Who Gets to Investigate? How Reporters of Color are Shut Out of Investigative Journalism

If investigative journalism keeps those in power accountable, then to whom is the media responding by restricting access to journalists of color?

When journalist Mary Annette Pember pitched a story on missing and murdered Indigenous women to mainstream media outlets years ago, she didn’t only get a “no” as a response. Some editors immediately dismissed her — and the importance of the lived experiences affecting thousands of indigenous women and girls.

“This was before this became a thing. The work for people like us, unfortunately — or maybe fortunately in the big picture — is just to nudge these things forward until white people notice,” explains Pember, national correspondent for Indian Country Today. “And then all of a sudden they ‘discover it’, like the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women. Good lord! That has not been an epidemic. It has been in existence since the European conquest.”

The ways in which journalists of color view and report on the world are often dismissed, minimized or appropriated within journalism. The systemic issues that impact historically excluded communities are often overlooked by mainstream media, or seen as “underreported” despite the committed coverage carried out by journalists of color, often with little resources.

When the issues become so visible that their coverage is considered mandatory, journalists of color are seen as not being objective enough due to their proximity to the community. On other occasions, journalists are restricted to only covering their communities — and when there is an opportunity to dig deeper into an investigation, resources are meager and editorial support is limited.

Navigating these realities is complex and demoralizing, impacting the well-being of journalists of color and materially excluding them from investigative work.

Terrence Fraser, a current fellow at the Associated Press, has found it really difficult to break into investigative journalism even though he had the opportunity to attend graduate school, take investigative courses, and build a strong network in places like ProPublica and the Ida B. Wells Society.

“I’m new in the industry and I need to pay bills. I support my family in a lot of ways and I’m the primary breadwinner, so I need to make sure that I’m having that income,” says Fraser. “A lot of times with investigative journalism you have to have that time and space.”

Fraser is interested in conducting investigations with a special focus on Caribbean communities and his goal is to break into investigative documentary filmmaking, but he has found it another area impossible to access. “It’s very hard to break into unless you are able to either fund your own stuff or get a team that is willing to work with you for cheap. It just feels difficult. I’ve definitely been trying to navigate it, but I feel like I’ve been working myself to death. It is what it is,” adds Fraser.

Just like Fraser, Pember believes problems of access and support in investigative journalism stem from issues endemic to the whole industry. “In general, we are kind of excluded from it,” she says.

Pember, based in Cincinnati, has reported on the high rates of sexual assault among Native women, the impact of historical trauma on Native communities, and environmental challenges on Native lands. In 2020, she received the Ida B. Wells Fellowship from Type Media Center that supports investigative reporters of color “who bring diverse backgrounds, experiences, and interests to their work.” This grant allowed Pember to focus on the legacy of Native American boarding schools.

“It was tremendously helpful. I mean, if I waited for mainstream journalism to do anything for me, nothing would happen. I just did it on my own and pushed forward,” says Pember.

Francisco Vara-Orta, who was recently named Director of Diversity and Inclusion at IRE, explains that the industry hasn’t done enough to ensure journalists of color can get on a pathway toward investigative journalism.

“At times, journalists of color feel imposter syndrome, wondering why they are even in the room in the first place, how are you worthy of doing that more in-depth work,” explains Vara-Orta. “I felt that too. I didn’t know what it was gonna take to be this legitimate and worthy to be able to do more in-depth reporting.”

As an English major, he experienced firsthand the hierarchy established for those who attended J-school. The long-lasting debate of whether journalism school is worthwhile flares up often, but the reality is that it’s still one of the great barriers that prevents journalists of color, mostly from less privileged backgrounds, from accessing investigative teams at major news outlets.

“Mainstream media outlets are still struggling with those habits and we are seeing the emergence of a lot of other newsrooms that are just starting from scratch and that are centering diversity and inclusion, race, gender, and LGQBT rights at the basis of their reporting,” explains Vara-Orta, who later earned a master’s degree in investigative/data journalism at the University of Missouri.

The white world of journalism

U.S. media has provided the institutional support for White supremacy to persist and thrive. Although the demographics of the United States keep shifting, Whiteness continues to offer the privilege and power to access greater resources and wealth. In journalism, Black, Indigenous, and racialized journalists are forced to navigate those same systems of inequality.

One of the main challenges investigative journalists face is getting the financial resources to sustain the long-term work. An investigative grant allowed independent journalist Jane C. Hu, a science journalist based in Seattle, to investigate how far-right extremists were targeting public health officials across the West due to COVID-19 regulations. However, she didn’t anticipate the risks of being targeted and the safety challenges she would face in executing her work in a country that has experienced different forms of conflicts, ranging from political instability, armed violence, and terrorism.

