matter the topic in this article from the July/August 2021 issue of Writer's Digest.

Last February, at a virtual event put on by my alma mater, Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, I listened to four Black journalists from venues like The New York Times and Washington Post share their insight and experiences on the intersection of race and reporting in 2021.

As a white freelancer who focuses primarily on travel writing, if you’d asked me a few years ago, I’d have said this panel wasn’t really relevant to me. 

After all, I don’t typically cover politics or policy in my work. But I’ve begun to understand, as have many writers and editors of late (though still not enough), how issues of race permeate every area of journalistic coverage. And that the “race beat” emerging in many major newsrooms—or, to speak more clearly, the junction of race and just about any other subject—should not be relegated to only writers of color. White writers must develop a functional level of race literacy, becoming educated on institutional racism and its insidious, omni-present impacts. Moreover, we have an obligation to use our privilege to shine a spotlight on these issues as they collide with the stories we’re writing. 

In his No. 1 New York Times bestseller, How to Be an Antiracist, author and activist Ibram X. Kendi says, “There is no neutrality in the racism struggle.” To be an antiracist is to be active. To take the initiative to not simply disengage from conversations around systemic prejudice and repression, but to vigorously surface those matters and approach them with the thorough reporting and nuanced, empathetic examination they deserve. Bypassing such discussions is akin to employing a level of editorial color blindness, a kind of deliberately naïve tunnel vision that, in Dr. Kendi’s words, “by ostensibly failing to see race, fails to see racism and falls into racist passivity.”  

So it’s established: Antiracist allies of every beat have a responsibility to open their eyes. But what exactly does that look like in practice? 

A Learning Experience

At the end of 2019, I was assigned an article from Condé Nast Traveler about the ethics of geotagging social media photos—essentially, the practice of pinpointing the exact location at which a photo was taken. The premise was straightforward enough—to talk to outdoors enthusiasts who were making a conscious effort to rethink how they were sharing photos of the fragile natural locations they visited out of environmental concern. 

Earlier that year, some Instagram influencers with large followings had posted photos of themselves amidst a “super bloom” of wild poppies in Walker Canyon in southern California. The pictures went viral and had precipitated a massive tourist run—50,000 visitors into a town of 66,000 in a single weekend—overwhelming the region and forcing the local government to shut down the canyon all together. Conservationists began to cite the incident as a sort of inflection point, with prominent climbers, kayakers, hikers, and beyond asserting they would no longer geotag the locations of their recreational destinations in their posts. 

The concept seemed interesting and innocent enough at first glance, so I accepted the assignment and began reporting. Delving into my research and the online conversation around the topic, however, I soon surfaced some troubling facets of the anti-geotag movement. Specifically, there was a culture of shaming occurring in which some white outdoors enthusiasts were publicly harassing people of color on social networks for “doing the outdoors wrong.” 

Historically speaking, many recreational activities like skiing, kayaking, climbing, and so on have been the domain of affluent white people who could afford the expensive equipment and had easier access to mountains, parks, etc., away from the city. But with these hobbies seeing increased diversity in recent years, there was a perception that anti-geotag supporters were acting as gatekeepers, effectively playing keep-away with natural sites. In tandem with the shaming problems, the message taking shape was clear: “You are novices and outsiders. The outdoors isn’t for you.”

Recognizing that there was a lot more to this topic beyond the original prompt, I took these findings back to my editors and informed them of the race-related undertones. They immediately acknowledged that gatekeeping was the more important story and sanctioned a pivot in focus. 

The final piece ended up being far more nuanced than where I began. A Black activist, hiker, and blogger spoke to me about the tone of conservationists who seemed to say newcomers (and communities of color, specifically), who may not have grown up with principles of environmentally ethical outdoorsmanship, were somehow “inherently undeserving” of nature. As an alternative to not geotagging, the article proposed influencers use their platforms as a tool for education, instead of ridicule. As I came to learn, the issue at hand was not color blind, and to have glossed over the gatekeeping aspects would’ve been a glaring omission on my part. 

As journalists, bringing accountability, discrimination, and systemic injustices to the fore is incumbent upon all of us. I know I’m an inadequate ally, but I’m striving to be better, as we all should. To be consistently informing myself. To practice antiracism. 

Despite the new angle, I’m sure the gatekeeping piece wasn’t perfect. For me, it was just a start. To be completely honest, I was nervous to write this article. It’s not as if I’ve learned my one lesson and am now an expert on antiracist journalism—the experience was a single step on my learning journey. There’s a good chance that in this article I unintentionally employ monolithic language, don’t fully represent systemic issues of injustice, or insufficiently adhere to the very tips I share below. Even so, this subject matter is too important to avoid it for fear of missteps, and I gladly welcome any feedback that can help me to be better.  

