The pandemic exposed deep inequality. We shouldn’t forget that in our race to ‘normal’

Every year since I became a journalism professor, I’m asked to do this strange academic ritual called an “annual report.” In that report, I’m required to document every course I teach, every article I’ve written, every meeting of substance, every project. It’s a basic accounting of my time that the college can then use to tell me if I’m pulling my weight.

Of course it’s more complicated than that, but the process of accounting for everything I’ve done professionally always sneaks up on me, and a few days before it’s due, I’m usually scrambling to look at Facebook posts and calendar items to remember just what I’ve been up to.

Perhaps it’s the journalist in me, but when my college offered to let us write a “pandemic impact statement” as part of the annual report this year, I initially decided against it. Of course this was an extraordinary year, and of course it was hard, but I come from a news culture. When it breaks, you drop everything to cover it. Long days turn into long weeks, and you go with it. Also, as a war reporter, I don’t find anything special about an account of having made it.

But the more I reflected on the past year, the more I realized how tired — and even angry, I was. So I wrote a lead to my pandemic impact statement and said just that. “I am tired, and I’m angry.”

Marchers take part in a rally for social justice in 2020 in Philadelphia. (Photo by Jenny Spinner)

I realized that after more than a year living in a pandemic, trying to teach journalism and do journalism and be a parent, all in the same place, I’m really fatigued. What tires me the most is the expectation that we are returning to some kind of pre-pandemic normal. It also makes me angry. 

I have spent the past 14 months trying to keep three little people safe and alive, one of whom joined our family in the fall after four difficult months adopting him from Morocco. I’m tired because I’m raising three young Black boys in America. I’m tired because I’ve been unable to separate my home life with my work life as easily as I once did or felt required to do. For a year, they’ve shared the exact same place. 

I’m angry because the pandemic has exposed inequities and privilege in education, in health care, in the workplace, in caregiver roles. We are failing to address so many of these inequities as we move back to whatever “normal” is supposed to be. 

I don’t want to see us move back. I don’t think back was better, at a college or in a newsroom. Back denies people with disabilities the accommodations they’ve long sought. Back denies people different ways to access the workplace and to engage with each other. At a college in particular, but across journalism platforms as well, back denies neurodiverse people the multi-modalities that they need to process information.

Rather, I want to see us move forward with all of the insights and lessons we’ve learned over the past year about how we deliver content, in the classroom or on a news platform, about social and racial and class inequality, about the accessibility and accommodations that truly enable all of us to participate.

The pandemic has been devastating to many, and the most at risk are early career women and individuals from underrepresented minorities, particularly those with caregiving responsibilities. Gender inequality and intersectionality have created huge barriers for women of color. 

While I appreciate the need to strike a positive tone as we head into the fall, we are not confronting the trauma of the past 14 months and its impact on the most vulnerable members of our communities. I see us rushing back to normalcy — and I clearly understand the financial need for academic institutions, including my own, to do that. The financial pressure is similar for small news business owners. But we are doing so without recognizing the difficulties that exist and will persist in the coming months for many of us.

The challenge for all of us, in a college classroom or in a newsroom, is to figure out how we continue to dismantle the systemic racism and bias embedded in our culture and policies. They are there and to suggest otherwise gaslights the experiences of our colleagues of color or working parents, particularly mothers.  

We also need to stop demanding that our employees separate their work lives from their home lives. 

I, for one, am no longer willing to create several versions of myself who co-exist in order to be the mother of an autistic child, the mother of Black boys, the single parent, the journalist, the recovering war correspondent, the journal editor, the professor, the colleague. These parts of me exist together or we don’t exist. 

This story first appeared in Publisher’s Auxiliary, the only national publication serving America’s community newspapers. It is published by the National Newspaper Association. GJR is partnering with Pub Aux to re-print Jackie Spinner’s monthly “Local Matters” column on our website. Spinner is the editor of Gateway Journalism Review. Follow her on Twitter @jackiespinner. 

