Shadley: How and When To Write About Issues That Don’t Affect You


Rachel Rydalch Shelton

A portrait of Will Shadley taken on campus at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City on Dec. 7, 2021. (Photo by Rachel Rydalch Shelton | The Daily Utah Chronicle)

By Will Shadley, Opinion Writer


Journalism is an inherently individualistic endeavor. Everything I write has my name attached to it. More than just my name, everything I choose to write about and how I write about it, reflects my subjective experience. My lived experiences inform and affect my perception of any issue I cover. That’s something I must contend with when thinking about how I can contribute to issues that affect women, Indigenous peoples or any other identity that I don’t have the lived experience to fully understand.

However, this isn’t just my problem. This is a problem all journalists must reckon with. Journalism is a disproportionately white field, with 77% of America’s newsrooms being white while only 65% of all U.S. workers are. As journalists, it’s imperative that we recognize how our lived experiences influence issue coverage, and whether or not we should even cover certain issues in the first place.

Embracing Biased Journalism

If we’re reporting on issues that don’t affect us, then how do we do it? One way might be by reaching out to the people affected by the issue. That’s great — augmenting your perspective with someone else’s helps you understand an issue better. But that doesn’t get you any closer to objectivity. First, no group is a monolith. Holding up any single voice as “representative” of that group is deeply problematic. There will never be consensus within any group about how best to solve the problems faced by said group. Assuming so only reinforces the tendency to stereotype people from a group we don’t identify with. Second, because no group is a monolith, and because there is a range of opinions, who we choose to interview will dictate what opinions we get. And the type of person chosen is highly dependent on the type of person that we are as journalists. There’s no way to provide a truly objective opinion from a person or group, and that’s okay.

Rather than hide from subjectivity, we should embrace it. Journalism is all about providing a perspective. Even “objective” news stories require reporters to omit, add and organize information. The choices they make in that process equally reflect the journalist’s subjective experience.  I can only provide the perspective that I bring or the people that I choose to interview, to a given issue. But that, in and of itself, is valuable.

Should We Even Be Reporting on Issues That Don’t Affect Us?

Part of my hesitation to instantly accept that all journalists should cover all issues is the reality that we live in a world where journalists’ livelihood, wealth generation and power are intimately tied to journalism. Meaning that, to some extent, everything we choose to cover comes with the baggage of that issue being a commodity to journalists. Social issues, events and beliefs are, unfortunately, one of the raw materials of journalism. If we can successfully extract those materials, we benefit through career improvement, material wealth or social standing. When those issues that I, as a white journalist, am covering are issues that only affect say, Indigenous peoples, it’s hard to shake the feeling that I’m engaging in an exploitative practice.

One counterargument to that point is that I’m incorrectly thinking of journalism as a zero-sum game. It’s possible that my additional coverage bolsters the coverage of indigenous reporters and benefits them as well. However, I think that only applies when I genuinely have something to add. If I’m just spewing out an article about white solidarity, that performative action only benefits me. Publishing something purely to signal your virtues creates exploitative and uninteresting journalism.

A stronger counterargument is that the burden of reporting on issues that affect non-white people should not fall exclusively to non-white people. I agree. Additionally, non-white journalists shouldn’t be reduced to primarily covering issues that affect them if they don’t want to. One of the privileges I enjoy as a white journalist is the freedom to muse about mycology, Daylight Saving Time or noise pollution. Another is the heightened visibility I’m granted by parts of society. I can and should be responsible for reiterating to white people why they should care about racism or environmental justice, that burden should not fall on the shoulders of people who experience those injustices. Not only should I write those op-eds, I have a duty to.

As a news reporter or an opinion journalist, it’s important to highlight events or angles that have not been highlighted, even if they don’t affect us. And, to be clear, they do affect us, just maybe not directly. The problem of improving the coverage on minority issues has been misconstrued as one that can be solved by simply hiring more minority reporters. But injustices should not only be covered by the groups who experience them, but by anyone who sees injustices as a threat to building a just society. Failing to do so perpetuates a system that sweeps non-white issues under the rug, and we all suffer for it.

Still, there is no one size fits all solution to how and when to cover issues that don’t directly affect us. There’s no algorithm. No procedure. We must embrace our biases, question our intentions and recognize whether we have something meaningful to contribute. But most importantly, we must do it. We won’t always get it right, but the sheer act of trying, of making ourselves vulnerable to failure in the hopes that we can make the world a better place, is what journalism should be about. And while this is a piece for all journalists grappling with this issue, journalism is an inherently individualistic endeavor. I am by no means immune to some of the criticisms I make of journalists. Quite the contrary.


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