The Best Journalism of 2020: Covering Racial Justice

The Best Journalism of 2020: Covering Racial Justice

Protesters face off with police outside the White House in Washington, DC, early on May 30, 2020. (Photo by Eric BARADAT / AFP) (Photo by ERIC BARADAT/AFP via Getty Images)

This article originally appeared in Columbia Journalism Review.

THIS YEAR, MANY NEWS OUTLETS covered widespread opposition to racism and police brutality—from the kneejerk responses to the more substantive efforts—with a newfound urgency. They also grappled with their own legacies, applying a critical lens to their pasts, locating the same rotten systems at play in their archives—a process that has helped surface critical, long-suppressed conversations. Driving the industry’s confrontations with racism and other forms of institutional discrimination are BIPOC and movement journalists, working in tandem with communities that have long been trivialized in the news.


Reckoning with white supremacy: Five fundamentals for white folks

By Lovey Cooper

At a time when companies still find comfort in limiting discussions to diversity and inclusion, Scalawag is one of the very few journalism organizations calling out white supremacy. Lovey Cooper, its managing editor, gets straight to the point in this guide, putting the long line of Black people killed at the hands of police and vigilantes into context. These deaths are not just one-off events, but in fact are the results of a society working as intended: “From slavery to secession, the KKK to ‘states rights’ strategies, from Jim Crow to mass incarceration—we’ve been here before,” she writes.


Immigrants allege mistreatment by Georgia doctor and whistleblower

By Tina Vasquez

This report of forced hysterectomies performed on detained immigrant women in Georgia was something out of a horror story. Prism’s Tina Vasquez gave women detained at the Irwin County Detention Center the space to tell their stories; in doing so, she revealed a more complicated dynamic than most breaking-news coverage offered—“both of the doctor who allegedly sterilized detained women without their consent and of the nurse who blew the whistle on them,” she tweeted in September.


Abolition’s Promise

By Josie Duffy Rice

Amid calls to “Defund the Police,” mainstream news frequently treated a movement as a mere rallying cry, rather than a platform. Such superficial, ahistorical coverage does a disservice to the conversation around police brutality. Josie Duffy Rice’s Vanity Fair story, however, helped keep discussions moving. As Rice explains, the concept of defunding the police is not so far off: many Americans already live in a world where police don’t patrol their streets and prisons don’t bookend their communities.


Media 2070: An Invitation to Dream Up Media Reparations [PDF]

By Media 2070

As many journalistic organizations attempt to reckon with their racist histories, Media 2070, a collaborative project from Black staff at Free Press, is planning ahead—50 years ahead, to be exact—on restitution for Black people who have been harmed by white-dominated media organizations and their role in perpetuating anti-Black racism. The essay opens with history—how journalism participated in, and benefited from, slavery—and then reaches into the future to imagine what a post-reparations media industry could look like.


Reparations: How Could It Work

By Rose Rimler and Anoa Changa

Reparations, like police abolition, is another topic given insufficient credence by mainstream media—even after Ta-Nehisi Coates made his case. When raised, the term is rarely accompanied by the logistical considerations necessary to give an audience greater details. For Gimlet’s Science Vs. podcast, Rose Rimler and Anoa Changa produced an episode that provides the details—including the calculations—necessary to determine the amount every Black descendant of slavery could receive. Their effort takes reparations out of an amorphous media conversation and places it firmly in reality.


Horror Stories

By Felipe De La Hoz

Much of the immigration reporting during the Trump administration portrayed the most twisted and cruel transgressions, in order to depict the inhumanity of the president’s policies. Writing for the Baffler, Felipe De La Hoz explains that covering isolated occurrences omits an important part of the story: the ways in which America’s immigration system, designed for “maximum suffering and minimal accountability,” is operating the way it was meant to. De La Hoz shares a fundamental truth about immigration in America, one that predates Trump’s term in office and deserves more consideration.


A Special Court Keeping Native Americans Out of Jail 

By Lisa Bartfai

Each of the episodes of the 70 Million podcast’s third season feature thoughtfully reported stories on criminal justice and its intersections with race and class. In episode five, Lisa Bartfai produces a piece on restorative justice and what it looks like in practice, via the experiences of the Native American Penobscot Nation in Maine. The story details how justice work and culture converge in order to create a system to keep people out of jail; it fits our current moment particularly well.


A ‘Glorious Poetic Rage’

By Jenna Wortham

Years after its inception, the Black Lives Matter movement took on new potency. “This is the biggest collective demonstration of civil unrest around state violence in our generation’s memory,” wrote Jenna Wortham in her essay for the New York Times, before raising a critical question: “Why now?” Wortham describes how the pandemic forced people to trust their phone screens more—which, in turn, made it impossible to not acknowledge the Black suffering that inundated timelines this year.