Differences don’t divide us. What divides us is our inability to accept that we are different.

This is the commencement address that GJR Editor Jackie Spinner delivered at the graduation ceremony for the College of Mass Communication and Media Arts on May 8. Spinner received an honorary doctorate in media arts.

Thank you.

Happy Mother’s Day.

Eid Mubarak all of you who are celebrating next week.

And congratulations to everyone of you who walked, crawled, ran, rode or were carried to this point. Whether you are here or joining us virtually. It’s an amazing achievement even under typical circumstances. 

These are still far from normal times.

I want to challenge you as you depart on the next part of your journey to take a moment to consider the world “normal.”

In my house, I’ve pretty much banned it. I have three small children who were born in Africa. They are now Black in America. My oldest son is autistic. We don’t look like most of our neighbors. It’s not just the fact that we are a transracial family. Or that my kids came to America as immigrants. I am a single mother and most of the families on our block have two parents. 

I’m not the only filmmaker but I am the only journalist. I’m the only one who has been to war and so much of my experience even now is shaped by the time I spent in Iraq and Afghanistan for The Washington Post. 

What is normal for us? 

GJR Editor Jackie Spinner receives an honorary doctorate in media arts on May 8 at SIUC commencement. She is being hooded by Provost Meera Komarraju. Chancellor Austin A. Lane stands behind the podium. (Photo by William H. Freivogel)

It’s probably not the same for you. In fact, if you look to the person to your left and the person to your right, you may see differences or you may not. Your journey to this point is shaped by where you grew up, how much money you had, the color of your skin, your age, your gender. All of those things have made our experiences difference even if we are now roommates or live on the same street. 

I think about the neighborhood where I grew up in central Illinois, the kids on the block there. I babysat for a Jewish family. But most of the families went to church on Sunday. The neighbors who lived next door to us were Black. But most everyone else was white. We had mostly two-parent households but not always. We had teachers and Union workers like my dad. We had accountants. We had neighbors who sold insurance and bought insurance or couldn’t’ afford insurance. A few of my neighbors had disabilities, some more visible than others. We had neighbors with mental health issues and physical health issues. We had neighbors who were born in America and neighbors who were born in other countries. 

You might be asking yourself? Why are you focusing on all of their differences? 

These differences are important because they not only inform who we are but they also inform the work we do. They will inform the relationships you will have at your first jobs after graduation. Your business partnerships. Your network.

Our differences are not what divide us. What divides us is our inability to accept that we are different. What divides us is our refusal to listen to a different viewpoint.

My challenge then is for you to suspend this idea of “normal.” Maybe you ban it from your own vocabulary.

Start with a hypothesis but be willing to abandon it.

Go with a hunch. Be open to the fact that it was wrong.

Tell your story. But tell other people’s stories, too.

This approach has made me an infinitely better professor and journalist and filmmaker, for sure.

I don’t assume all of my students learn or process information the same way I do.

I don’t assume that all of my colleagues have the same struggles. 

I don’t only interview or film people who look like more or grew like me or who think like me. 

College gave you a chance to break out from everything you’ve known, to learn new ideas, to challenge conventions, to have new experiences, to meet people who didn’t grow up the same way you do. It also affirmed the things you like about yourself, the values you have that are important to you.

Keep those.


Be open to change.

Be open to difference. 

Be open to the idea that your normal is not the best, the right way, the only way.

Congratulations, however you got here, wherever you’re going. 

Walk with purpose. 

Be the change the world needs to be a better place for all of us.

Covering hate: ‘This is not a geographic problem. It’s an American problem.’

In September 2018, racist flyers from a neo-Nazi group were left on cars parked at a community college in Southern Illinois. A few local news outlets reported on the incident and the college’s subsequent denouncement that followed.

