Reporter’s Notebook: Telling The Story Of Human Suffering

When I started my training to be a journalist eight years ago, I didn’t want to be a black reporter who only reported on race. I was interested in the topic, but when people spoke of ambitious beats, they pointed to politics, finance, and culture. I wanted to be on the biggest stories of the day and was scared of being pigeonholed.

I started as a science journalist before switching to general news and loved the breadth of stories I worked on, both in the UK and internationally. But whenever I was asked what I wanted to specialise in, I didn’t have a clear answer. That changed once coronavirus spread across the UK and the biggest story of the year was right at my doorstep.

Like much of the country, I was glued to my TV to watch the daily Covid briefings at the beginning of the pandemic. Startled by the way the daily death figures were announced, stripping away what I felt was the human suffering central to the crisis, I emailed the Guardian’s head of news and executive editor in April 2020 and asked to cover deaths as a mini-specialism. As I spoke to loved ones for the obituaries I wrote of those who died, and explored the trends of death rates with the data team, the disproportionate impact that Covid-19 was having on black and minority ethnic communities was impossible to deny.

There wasn’t a biological explanation for why someone’s race made them more likely to die from coronavirus. Instead, Covid-19 thrived in communities with high levels of in-work poverty, poor housing, and lack of appropriate access to healthcare. Being from an ethnic minority in Britain made it much more likely to be at the bottom of the pile on each front, and thus more exposed to the deadly virus.

A group of people carrying a lot of yellow, pink and black Black Lives Matter placards close together, with the iron railings of Whitehall or Downing Street  behind
A Black Lives Matter demonstration outside Downing Street in July. Photograph: Vuk Valcic/SOPA Images/REX/Shutterstock

Simply put, longstanding racial injustice and economic inequality is at the heart of understanding the coronavirus pandemic, the most significant crisis since the second world war – which in turn makes it fundamental to understanding modern Britain.

The pandemic, and the death of George Floyd, was the catalyst for last summer’s Black Lives Matter demonstrations, the largest anti-racism protests in British history, and why the Guardian announced it would be hiring community affairs correspondents – the first in the paper’s history. The beat would be challenging: covering the lived experience of people of colour and telling the stories of burning economic injustices.

I thought I was scared of being pigeonholed when I was 21. But my fears then came from the racist notion that the stories of people of colour mattered less than our white counterparts. This is most aptly put by Ta-Nehisi Coates, the American author and journalist, who wrote in his book of essays We Were Eight Years in Power: “I could think of no better place to study that effort than from the perspective of those whom that society excluded and pillaged … I did not feel pigeonholed in my role. I felt advantaged.”

Almost a year into the role, it’s obvious to see how central our lives are to understanding who we are as a country and how we change – from highlighting the worrying gaps in vaccine uptake in different communities, to reporting on the government’s racial disparity report, which researchers distanced themselves from as it downplayed the impact of systemic racism, to exclusives that showed worrying levels of government interference in attempts to have controversial statues removed.

By covering community affair stories, I’ve been able to keep my finger on the pulse on the issues driving the national agenda. My beat largely focuses on the impact of Westminster policies on the most marginalised communities, but sometimes my stories bring me to the heart of government. When Samuel Kasumu, No 10’s former race adviser, resigned, I got the exclusive interview. It was an important one, with Kasumu warning of another Stephen Lawrence-style tragedy if members of the government continue to inflame the culture wars gripping parts of the nation.

But it’s the more mundane, everyday stories that I find myself most proud of. When I got the role, Hugh Muir, a senior assistant editor on the paper, told me to think of the bigger picture. When I sheepishly admitted to not looking at the print editions of the leading national newspapers each morning, he told me that I’d understand once I did.

I’ll continue doing what I have in the past year – listening to those who have been told they are ‘hard to reach’

I saw that the stories told of ethnic minorities were ones of endless pain and suffering. But we know our lives have always been about much more than that. It’s about balance. So reporting on racial inequality has to go hand in hand with more joyful things, whether that’s writing about the viral Somali TikTok song dominating streaming platforms or people’s deep attachment to the Notting Hill carnival.

As I sit down now in the morning to read the news leading the day, I see how nationals are better reflecting that: and the Guardian is leading the way, thanks in large part to my immensely talented colleagues.

It’s worth noting, however, that the Guardian hasn’t always got it right. My colleague Maya Wolfe-Robinson’s incisive story exploring the paper’s chequered history of race reporting for our 200th anniversary shows how far we’ve come and how far we have left to go.

I therefore write this piece knowing I stand on the shoulders of giants. I’m constantly learning in this role, and often turn to those who came before me. I’ll continue doing what I have in the past year – listening to those who have been told they are “hard to reach”.

I became a journalist because I love talking to people and hearing their stories. I cringe when I think of how painfully wrong I was to think reporting on race and inequality was sidelining me from the biggest stories of the day (to be fair to me, I was wrong about a lot of things when I was 21). I also never imagined I would get to be a specialist on a patch like this, where I’m talking to people whose lives aren’t dissimilar to the community I grew up in.

And my favourite thing about the job? When readers get in touch to tell me they’ve bought the paper, or ask how to get copies, because of a story I’d written. They see themselves in the paper and have a sense of ownership over the Guardian. We all should.

Source : https://www.theguardian.com/membership/2021/nov/22/community-reporting-these-stories-are-at-the-heart-of-modern-britain

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