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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Student Commentary: On Race, Class and Privilege In The News Industry

In this article, a UW journalism student challenges a New York Times writer on the ethics of reporting complex urban stories.

by Christian Beltz, journalism student, UW-Madison

Annie Lowrey’s recent article “Washington’s Economic Boom, Financed by You” for The New York Times detailed the economic surge our nation’s capital has been experiencing over the past decade. With rich description, Lowrey’s piece takes the stance of the common citizen, quick to denounce the modern, high-end condominiums that stood in place of more affordable housing.

I do not wish to question Lowrey’s authority as a journalist. Her Harvard degree and swift ascent at the Times a mere four years after graduation are both admirable achievements. However, it is through this maximization of her own privilege that Lowrey falls victim to the same pitfalls as many of her contemporaries, who are quick to challenge others on their elitist leanings, but unwilling to acknowledge their own.

She made jabs at the young bourgeoisie moving into these deluxe digs and their “low-level but cushy private sector jobs.” She chides the ego of the man responsible for these new buildings, Jim Abdo and his “hulking Range Rover.” Lowrey even addresses the federal government’s hand in creating the affluent bubble, citing that for every dollar spent by the federal government, 15 cents are distributed back into the local economy in Washington D.C.

Yes, Lowrey makes her stand as the average American, asking the questions and challenging those in positions of power, However, there is one aspect of this discussion she fails to address: race.

Sure, the word “race” is mentioned, but that’s about all. It seems as if Lowrey invokes the word simply to avoid criticism and make the claim that she does indeed acknowledge the racial component. It is there but goes unexamined, unexplored, a simple head nod in the direction of the elephant in the room.

Had she decided to elaborate on this issue she may have mentioned how the gentrification of the many historic neighborhoods disproportionally affect communities of color. She could have cited U.S. Census statistics which note how the black population in Washington D.C. has dropped eleven percent over the past decade, while the white population has seen an increase of comparable amount. She could have connected this demographic relocation with the fact that it occurred during the same time period as the city’s economic boom.

Lowrey might have even discussed the huge disparity in unemployment rates between races.  While white unemployment stabilized during the economic boom to about three percent, black unemployment skyrocketed to 20 percent.  Numbers aside, she could have had a discussion about how this exodus might affect the culture of Washington D.C. But she didn’t.

By failing to acknowledge the complex racial dynamics so central to this discussion, does Lowrey breach a social journalism code of ethics? Well, when considering The New York Times Company Policy on Ethics in Journalism and the newspaper’s promise “to treat readers, news sources, advertisers and all parts of our society fairly and openly, and to be seen as doing so,” one could argue that by neglecting to include communities of color in her coverage, Lowrey is in direct breach of this moral contract.

Let us consider the “readers” this policy refers to. It’s no secret that the Times core readership is comprised mainly of white, affluent, middle-aged liberals, (according to The Times Media Kit the median age of a subscriber is 46, with an average income of about $73,000 per/year) so its no surprise that the issue of race would be omitted as doing so would disrupt the veiled, privileged reality within which of many of them reside.  Quality journalism however, serves to inform the masses and challenge conventional ways of thinking. Lowrey’s oversight (whether intentional or not) does a disservice not only to her readers, but also to the communities she is attempting fight for in her piece. Had she included their narrative, it would have only served to strengthen the argument she was already trying to make. This is not to say that neither Lowrey nor The Times are indifferent to systematic racial oppression, quite the opposite.

Past chronicles on race in the New York Times include its Pulitzer Prize winning series “How Race Is Lived in America,” published back in the summer of 2000. As the Pulitzer accolade would indicate, this series exemplifies the standard to which journalism should be held. The problem arises when the issue of race is compartmentalized solely to its own conversation rather than woven into the fabric of the social issues covered on a more frequent basis.

A large part of the problem when discussing the disconnect between communities of color and their representation in the media, is the fact that they lack a strong presence in the newsroom. According to figures from the American Society of Newspaper Editors, minority newsroom employment has seen a steady decline since 2006, at a rate significantly higher when compared to the overall decline of newsroom employees. As of 2012 ASNE puts the percentage of minorities in newsrooms at about 12 percent. This phenomenon comes at interesting point in our nations history, which in recent years has seen a meteoric rise in minority population growth, particularly in the Latino community.

This increasing disparity amongst minority populations and their representation in the newsrooms is an issue that transcends any particular writer or publication. The profession as a whole must be held accountable if the issue of race is to be brought to the front page of America’s doorstep.

While new media have given those in traditionally disadvantaged social groups the opportunity share their story, it by no means undermines that media power structure currently in place. Publishers, editors and writers must all take a good hard look at themselves and each other if they are to progress and prosper in the increasingly globalized news market.

Otherwise, they may fall victim to the same pitfalls as Lowrey, and further perpetuate American culture’s tendency of keeping honest dialogue about race buried beneath a minutia of politically correct terms and talks of a post-racial society. These issues are still here, and they won’t be going anywhere until we face them head on, even if it mean’s coming to terms with some of our own contributions to systems of oppression.

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Census Information:

City Unemployment Rate:

New York Times Ethics Code:

How Race Is Lived In America:


ASNE Statistics