“After listening and reading other people’s work —and by other people I mean white journalists who have written about militia groups— in a lot of these stories they just showed up to these places and observed,” says Hu.

“I knew I wouldn’t be able to observe that and that I would have to find a big enough event that my safety wouldn’t be an issue or I wouldn’t immediately stand out.”

While covering issues outside of their communities can be challenging for journalists of color, and even risky, focusing on their community can also be a professional obstacle. The maintenance of White privilege has been supported by journalism’s efforts to label the perspectives and experiences of White reporters not only as neutral universal knowledge, but as the correct truth.

While their lived experiences within their own communities can lend crucial context and insight that white journalists lack, journalists of color who want to report on their own communities are often perceived to lack objectivity. This stems from the widespread tacit assumption that white viewpoints are “neutral,” and that if stories are presented through a non-white lens, those stories are not objective enough.

“What is objectivity? Who determines that?” asks Vara-Orta. “ A straight, cis gender, white male, US centered lens, middle class… and if you are not of one of those categories, you are at one point probably going to clash with the direction of management.”

Recently, Washington Post politics reporter Felicia Sonmez sued the paper and some of its current and former editors for discrimination against her as a sexual-assault survivor. She was not allowed to cover stories related to sexual assault and was pointed out for “taken a side on the issue” by speaking up about her alleged assault.

Similarly, Wesley Lowery, a former Black reporter on WaPo’s national desk, was reprimanded after questioning why a New York Times article on the Tea Party failed to include racial context.

Weaponizing objectivity only perpetuates the erasure of underserved communities and their lived experiences. Tired of not seeing her community reflected in the newspaper, Pember, who was an independent journalist before joining Indian Country Today, decided to focus more on writing it herself. But she was often told that she wasn’t the right person to cover her own community.

“I didn’t see my community reflected in the newspaper and the news very accurately. I really wanted to do a good job improving that, but I was told that since I was native I wouldn’t be objective enough to do Native stories,” she explains. “I finally got disgusted and I left. I just sort of created the job myself. I stopped looking for permission or approval from anybody, eventually people started coming to me.”

Permission to fail

Money, time and space are needed to carry out complex, long-term investigative project, as well as the opportunity to fail and explore other avenues if the investigation does not achieve the desired result. Since top level opportunities are not that widespread, many journalists of color know they can’t afford to fail since they’ve witnessed how the media, and society broadly, is more forgiving of white people.

“I don’t think the benefit of the doubt is extended to us. I don’t think the resources to fail, or to maybe not get it right on the first time, or to take a while to figure out what the story is, it’s afforded to us,” says Fraser. “I just don’t think that’s something that get afforded to Black journalists, I don’t think that time gets afforded to us.”

The stories that get told, and how, are largely determined by white editors; the merit of a story or the reporting on it is assessed through their gaze. Journalists of color often have to push white editors to recognize the importance of covering these communities thoroughly and fairly. This can be an emotionally draining and challenging process, and ends up putting in extra labor that white journalists don’t need to in order to progress in their careers. Likewise, journalists of color often have to enter into a coded negotiation process with editors about how much of the story can be told without making White readers uncomfortable.

“The difficult thing really has been, and I think this is true of all freelancers, but especially I think there’s an added layer if you’re a journalist of color, are finding the editors who really trust to let you tell the story you think is important,” says Hue. “I’ve definitely worked with editors before who, I don’t know how to put it, you just get a sense that they don’t really get it. Or they don’t really see why this angle that you’re pitching is interesting because it’s not necessarily interesting to them.”

Fraser finds it difficult to pursue a story outside of his current duties as an editorial fellow. Although he recognizes self-doubt is preventing him from pursuing investigative stories, he also doesn’t feel welcome in “extremely white institutions” and knows that his topics of interest are not considered newsworthy.

“Our black migrant communities only matter inside the United States,” he says. “If they are outside the U.S. they’re not deemed as something newsworthy to cover.”

Oftentimes, journalists of color are expected to only cover the racism or diversity beat. Hue is also a committee member of the Uproot project, a network for journalists of color who cover environmental issues. She has been building her way into the fields of science and environmental issues, which have been historically dominated by white men. However, editors still approach her for assignments focused on her own community to the exclusion of anything else.

“I do have specific interest in what the Asian American community is doing, but I want the opportunity to write other stuff too,” says Hue. “Some of this investigative stuff that I want to get into has nothing to do with my identity, and that should be fine.”

Being limited to report on the basis of racial, ethnic, and sexual identities invites a certain awkwardness. And even sometimes it can feel that in order to tell the stories of our communities, some angles or human stories have to be exploited to support an argument, without delving into the complexities of our diverse realities.

