History as a reporting tool

“In 2021, journalists must use history to report stories that proactively invite reckoning and, ultimately, accountability.”

Sometimes I type the word “reckoning” into the Google search bar and hit the “News” tab. I enjoy seeing what news editors think the world is reckoning with this week.

For example, as I write this, The Wall Street Journal is writing that “A Reckoning Looms for Commercial Real Estate — and Its Lenders.” A letter writer at the Helena Independent Record argues “A reckoning is coming for Republicans.” There are apparent reckonings on the way within the travel industry, the tech industry, and French soccer, too.

Somewhere in this news feed will be the phrase “racial reckoning” or “reckoning on race.” These are often headlines for stories about a person, place, or institution, usually white, acknowledging and sometimes confronting their own legacy and history of racism.

Sometimes these are good stories. Often they’re worth doing. But in 2021, let’s take it further. In 2021, journalists must use history to report stories that proactively invite reckoning and, ultimately, accountability.

A good example is this story from WBEZ and City Bureau. The team analyzed where banks lend money in Chicago, and found that the vast majority of the money loaned for housing purchases — 68.1 percent — went to majority-white neighborhoods. They could have left it there. It would still have been an important story about racial disparities. But they didn’t. “Call it modern-day redlining,” read the story’s dek. Reporters tied the present racial inequity perpetuated by banks today to similar behaviors of banks past. One outcome of the story was Chase Bank committing to lending $600 million in Chicago’s Black and Latino communities.

There are people and institutions who still need to be held accountable for their past actions, because the harm they caused remains among us. The WBEZ/City Bureau story was not a story about reckoning with the past. Rather, it was a story that connected past and present in a way that powerful institutions had to reckon with.

In 2021, newsrooms that use history as a reporting tool will shed needed light on present racial injustice. Many Americans lack accurate knowledge of history on a national and local level, which contribute to harmful myths that continue to depict people who are not white as inferior and explain away systems of oppression as simply incidental.

As storytellers, journalists have the power to help break these narratives. Just as we seek truth in our reporting, we must seek to correct and reframe racist and inaccurate narratives by telling the truth about the past, and reporting boldly about its connection to the present.

In 2021, “reckoning” is not the headline. Rather, the headline shows how our past failures to “reckon” have failed us all.

Logan Jaffe is an engagement reporter for ProPublica Illinois.

Sometimes I type the word “reckoning” into the Google search bar and hit the “News” tab. I enjoy seeing what news editors think the world is reckoning with this week.

For example, as I write this, The Wall Street Journal is writing that “A Reckoning Looms for Commercial Real Estate — and Its Lenders.” A letter writer at the Helena Independent Record argues “A reckoning is coming for Republicans.” There are apparent reckonings on the way within the travel industry, the tech industry, and French soccer, too.

Somewhere in this news feed will be the phrase “racial reckoning” or “reckoning on race.” These are often headlines for stories about a person, place, or institution, usually white, acknowledging and sometimes confronting their own legacy and history of racism.

Sometimes these are good stories. Often they’re worth doing. But in 2021, let’s take it further. In 2021, journalists must use history to report stories that proactively invite reckoning and, ultimately, accountability.

A good example is this story from WBEZ and City Bureau. The team analyzed where banks lend money in Chicago, and found that the vast majority of the money loaned for housing purchases — 68.1 percent — went to majority-white neighborhoods. They could have left it there. It would still have been an important story about racial disparities. But they didn’t. “Call it modern-day redlining,” read the story’s dek. Reporters tied the present racial inequity perpetuated by banks today to similar behaviors of banks past. One outcome of the story was Chase Bank committing to lending $600 million in Chicago’s Black and Latino communities.

There are people and institutions who still need to be held accountable for their past actions, because the harm they caused remains among us. The WBEZ/City Bureau story was not a story about reckoning with the past. Rather, it was a story that connected past and present in a way that powerful institutions had to reckon with.

In 2021, newsrooms that use history as a reporting tool will shed needed light on present racial injustice. Many Americans lack accurate knowledge of history on a national and local level, which contribute to harmful myths that continue to depict people who are not white as inferior and explain away systems of oppression as simply incidental.

As storytellers, journalists have the power to help break these narratives. Just as we seek truth in our reporting, we must seek to correct and reframe racist and inaccurate narratives by telling the truth about the past, and reporting boldly about its connection to the present.

In 2021, “reckoning” is not the headline. Rather, the headline shows how our past failures to “reckon” have failed us all.

Logan Jaffe is an engagement reporter for ProPublica Illinois.

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