Real people are behind the data covering ‘undercovered’ communities

person working on large dataset (depositphotos)

By Kimberly Cataudella

Nausheen Husain, Jan Diehm and Mark Walker are three journalists who cover undercovered communities. Their advice to other reporters who want to do the same: Know when to walk away.

The three spoke March 6 at the NICAR conference in New Orleans about best practices for covering underrepresented people and groups as well as where to find data to help cover these communities. But, they began by asking their audience: Should you be doing this story?

Husain, a data journalist who reports on migration and Chicago’s Muslim communities for the Chicago Tribune, said journalists should ask themselves a series of questions to ensure they can do the story justice

Do you have the time, resources and editor support to understand the nuances of the story?

Husain differentiated between stories that “humanize” the community and those that reveal structural discrimination. Both are important, she said, but you and your editor must determine which path you’re going to take early on. Is your story trying to comfort your mainstream audience, or is it trying to reveal structural issues?

Do you understand the issue well enough to go beyond “both-sides-ing” the story?

Husain and Diehm, a journalist-engineer at The Pudding, stressed the importance of explanatory journalism in delving into undercovered communities.

Diehm said journalists need to remember that people with real stories are behind your data, so you have to hit a sweet spot between the “quantitative” (what numbers tell you) and the “qualitative” (what people tell you). 

Are you able to do the story without using your friends in these communities as free labor?

Husain, a Muslim, talked about the line between relying on diverse coworkers to ensure your stories are accurate and relying on those coworkers so heavily that you wind up defining them only by their sexuality, race, ability or other diverse identity. 

Husain has written stories about disabled Muslims’ altered Ramadan rituals and mosques’ increasing diversity in female and LGBTQ leaders. Her religious identity and background allow her to report on the issues of her community, and she says she’s happy to answer questions about such things as Muslims’ prayer rituals and clothing. 

Diehm, a member of the LGBTQ community, and Walker, who is black, also said they were happy to answer colleagues’ questions about issues they cover in their communities. But all warned about over-reliance on co-workers for information or guidance.

Husain said  that a good question to ask your diverse sources is, “What else can you talk about?” Reporters can quote people of color and queer people on issues that matter to everyone, not simply about issues unique to them. 

Do you have sources to explain the flaws and shortcomings of the data?

Walker, a FOIA researcher for The New York Times, said one reason that many communities are  undercovered is because data about issues directly pertaining to their community is not collected or is incomplete. 

Reporters can use government data from the Census, the U.S. Treasury Department and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Public-opinion data is available through Gallup and the Pew Research Center. These sources can lead to a “needle-in-the-haystack” approach in discovering a story or as fuel for a human-interest story.

Instead, according to Walker, reporters should ensure that they have trusted sources from all walks of life who can shed light on any data that’s being used. Diehm gave an example of gender identity; the Census only asks for “male” and “female” while many use different gender identifiers.

Without being in touch with members of the communities that journalists are covering, they cannot pinpoint the shortcomings of the data and work to ensure that their stories are accurately sourced and well-represented.