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Home > Publications > Quill > Cultural studies serve as great story fodder


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Saturday, September 1, 2007
Cultural studies serve as great story fodder

Sally Lehrman

Sometimes newsrooms seem awfully compartmentalized. You’ve got the City Hall crew, various metro beats, maybe a “communities” or demographics reporter, the arts team, business, sports and, often hidden away in a room piled high with documents, the investigative team. They often only focus on their own special world.

Maybe that’s why so few reporters realize the great investigative opportunities hidden away in a region’s demographics.

Consider these recent studies:

•Twice as many single women as single men pay credit card rates higher than 20 percent. Similarly, two times as many blacks and Hispanics as whites pay credit card rates that high, according to data collected by the research group Demos.

•More than two-thirds of schools in California with a majority Hispanic and black student population don’t have enough college preparatory courses for everyone.

•Nearly four in 10 companies intentionally avoided hiring black, Asian American, Hispanic or American Indian workers in nine job categories, according to data from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission compiled in 2002. One third gave women a pass.

•Low-income black communities in pork-producing regions are three times as likely as other neighborhoods to have industrial hog facilities next door, according to researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. More than a nuisance, this proximity often leads to respiratory problems, poor water quality and declining property values.

By parsing data by race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or disability, reporters have been able to uncover and document important cases of inequities in government, business practices and community agencies.

For inspiration, check out these stories:

•The Chicago Reporter studied worker’s compensation insurance patterns. Jeff Kelly Lowenstein found that employers routinely avoided paying disability wages or for medical care when the injured worker was an immigrant who entered the country without papers. Immigrants hurt on the job weren’t eligible for help from six out of 16 disability service agencies. www.chicagoreporter.com

•Peggy Townsend at the Santa Cruz (Calif.) Sentinel spent three months investigating the effects of a local physician shortage. White, upper-middle-income residents enjoyed the best of care, she found, while poor Hispanic workers had to struggle to get anything from pain relief during labor to chemotherapy treatments. She traced the disparities to structural causes: reimbursement rates out of sync with soaring housing prices, high labor costs and an increasing proportion of uninsured and MediCal patients. www.santacruzsentinel.com/archive/2006/April/09/local/stories/01local.htm

•The Chicago Tribune analyzed law enforcement against drug dealers and found that “safe zones” intended to protect churches, schools and parks from drug dealing helped drive arrests and penalties that hit black people and Hispanics harder.

“In Illinois, studies show that more than 70 percent of the state’s illicit drug users are white, while 14 percent are black. But 65 percent of arrests for drug offenses are of African-Americans,” wrote reporter Darnell Little, who studied federal data to explain why. www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/chi-drugs_bd22jul22,1,2226176,full.story?ctrack=1&cset=true

If you overlay census data onto your reporting and analysis, you might uncover surprising inequities. Or you might substantiate what audiences already assume to be true.

Why do we request documents, create Excel files and sort information after all? Certainly, it’s not because journalists love math. We’re seeking truth, shining a light on injustice, giving voice to the voiceless.

Here are some resources that can set you on your way:

•The Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University has taken on issues related to sex discrimination on the job, in the courts and in health care, among other things. www.brandeis.edu/investigate/gender

•The Institute for Justice and Journalism offers fellowships and other support for in-depth projects in areas such as criminal justice, racial justice, border and immigration justice, and security and liberty in the post-9/11 era. www.justicejournalism.org

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