“When you look at the way the country is changing, and really with globalism, you are gonna get better stories by having more folks with different perspectives and life experiences, and who can get into the communities,” explains Vara-Orta. “We need to, because the gaps are growing, and we need to understand one another.”

Problems at the top

Throughout her decades-long career, Pember has seen multiple waves of collective attempts to diversify the newsroom. Journalists of color and organizations advocate tirelessly for more diversity. Corporate media responds forming a diversity committee to hire more journalists of color, but growth and retainment are not addressed or assigned enough resources. In the eighties, there was a big push to hire people of color; that’s how Pember became the first Native woman staff photographer at the Green Bay Press Gazette.

“They wanted to diversify. Faces on the cover of the paper, but without changing fundamentally,” Pember says. “When you join the rank, you’re measured by your ability to talk in that way and walk in that way. It’s lost. There’s really no value in having you there in the sense that they will say what you bring, but they don’t value what you bring. They dismiss it.”

Like Pember, Puerto Rican journalist Mc Nelly Torres has also seen these efforts many times in her 20 year long career. She agrees with Pember that if newsroom leadership don’t encourage and empower journalists of ethnic and racial minorities, the changes won’t come.

“Journalism itself is difficult for all people of color because it has always been controlled by white people, since basically institutional racism exists all over the United States,” Torres says.

She was the first Latina to be elected to the board of directors of the IRE, a grassroots nonprofit organization training and connecting journalists across the world. “Always screaming, but they don’t listen to one,” she says laughing, referring to the systemic barriers she has encountered in decision-making positions.

Currently a board member of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, and an editor at the Center for Public Integrity, Torres is trying to change newsroom leadership, which is still supremely white.

“For us to begin to see changes, what we have to do is have more people at the table where decisions are made, more managers who are the ones who give people jobs, more people who are the ones in the newsroom deciding how those articles are written, without relying on stereotypes against people of color,” she adds.

According to the Census Bureau, only 13% of people identifying as person of color are in newspaper leadership. Meanwhile, racial and ethnic minorities comprise almost 40% of the U.S. population.

Although there are not reliable numbers about the racial makeup of investigative teams, people of color in the newsrooms know that they remain overwhelmingly white.

“In an American room, most of the people in the investigative team are white people,” says Torres. “They are the favorites, but they are not necessarily the best.”

DIY efforts

A form of resistance against traditional investigative journalism’s gatekeeping has been the creation of independent publications with a focus on audiences of color. However, unlike mainstream media which is not officially recognized as “White media”, these spaces are often racialized and identified by a racial identity.

Maricarmen Cajahuaringa is one of those journalists who decided to start from scratch. She created her own outlet to share the stories about the Latin community in Connecticut, after spending months looking for a job. Boceto media is a bilingual digital platform managed only by Cajahuaringa focused on local politics and social justice.

“Mostly my drive was that I love to do journalism and that I am passionate about telling the realities of our communities: discrimination, injustices, how politics play a role in our communities and how that affects us if we don’t speak about it,” says Cajahuaringa.

While creating a platform can bring more independence and creative freedom, resources are still disproportionately concentrated in white spaces. Despite covering issues that directly affect and connect with the Hispanic community, Cajahuaringa often feels limited by the lack of resources to make her digital platform grow and profitable. Although she would like to delve into several of the stories she has reported on and “follow the money”, she doesn’t have the bandwidth or support.

“I don’t have the resources and I really need to focus on that more. Resources are important, whether financial or time resources. Or human resources, people helping me with an investigation. It’s very difficult,” explains Cajahuaringa.

Boceto has not only engaged with a Spanish-speaking community, but also with an English-speaking audience that either wants to improve its Spanish, or that’s interested in the English content Cajahuaringa tries to include sometimes. In addition to the lack of financial support, Cajahuaringa has also found it challenging to access and obtain information. On a few occasions, while working in the southern part of the country, she experienced discrimination when requesting information since people simply ignored her or made up excuses.

“It was probably my accent. They never said, they just completely ignored me. People don’t really say at your face why they ignore you. I feel we —Hispanic people, immigrant people, or any person of color whether they are Latinos, Asians— they know automatically how to identify racism,” says Cajahuaringa. “We know that sensation, that feeling of ‘Ok, I’m being discriminated [against] even though people don’t say it at your face.”

As mainstream media publicly commits to build a workforce that reflects the diversity of the communities they allegedly serve, efforts to increase diversity in the field of investigative journalism are still lagging —or lacking altogether. Journalists of color are still not seen as investigative reporters, and the path to even getting a chance to investigate further is narrowed and demoralizing. If investigative journalism keeps those in power accountable, then to whom is the media responding by restricting access to journalists of color? And which realities do they not want to be exposed?