Educating white people is not the responsibility of our Black and Brown friends, editors, and colleagues, who bear enough on their shoulders without the added burden of having to enlighten others. White journalists must take it upon ourselves to be informed, to be proactive in addressing and rectifying centuries of subtle (and blatant) bias in the profession. And while that enlightenment is ongoing and requires each of us to take our own journeys to some extent, below are some immediate techniques to apply to your writing.

7 Strategies to Approach Writing Through an Antiracist Lens

Make a point to surface angles of inequity. Just as in the geotagging article, issues of injustice and the ways they intertwine with your story may not necessarily be evident from the outset. In order to stay attentive, you must first acknowledge the pervasiveness of institutional racism and its far-reaching tentacles. But it also requires actively asking whether there is a racial component to the narrative at the outset. “One either allows racial inequities to persevere, as a racist,” Kendi says, “or confronts racial inequities, as an antiracist.” 

This is about having an openness to follow the story wherever it takes you—which should be the journalists’ credo anyway. The story’s natural trajectory should drive your exploration, as opposed to approaching the topic with preconceived notions as to how it will play out, keeping blinders on throughout your pursuit. 

Stop centering whiteness. For too long, the white experience has been the default perspective assumed by mainstream media. The reason for that is, of course, an enduring lack of diversity at the media’s highest levels, a separate and even larger problem. Writers themselves, however, also have the ability to facilitate a more intersectional discourse. For instance, had I written the anti-geotag story without the gatekeeping angle, covering the movement as one of moral righteousness against outdoors newcomers trampling the environment, I would’ve been white centering the story’s point of view. 

Another example comes from February 2021, in which School Library Journal published an issue with the coverline “Why White Children Need Diverse Books,” a piece that was immediately met with criticism. As Nicole Cardoza, founder of the “Anti-Racism Daily” newsletter, writes, “The statement on the cover isn’t factually wrong … but this is a disappointing example of white centering—when the case for change has to be rooted in the benefit of dominant culture. It’s a violent manipulation of privilege, a way to disregard the sentiments of a non-white person or community and prioritize white feelings instead.” 

While I can’t speak to School Library Journal’s intentions, the effect depicts the needs of white children ahead of non-white children, who need diverse books for far more important reasons—paramount among them being because they’ve traditionally been deprived of seeing characters who look like themselves as protagonists in children’s books, if they appear at all.  

The centering of whiteness can take myriad manifestations, but at its core, pushing back against it requires situating stories in an antiracist perspective that acknowledges the humanity of all individuals and doesn’t inherently assume the white gaze. 

Seek diverse sources. Ensuring that an article fairly represents the voices of the constituencies it’s about seems obvious, but in fact, there are multiple levels of complexity to consider. If you’re composing a piece that involves or impacts historically oppressed populations, it means actually including the perspectives of those individuals in the impacted population—not just experts or authority figures talking above the action on the ground. 

Striving to represent diverse voices also extends beyond stories that directly involve race, especially when it comes to seeking insight from positions of authority. When searching for experts to weigh in on a topic—historians, scientists, doctors, and so on—look to depict viewpoints as multicultural as the country we live in. In subtle ways, you’ll be subverting power structures by helping to reimagine the narrative around who can be what. 

Tyler Moss | Reporting Through Lens of Social Justice

Recognize the limitations of objectivity. Journalists are trained to report on subjects as if they’re doing so from a distance, maintaining a neutral, unbiased point of view. But by remaining neutral, we maintain the status quo. That approach can result in the portrayal of non-white story subjects as exotic or other (another theme consistent in white-centered media). For example, this type of portrayal could manifest in white writers venturing into non-white communities for a story, then writing about the experience using over the top, almost anthropological language, as if they’re scientists studying an entirely different species. Stronger storytelling is immersive and inclusive. Instead of reporting on a tragedy that happens in a community as a standalone event, it acknowledges the structural disadvantages within the community that precipitated it. Better yet, writers practicing antiracism could seek out stories of triumph within communities of color, counteracting media portrayals that regularly focus on crime and drugs. It’s important to write articles that are for people, not about people—uplifting voices and actively showcasing pathways to action. No longer can the journalistic institution assume the position of neutral observer. Our platforms must not only elevate issues, but also advocate for change. 

