Posted by: structureofnews | September 20, 2021

News Worthy

Pauli Murray. Charcoal on paper, Gina Chua 2020

It’s been a while since I posted, I know. Events got in the way, notably trying to get people out of Afghanistan. But here I am again.

I’m in the middle of reading the autobiography of a remarkable person, Pauli Murray – a pivotal figure in legal and civil rights circles of the 20th century, and yet someone most people haven’t heard about. Why is that? What gets in the way of our ability to see stories that matter, and what stories are we now missing – what events aren’t considered “newsworthy” – because of the blind spots we have?

But first, a plug: I came to know about Pauli Murray via a great documentary about their life, My Name Is Pauli Murray, by Betsy West and Julie Cohen, who also directed RBG. It’s well-worth watching. Pauli was a feminist, civil rights pioneer, legal scholar and the architect of the winning arguments behind some critical U.S. Supreme Court rulings. The first African-American woman to be ordained an Episcopal minister. Also, queer, non-binary and possibly transgender. How did someone pack so much into a life that began as a young Black orphan in North Carolina? Watch the documentary, read the book; Pauli is well-worth getting to know.

But that’s not what this post is about. It’s a long one, so apologies in advance.

Early in the documentary, you learn that Pauli was arrested and jailed in 1940 for refusing to move back to the rear of a bus, as was required in then-segregated Virginia. That was 15 years before Rosa Park’s similar, but much more celebrated, act of civil disobedience. During a panel discussion with the filmmakers at Reuters, the question was asked: Why wasn’t there more coverage at the time of Pauli’s action?

The answer: There was. Just not in the mainstream press. Black newspapers covered it, as they did issues like lynchings and everyday discrimination. But this was rarely deemed “newsworthy” by the mainstream – white – press.

And that raises bigger questions about what we deem to be worthy of coverage, what constitutes “news”, whose voices we hear, and who gets to make those decisions.

This aren’t new questions, but they are important ones, not least in the wake of the racial justice protests around the world in the summer of 2020; and while it’s heartening to see that those events have raised newsrooms’ sensitivities to those kinds of stories, it also raises the question about what other stories we might be missing, what other as-yet-undiscovered blind spots we might have.

Sometimes we miss stories because we don’t have connections into communities where things are happening; that’s a problem of a lack of diversity in newsrooms (and not just of gender and ethnicity, but also of class and background). Sometimes editors dismiss ideas because they don’t jive with their view of what’s important; that’s a problem of mistaking one’s viewpoint for being the most valid viewpoint. And Gary Younge, a journalist and academic, notes in an incredibly insightful piece that sometimes we don’t pursue important stories because they are – regrettably – just not out of the ordinary.

Detroit’s two main newspapers never even saw fit to mention the name of Brandon Martell Moore when they described how a 16-year-old had been shot dead outside National Wholesale Liquidators after a tussle with a security guard. They barely rewrote the police press release. It was a news in brief. Brandon, it turned out, was in the store with his cousins and his uncle. The store had a policy that children should not be unaccompanied. But when the uncle went to pay, the kids stayed to look at some video games. A security guard told them to get out. They told him they were with his uncle. The guard got physical. Brandon’s older brother fought back. When they saw the guard’s gun fly out of his pocket they all started to run. The guard got down on one knee, put one arm on top of the other, started trying to take them out. He shot Brandon in the back and killed him.

That in itself is worth more than a paragraph. But then came what should have made banner headlines. The guard, it turned out, was an off-duty cop. In 1971, he was sacked from the force after he was involved in a fatal hit-and-run accident while under the influence of alcohol. He was reinstated in 1974 on appeal. Five years later, he shot dead an armed and drunk 31-year-old man while in a neighborhood dispute. Five years after that, he shot his wife in the side during a domestic dispute in which he claimed she lunged at him with a pair of scissors.

This was the man who killed Brandon. This was the story not worth telling.

Then he adds:

This is less the product of malign neglect than the unconscious omissions born from the dead weight of power and privilege that makes the poor and dark in America invisible. In short, there are places in almost every American city where children and teens are expected to get shot; areas where the deaths of young people by gun fire does not contradict a city’s general understanding of how the world should work but confirms it.

He’s talking here about gun violence, but it could be anything.

To be sure, news organizations should be serving their communities and audiences by providing them information that matters to them, and it may well be that what’s news to you isn’t of importance to, say, the readership on the other side of the world. There’s a reason international stories often get edited to highlight a local angle in newspapers around the world, to make them more relevant and useful to those readers. That’s just good journalism.

But it’s a fine line between doing that and pandering to an audiences’ biases, or making broad assumptions of what information will be valuable to them – even if they don’t know they need to know it. As Cherian George, a old friend and a professor of journalism in Hong Kong notes in a recent report on the press in Asia for the Judith Neilson Institute about the widespread antipathy for the Rohingya minority in Myanmar:

The state-owned Global New Light of Myanmar newspaper is an active producer of anti-Rohingya hate speech.

Even celebrated pro-democracy outlets Irrawaddy and Democratic Voice of Burma slipped into using the government’s preferred term ‘Bengali’ when talking about Rohingya.

So how do we fix this?

First, we have to recognize it’s an issue. We can’t see every story, build ties to every community, understand every nuance of every event. But we can do better. Newsroom diversity – of all kinds – helps dramatically. But it isn’t enough. It’s impossible to have every demographic, every experience, every identity in every newsroom, and especially in smaller newsrooms. But more points of view, more contacts with more communities, help drive broader and more inclusive thinking about what a story is. Expanding sources is important. So is building a process and culture that’s more conducive to questioning received wisdom on what constitutes a story, and perhaps more risk-taking to explore expanding those boundaries.

Even rethinking what news is – and here I hark back, as always, to structured journalism – can reframe what matters and to whom. The late, lamented Homicide Watch DC decided to cover all murders in the U.S. capital, not just the “newsworthy” ones, and in doing so brought much needed journalism to a historically underserved community.

To circle back to the beginning of this post – Pauli Murray was clearly an incredibly important figure of the previous century, yet a largely unknown one. Being Black and female in an era of segregation and discrimination clearly played a part in that anonymity; so too, perhaps, was being queer. We’d like to think that, if Pauli was around today, it would harder to dismiss their story given our more modern viewpoints. And that may well be true.

But the editors and journalists that ignored Pauli back then probably weren’t all racists, or misogynists, or even particularly bad people. As we (hopefully) aren’t, either.

So what stories are we missing today?


  1. […] And especially happy to have a chance to talk, in short remarks when accepting the award, about how we need to not only work to make sure our newsrooms reflect the communities they serve, but also to ensure that our coverage more accurately reflects the world we live in. […]

  2. […] is absolutely right: Words matter, and how we use them matter. Beyond news judgment – itself a whole area we can and should explore – and the framing of stories (ditto), even simple, declarative, uncontroversial factual […]

  3. Perhaps the reason why Pauli wasn’t featured at the forefront of the civil rights movement is because society wasn’t ready at that time. It doesn’t obscure the fact that what she did was significant and trail-blazing.

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