But then the story was mostly dropped until the next year when the same flyers from the same group appeared a second time. This time a suspect was found and banned from the campus. He was never named in the media, however, and no additional reporting revealed the extent to which the organization, which is on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s list of hate groups, was active in Southern Illinois.

“The incident received only cursory coverage in the local media, and I think a lot of people — perhaps both in the media and the public at large — might have been taken by surprise that such a fringe element would reveal itself so explicitly,” said Geoff Ritter, managing editor of a string a small community papers, including the Carbondale Times, Murphysboro Times and Benton News.

The lack of coverage of a known hate group, which GJR is choosing not to name to avoid giving it more attention, shows the difficulty that many news outlets face in documenting hate and extremism in their communities, especially in the aftermath of the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. That failed insurrection, which left five people dead, including a police officer, highlighted how white supremacy and political violence has not only grown in recent years but also has been mainstreamed in many ways. 

One person was killed and dozens were injured after a car rammed counter-protestors during a rally of white nationalists in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. The white supremists and their supporters were protesting plans to remove a Confederate statue. (Photo by Stephen Melkisethian via Flickr)

Even as it has grown, community papers have struggled to document it because of a lack of resources but also because these stories are just hard to tell, especially as distrust and attacks on the media grew under former President Donald J. Trump. A 2020 Knight/Gallup poll found that while 84% of Americans say the news media is either critical or very important for a functioning democracy, 49% of those surveyed think the media is very biased and roughly three-quarters believe the owners of media companies are influencing coverage.

In October 2020, a man was arrested and charged for allegedly threatening to blow up the Belleville News-Democrat newsroom. In a voicemail left for a reporter, he complained that the newspaper was biased against Trump and had refused to publish his letters to the editor.

Todd Eschman, the News-Democrat’s senior editor, said when he first heard the voicemail message he thought about the 2018 shootings in the Capital Gazette newsroom in Annapolis in which five staff members were killed. How was it, he wondered, “that we have arrived at such a place in our history, both as a nation and as an industry, where journalists at a mid-sized regional outlets..have to be equipped with protective gear and the windows at our buildings have to be reinforced with bullet-resistant film.” Others in the News-Democrat newsroom had the same concern, he added.

Since the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, which led to Trump’s second impeachment but not a conviction,  the Department of Justice has pledged to renew its focus on domestic terrorism and domestic violent extremism. More than 300 people have been charged in connection with the Jan. 6 attack in one of the largest law enforcement sweeps in U.S. history.

The story is not one that emerged primarily from small and rural communities or even communities that mostly supported Trump, according to an analysis by the Daily Yonder, a Kentucky-based news outlet.

People arrested in connection with the Jan. 6 invasion are less likely than the overall population to be from rural counties, the analysis found.

About 14% of the U.S. population lives in rural, or nonmetropolitan, counties. Only 10% of the people arrested for the Capitol riot list their homes in one of these rural counties. That means rural people are underrepresented on the list of arrestees versus their share of the population, said Tim Marema, editor of the Daily Yonder, which covers rural communities and rural culture.

“It doesn’t surprise me because it’s proportional to where Americans live,” Marema said. “This is not a geographic program, it’s an American problem, and it shows up where we live.”

Documenting Hate

Shortly after the 2016 presidential election, ProPublica began an ambitious project called “Documenting Hate,” in which it ultimately partnered with more than 180 professional newsrooms, around 20 college papers and many journalism schools. All told, the non-profit news outlet collected more than 6,000 reporting tips and thousands of pages of police records on hate crime. It produced more than 230 stories, including a 2019 piece on the history of racism in Anna, Illinois

The Bellingham Herald in Washington state was one of the last news organizations to partner with ProPublica before the project ended after three years. Bellingham, a community of about 200,000 just south of the U.S.-Canada border, is a mostly white community. The marches and rallies for racial justice last summer there were peaceful compared to protests in Seattle to the south.