So-called objectivity can take other dangerous shapes. Some reporters take strides to represent opposing views in all of their work, obsessed with the notion of balance—but not every side of an issue deserves equal footing. If you juxtapose a quote from a Black parent whose child was shot by a police officer next to a platitude by the police commissioner, you’re draining the former’s voice of its power and putting the two statements on par, without taking into account the repeat patterns of police discrimination and brutality across the nation that puts the shooting into greater context as something more sinister than just an isolated incident. 

Investigate issues from a systemic perspective. Individual anecdotes are an essential grounding tool in all kinds of journalism, but their potency increases exponentially when combined with facts and data to show how one person’s story is a microcosm of much larger institutional issues. As Kendi writes, “[An antiracist future] can become real if we focus on power instead of people, if we focus on changing policy instead of groups of people.” 

An exemplar of this approach is Ta-Nehisi Coates’ landmark Atlantic article, “The Case for Reparations.” The longform feature draws readers in through the narrative of Clyde Ross and his family, who faced various forms of racism-rooted financial hardship across decades. But then Coates widens the lens, looking at the broader practice of discriminatory redlining in Chicago, and going back even further to laws put in place after the Civil War, using demographic statistics to trace their effects to the modern day (and to Ross in particular). 

The piece is multi-faceted and comprehensive, using Ross’ story as a prism to explain the pervading racial wealth gap and its direct relation to racist policy and practices throughout history. In doing so, he makes such a complete case for reparations that the piece has had real-world influence, contributing to momentum for the idea among Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives, as well as support from President Biden. Coates’ institutional investigation was so deep, so persuasive, that it managed to shift the entire conversation.  

Avoid monolithic characterizations. There can be a tendency among some writers to speak about non-white groups with diverse views and struggles as if they all fall into a single bucket. It’s a misrepresentation often seen in political reporting when describing blocks of voters: “the Black vote,” “the Hispanic vote.” This approach tends to ignore culture, lived experience, and the nuance of individual ethnic backgrounds, conflating and oversimplifying the beliefs of entire groups. For instance, an article talking about “the Latino vote” in Florida may neglect the fact that Cuban Americans, Venezuelan Americans, Puerto Ricans, and so on each care about different sets of issues and may respond to very different messaging, as the 2020 election revealed. 

The remedy is to talk to real people. Don’t assume every group has the same concerns and priorities. Report the distinctions and gradations.

Beware of Cultural Appropriation. In 2016, the magazine Bon Appétit published a short article and video with the headline, “PSA: This Is How You Should Be Eating Pho.” Two days later, the headline had been changed to “We’re in Love With This Pho” and the video had been removed, after it received a viral amount of outrage in comments and on social media. The problem? It featured a white chef and took a superior tone that appeared to be correcting others for eating the Vietnamese soup dish pho “wrong,” as the chef went on to demonstrate the “correct” way. 

This is an example of cultural appropriation—defined by Oxford Dictionaries as “the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society.” The white chef was taking inappropriate ownership of a food of Vietnamese origin. Even more, he seemed to insinuate that some Vietnamese people themselves could be consuming pho incorrectly. 

The same problem is frequently embodied in trend- or tastemaker-type pieces, in which white writers act as if they’ve just discovered something that has been a pillar of a more marginalized cultural group for decades. The takeaway is simple: Something isn’t new just because it hasn’t previously been in vogue with the dominant culture. 

At WD, we’ve made a conscientious effort to make surfacing issues of injustice and systemic discrimination in the writing world a more prominent pillar of our coverage and we still have work to do. Back in the May/June 2018 issue’s Editor’s Letter, I wrote that the magazine’s goal was, “to turn up the volume on voices that have historically been stifled,” and that mission remains more central than ever. Today, however, I’d offer an addendum—not only is it our imperative to amplify those voices, it’s also our duty to push all writers to use their platforms to shine light on issues of equity, across beats and disciplines. 

Only by doing so can we help ensure that the current national reckoning on race is more than just a flash in the pan, but the kindling for a real, enduring period of change. 

Reading & Resources

Forming a bedrock of foundational knowledge around antiracism, and around antiracist journalism and reporting in particular, is a critical component in establishing literacy around these abiding issues. While Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist is a seminal text that should sit on every bookshelf, here are some additional resources to further inform your learning journey:

Anti-Racism Daily Newsletter

Race Forward’s “Race Reporting Guide”

National Press Club Journalism Institute’s “What Would Antiracist Journalism Look Like” Panel Discussion

Nieman Journalism Lab’s “Race and the Newsroom: What Seven Research Studies Say”

The Opportunity Agenda’s “Media Representations and Impact on the Lives of Black Men and Boys”

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