Covering Marginalized Communities: Stories from the Field

November 19, 2018

Growing up, Maryam Mohamed doesn’t remember seeing any reporters who looked like her. Whenever she turned on CNN or FOX, she saw “white people, a few black people, and maybe a Latin American– but never an Arab.” She questioned why people of Middle Eastern descent, such as herself, couldn’t speak up for themselves. As she got older, her criticism became the motivating factor for her career choice– journalism. 


Mohamed isn’t the only one looking to change the world of journalism. In an era when the media is under major criticism from the public, students coming in to the journalism field are seeking better practices to accurately cover diverse communities. In support of their students, the UNC-CH School of Media and Journalism hosted the event “Covering Marginalized Communities: Stories from the Field” on November 19 featuring a panel of minority journalists including Mohamed, a senior in the school.  


Respect, empathy and sensitivity were the keywords of the night. Each panelist agreed that empathy is the most important practice in storytelling, while “parachuting” into communities without proper knowledge or experience is the worst. 


In some cases, practicing empathy means spending time with your story subject and being willing to experience their culture.


“Whenever they offered me something to eat, I would eat it. Because they’re going to do that,” Leoneda Inge, a reporter for WUNC, said about her time in Durban, South Africa. “Drink it, because you’re in their home, invading their privacy, and they could kick you out at anytime.”


Paul Cuadros, an associate professor at UNC-CH, had a similar sentiment. Having once been in front of the camera himself, he understands the toll that filming can take on story subjects. 


“If you’ve never been on the other side of being interviewed, being filmed, being recorded, again and again and again, you don’t know what you’re actually doing to people. When you’ve gone through that experience as a journalist, it changes your mind on how you actually report and what kind of level of sensitivity you need to have in order to do this job,” he said. 


Journalists are constantly reminded of the importance of sensitivity, especially when covering diverse communities. Barry Saunders, of, advised journalists just starting their careers to be general assignment reporters. 


“You will be an invaluable asset to any newsroom anywhere if you can cover [all kinds of] stories,” Saunders said.  


Inge’s advice was similar. She recommended that young journalists diversify their skill set. 


“I learned as a young journalist, you’re really only as good as the last story you do,” Inge said. “Always be prepared to cover just about anything.”


Many panelists cautioned against being pigeon-holed, when editors continually assign the same type of story to the same journalists. Cuadros advised that spending too much time in one community, even if it is your own, can present a risk to a journalist’s career. 


“Sometimes you really do want to cover your community, but you still want the freedom to be able to cover anything,” he said.


But Mohamed had a different perspective. 


“I’ve taken that burden upon myself to commit my life to having a career to serve [the Arab] community because of how disenfranchised it’s been for such a long amount of time,” said Mohamed. “That is the sole reason I went into journalism.”