But the town also has a history of racism in which the newspaper played a role. In 2007, it issued an apology for its role in its coverage of a 1907 riot that resulted in the rounding up of East Indian mill workers. “It’s time to apologize for the venomous racism, for the demeaning talk, for the refusal to defend human beings against a mob because of their skin tone and ethnicity,” the paper notes to its readers “We apologize to the East Indian people in our community today, and to any right-thinking person who is disgusted by the actions this newspaper took in one of the darkest times in our community’s history. We are disgusted too.”

The paper gave readers a way to offer confidential tips of suspected hate crimes, explaining what one was and how to report it. In February of last year, before the summer’s Black Lives Matters protests, it also explained how to fight racism.

Editor Julie Shirley said the paper also has made a commitment to diversifying its sources, making exceptions for people whose voices might not otherwise be in the paper. “During the summer rallies, I allowed reporters to quote people as ‘a speaker’ or just their first name,” she said. “Rallies aren’t organized and there’s no list of speakers. And sometimes it was unclear about who the organizers even were. But we took a leap of faith and allowed for stories we would not have gotten had we required first and last names, city of residence, before we quoted them.”

False equivalency

As news outlets report on hate in their communities, the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy has published a list of 10 tips for covering white supremacy and far-right extremism. Among them, author Denise Marie-Ordway cautions news outlets from letting white supremacists use their own terms to describe themselves or even quoting them directly. “That’s because members of these groups often use code words or numbers in their remarks to signal their ideology to other extremists,” she writes. “Reporters who don’t recognize this coded language might unknowingly include it in their coverage.”

She also warns against amplifying the message of the hate groups, something Shirley also wanted to avoid in the Bellingham Herald’s coverage.

“In the past, we would hear anecdotally about hate crimes several times a year,” she told GJR. “But they were rarely reported officially so we found them hard to report on with no official sources. And, we didn’t want to write about incidents that only bring attention to offenders when we knew there would be no consequences. We decided to turn our frustration around, doing stories that explained the law and how readers can be allies.”

Gregory Perreault, an assistant professor of multimedia journalism at Appalachian State University, interviewed 18 journalists in 2019 as part of a research study that sought to understand how journalists conceive of their role in covering white nationalist rallies.

It found that journalists face numerous challenges in terms of not wanting to appear biased in order to gain access to sources but also not wanting to promote false equivalency as Trump did after the violent white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. A few days after the rally, Trump was asked by reporters about the protests, to which he responded that there were “very fine people on both sides.”

“I think one of the important things we know about these groups is that they desperately want the media oxygen to amplify their message,” he told GJR. “Journalists in some ways play right into this in their understandable interest in trying to provide a comprehensive picture of an event. This also explains why white supremacists are so devastatingly effective in their use of social media–leveraging algorithms, memes–to find ways to share their messaging. Their visibility in the last four years is certainly not an accident. They clearly ot only gained a strong sense of how to ‘play’ the social media game, but also felt emboldened by our prior president.”

The trick then is to put white supremacy into context. “A common refrain among journalists was that covering white nationalist rallies was necessary to help people understand an evil side of their community,” according to the research findings. “Moreover, respondents expressed a desire to show members of their communities that white nationalism was more insidiously complex than conventional wisdom would suggest.”

That’s what Ritter, the managing editor of the Carbondale Times, has found.

“I think of the scene in ‘The Blues Brothers’ with the Illinois Nazis,” he said. “We always knew there were hate groups out there, and they were a little easier to identify. Now, at least to me, it seems, the internet has allowed this kind of thinking to proliferate in the obvious ways, but it’s made the hate groups a lot more difficult to identify. That’s part of what was so shocking about Jan. 6; you could see clearly how all of these fringe movements had networked and come together from the grassroots. Some of them might have looked like the ‘Illinois Nazis’ in the movie, but most did not. The profile of the woman who was shot and killed was devastatingly similar to that of a good friend of mine whose mind also seems to have been twisted by these dark corners of the internet, despite her otherwise sound mind and reason.”

