Historical context will improve local journalism

“If historical context about racial discrimination is on the checklist for every story journalists pursue, it will change how we write about labor, education, health care, transportation, crime, technology, and the environment.”

Efforts to prevent schools from teaching about our country’s history of racial violence and discrimination will lead to better local journalism about race and inequality in 2022. For the first time in generations, some newsrooms will start to question their own understanding of how the past has shaped who has wealth, power, and problems in their communities — and how their own narratives shaped that understanding.

While Nikole Hannah-Jones’ 1619 Project has challenged the dominant white narrative of U.S. history, it’s the scrambling, over-the-top reaction to it by those whose power relies on the policies it helped justify that will awaken local newsrooms.

The word “redlining” is showing up in local news stories about current problems with increased frequency — glimpses of acknowledgement that housing discrimination shaped the modern identity and disparate wealth of almost every major city and town in the country.

If historical context about racial discrimination is on the checklist for every story journalists pursue, it will change how we write about labor, education, health care, transportation, crime, technology, and the environment.

A starting point for some will be to write about how the telling of local history has been warped to protect and perpetuate the power of those who benefited from that discrimination. That’s where coverage of the backlash to the 1619 Project and Critical Race Theory at the school board level should naturally lead. A few are even daring to write about how their own local newspapers, TV, and radio stations led that past propaganda effort, through either outright complicity or casual deference to power.

Newsrooms — realizing they can’t put out accurate and meaningful journalism without giving historical context the weight it deserves — will insist that reporters and editors be serious students of this history. Stories about unequal outcomes by race, ethnicity, gender, or other demographic factors will be rejected as incomplete without it.

Matt DeRienzo is editor-in-chief of the Center for Public Integrity.

Efforts to prevent schools from teaching about our country’s history of racial violence and discrimination will lead to better local journalism about race and inequality in 2022. For the first time in generations, some newsrooms will start to question their own understanding of how the past has shaped who has wealth, power, and problems in their communities — and how their own narratives shaped that understanding.

While Nikole Hannah-Jones’ 1619 Project has challenged the dominant white narrative of U.S. history, it’s the scrambling, over-the-top reaction to it by those whose power relies on the policies it helped justify that will awaken local newsrooms.

The word “redlining” is showing up in local news stories about current problems with increased frequency — glimpses of acknowledgement that housing discrimination shaped the modern identity and disparate wealth of almost every major city and town in the country.

If historical context about racial discrimination is on the checklist for every story journalists pursue, it will change how we write about labor, education, health care, transportation, crime, technology, and the environment.

A starting point for some will be to write about how the telling of local history has been warped to protect and perpetuate the power of those who benefited from that discrimination. That’s where coverage of the backlash to the 1619 Project and Critical Race Theory at the school board level should naturally lead. A few are even daring to write about how their own local newspapers, TV, and radio stations led that past propaganda effort, through either outright complicity or casual deference to power.

Newsrooms — realizing they can’t put out accurate and meaningful journalism without giving historical context the weight it deserves — will insist that reporters and editors be serious students of this history. Stories about unequal outcomes by race, ethnicity, gender, or other demographic factors will be rejected as incomplete without it.

Matt DeRienzo is editor-in-chief of the Center for Public Integrity.

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