He doesn’t have the answer to how local papers like his can better report the story.

“Obviously, more resources would make it easier, but that’s sort of a stock answer to how to fix things in journalism,” he said. “The problem gets even more difficult because the very people pulled into these movements are ones now disinclined toward trusting anything we report, so I don’t know.”

One way journalists could start trying to understand better, he said, is to explore the online reaction to local coverage.

“Some of this ugliness is rearing its head in our own comments sections,” he said. “I see it every day on the local television station’s Facebook page.

Eschman, the senior editor in Belleville, said one of the difficulties is that “it’s not all Klan members or Proud Boys.”

Those organizations “don’t get much ink from us due to the common industry concern that coverage could legitimize their respective messages. But hate isn’t most commonly expressed in cross burnings by people in white sheets. Covering attempts to mainstream it has got to be a concern.”

As an example, he said, Mary Miller, a freshman representative from the 15th Congressional District that represents southeastern Illinois, quoted Adolph Hitler in her first public address in D.C. After the News-Democrat (and others, eventually) reported it, she apologized, saying she regretted the reference but defended the words. Her point, she said, was that movements grow best when the youth are properly engaged. 

“From a reader’s standpoint, isn’t it reasonable to wonder how an elected federal lawmaker, from a sea of similar sentiments expressed by countless others, came by an obscure line from a speech given by Hitler more than 80 years ago?” Eschman said. “Was this an attempt by Miller to mainstream the author of mass genocide? And who, exactly, does she represent besides the people who elected her?”

News coverage can’t ignore those questions, he said, nor can it call comments by an elected lawmaker a “one off.” 

“There is a part of me, however, that has the same worry that covering her legitimizes some potentially rogue ideals to others,” he said.

But it’s also tricky walking the line between true hate and basic fear of the unfamiliar. The News-Democrat’s efforts in that regard have been “more conservative, sensitive and — again, this is strictly my view — useful,” Eschman said.

Kelsey Landis reported on a Black Lives Matter protest in Anna for the News-Democrat last summer. “There were opposing opinions and, of course, some confrontations,” Eschman said. “Kelsey handled the tensions with a lot of care and expressed the varying views fairly and without judgement. It was textbook, street-level journalism that followed the basic rules of style and ethics.”

But there are still barriers.

When the News-Democrat covered another Black Lives Matter demonstration at the public square in Highland, Illinois, in September that drew counter-protestors, the reporter, Megan Vallely tried to talk to both groups. Black Lives Matters demonstrators spoke freely on the record to Vallely, who reports for the News-Democrat through a Report for America grant. “But she was rebuffed by demonstrators on the other side of the police line because they didn’t trust the ‘fake news’” Eschman said. 

Miller, for that matter, also has never returned a call from the News-Democrat.

Jackie Spinner is the editor of Gateway Journalism Review and an associate professor at Columbia College Chicago. This story is on the cover of the spring 2021 issues of the magazine.

Illinois lawmakers want to strip newspapers of lucrative job of publishing public notices

Newspapers would have a more limited role in publishing public notices in print or online under a proposal moving through the Illinois legislature.

The House bill would give local governments and agencies the option of publishing notices about public hearings, abandoned properties and youth jobs on their own websites.

Illinois currently requires that newspapers publish the public notices, and in turn, all of the notices are collected on an online state database that is funded and maintained by the newspapers. The measure would eliminate the requirement that the notices be put on the statewide website.

“Newspapers play a vital role,” said Sam Fisher, president and chief executive of the Illinois Press Association. “We certify the process.”

(Photo by Tom Woodward via Flickr)

The Illinois Press Association estimates that only half of the 7,000 units of government in Illinois have websites. “So instead of having them found in one place, taxpayers would have to search each site individually for the ones that exist to get the notice,” Fisher said. “Who is going to guarantee that there will be compliance as we know there’s an issue now with meeting required meeting notifications, minutes and agendas?”

The effort in Illinois is just the latest in a series of proposals in state legislatures across the country that seem to come up almost annually, including in Florida again this year. In many cases, state press associations have been able to lobby effectively to stop them from becoming law–but not always.

In 2020, Connecticut courts moved legal notices to their own websites, bypassing newspapers that had long published them. In North Carolina, lawmakers are using a loophole in state law to push through measures that allow local governments to publish notices of public hearings on their own websites. It also would impact attorneys who are required to publish notices about real estate and other matters. By grouping counties together instead of addressing the issue statewide, the lawmakers essentially have created a local bill that cannot be vetoed by the governor who opposes the switch. One county in North Carolina already has such a provision to publish its own public notices.

Legislators who are sponsoring the measures in Illinois and elsewhere say they are trying to help governments save money by basically moving the publication of the notices in-house instead of having to pay newspapers to do it.

““It’s 2021, and if the pandemic has taught us anything, we need to do more with less,” said Illinois Rep. Jonathan Carroll, a Democrat from suburban Chicago and one of the sponsors of the legislation. “While I understand the importance of these announcements, there’s no reason why this information can’t be provided online. Everything must evolve.”

Press advocates counter that the reach of local media is far greater even if newspaper circulation is in decline because the notices often appear online and in a searchable central repository like they are in Illinois and nearly every other state, including the District of Columbia. They also argue that community papers remain the most trusted source of information in many communities.

“Nobody can deny that local newspapers aren’t where they were at 20 or 30 years ago with circulation and readership,” said Richard Karpel, executive director of the Public Notice Resource Center, a nonprofit that promotes the value of newspaper-published public notices. 

But it’s not accurate to say that the notices aren’t already available online, he said. “They are on the web because newspapers put them on the web. People make assumptions about this issue.”

In Indiana, the Hoosier State Press Association is working with state lawmakers to come up with a solution. 

Stephen Key, executive director, said he’s pledged to have a proposal by this summer that would “modernize” public notices. Indiana also has a central database the press association maintains–like Illinois does–but notices are still required to appear in print. 

Key said the issue has come up every year for the past 21 sessions, with more than 91 bills that impact public notice.

“We want to address that with a proposal that allows for a transition from print-centric to digital-centric,” he said, adding that any solution must be accessible to the public, have a certification process that the notice is published properly and an archive for historical and legal purposes. He said notices also need to go through a “independent conduit” because government entities may not post notices that could be controversial. 

“The local government people want to put it on their websites, and we have to argue that nobody is going to find them or see them there,” he said. 

Karpel, of the Public Notice Resource Center,  said many of the efforts to block newspapers from publishing the public notices are political.

“One of the two major parties, one of their top policy issues is the media is evil,” he said. “They’ve gotten to that point. In many places, especially GOP majority states, you have legislators looking to exact revenge. That’s a big part of what we have going on in Florida. They end up being mad at the big city papers and hurt the smaller community papers.”

In Illinois, Fisher and others are concerned that local government units simply will not comply with the proposed law to post the notices to their websites.

A 2017 investigation from the Better Government Association found that government agencies routinely–and often without consequence-violate public records laws. Not only did agencies ignore requests for public information but they often improperly denied them more than half of the time, according to the analysis from the watchdog group.

Earlier this year, the Newspaper Association Managers Inc., a consortium of North American trade associations representing the industry, launched a website aimed at promoting legal notices in newspapers.

Newspapers undoubtedly would be hurt financially if they no longer had income–even at reduced rates, from publishing public notices, a practice that dates back to colonial times. 

But Fisher said the issue is about more than money.

“What’s the price of transparency?” he said. “If there is ever a time we need more transparency it’s now. We have increased distrust in government.”

Jackie Spinner is the editor of Gateway Journalism Review and an associate professor at Columbia College Chicago. She is a former staff writer for The Washington Post.