‘I can’t downplay the historic weight’: Black journalists reflect on covering the 2020 election

Written by on December 18, 2020

By Sojourner Ahebee | Votebeat

Jenna Flanagan says she has never felt the weight of impartiality heavier than while covering the 2020 general election.

Flanagan, a Black journalist at MetroFocus, is a host on a current affairs show at the multi-platform New York-based magazine.

“As journalists it is our job to inform people,” she said. “It’s not my job to tell you my opinion but at the same time I am a human and this was the year where that became challenging.”

Photograph courtesy of Jenna Flanagan.

Like Flanagan, Black journalists across the country felt extra pressure and responsibility during election week. Pronounced attention to issues like police oversight and Black Lives Matter which heightened during weeks and months of protests led to renewed energy around voting in many historically marginalized communities. But it also meant that Black journalists had personal investment in the issues they reported on, and those ties  followed them into Election Day. 

‘I wanted to make sure that voice was still being heard’   

The Black journalists Votebeat spoke to were not assigned to report on Black communities specifically within their Election Day duties, but they expressed a desire and need to center Black stories within larger election coverage.

Layla Jones, 27, is a general assignment reporter at Philadelphia’s Billy Penn. On Election Day she traveled throughout various predominantly-Black neighborhoods in West Philadelphia speaking to voters who cast their ballot in person. Though she was focused on assessing turnout and learning why some people chose to opt out of mail-in voting, she also expressed a desire to center everyday Black voices. Early morning on Election Day, she recalled seeing massive lines of Black voters throughout West Philadelphia.

“It’s just so awesome to have those voices told because I feel like a lot of times if Black people and politics are discussed in the mainstream media it’s the same few groups like the Black Clergy and the NAACP,” said Jones. “But [I wanted] to talk to regular people walking down the street.”

Photograph courtesy of Layla Jones.

Elizabeth Gabriel, 24, is a Black reporting fellow at KLCC, a public radio station in Eugene, Oregon. Black-Americans there make up less than two percent of the population, but the spring and summer of 2020 saw increased protest activity, largely led by  African American community leaders, many of which were young Black people. In May, a march for Black Lives marked the largest demonstration in Eugene’s history, which was organized in response to the death of George Floyd, a Minneapolis man who died while in police custody.

Photograph courtesy of Elizabeth Gabriel.

As the November election neared, Gabriel knew she wanted her coverage of the election to illuminate the various priorities of local, young Black activists in Eugene across political spectrums. 

“To make the story as well-rounded as possible, I  wanted to reach out to a Republican of color,” Gabriel recalled. “Just because in a city that is very white, I wanted to make sure that that voice was still being heard.”

But that’s when she hit a wall. Gabriel contacted a local Republican chapter in her area and requested to be connected with a young, Black Republican.

“So this guy called me back and was like ‘thanks Elizabeth for reaching out, but I don’t appreciate you only asking for Republicans of color,” said Gabriel. “Then he was like ‘we should all be heard, it’s the media that’s putting people against each other by always talking about race’.”

Gabriel says intentionally centering the voices of Black voters came with challenges, but ultimately she says there’s value in being specific about who you’re covering and why. Though she was wary of giving a platform to Republicans who endorse violence, but  she still wanted to bring a perspective forward that usually doesn’t get a lot of nuance.

“I did try to make the case that talking about someone’s race is important because it is relevant, because someone’s past experiences, their ancestors’ experiences — those impact who they are as a person,” said Gabriel. 

“And just to say that talking about color doesn’t matter, I think it’s just a bigger problem that we’re facing and Trump has really played into [that].”

‘No amount of neutrality will undo those assumptions’

Dasia Moore, 24, is a general assignments reporter at the Boston Globe. She says her biggest election story came out of conversations she saw happening within her family and community. In the days after the election, mail-in votes continued to come in, making it unclear who would be the next President of the United States. In response, Moore co-wrote a piece entitled, “In a Close Election, Some Black Americans See A Clear Winner: Racism,” that explored how Black Americans were processing the initial look at the election numbers, which fell short of rejecting the Trump administration outright.

“Even after George Floyd, even after months and months of leading and teaching our communities, the country was not going to reject white supremacy in the way that [Black voters] had hoped,” Moore said.

Photograph courtesy of Dasia Moore.

Moore describes the added task of having to separate personal and collective grief over the election from her own reporting. She says there’s a tension Black journalists contend with when they’re expected to be objective and unemotional about news that impacts their own communities. But ultimately, Moore says she has no choice but to bring her whole self into her work.

“The lived reality of it was exhausting, it was hard,” recalled Moore. “I had some really tough days that week because of having to hold my personal reaction and feelings about everything that was happening at arm’s length. So I’m glad that for me it was only a week.” 

Moore says the weight of objectivity is also a problem even when her election reporting didn’t specifically center race. There’s an assumption other people project onto Black journalists that they won’t be impartial, or that they fall on one side of a political spectrum.

“Massachusetts is a pretty liberal state but when you talk to people as a Black reporter about politics then nine times out of ten they’ve already decided themselves what side they see you being on,” said Moore. 

“No amount of neutrality in how you approach them or how you ask your questions will undo those assumptions.”

‘Reporting actually impacted who I voted for’

Voting and elections touch the lives of every citizen. Even if someone doesn’t participate in the process themselves, their life is bound to be affected by legislation, policies, and laws that came about through voting. For journalists, the task of separating their reporting from a process they take part in themselves is tough. But it also meant that their work follows them back into the voting booth.

Gabriel remembers voting for the first time in Texas during the 2016 general election and being very nervous about the whole process. She was voting early and says that once she got to the front of the line she couldn’t use her phone to look up candidates or double-check facts about ballot questions. But this year she voted by mail and says being on the other side of election coverage as a reporter has made for a more confident voting experience.

“I really liked voting by mail this year because I was able to talk through [my ballot] with my boyfriend and we filled it out together while listening to news reports,” said Gabriel.

Flanagan of MetroFocus says news reports of the potential mail-in ballot backlogs incentivized her to vote early this year.  She rose early on the first day of early voting in New York and casted her ballot in her Hudson Valley community.

“I was already seeing news stories that were saying if you can vote in person that might be a better idea,” said Flanagan. “And that all came from the election news that I had become immersed in for my job.”

Every election cycle, Jones of Billy Penn and her colleagues work on a voting guide called “The Procrastinator’s Guide to the Election”. She was responsible for contributing research on candidates running for Pennsylvania Auditor General. For Jones, that led to an unlikely vote on Election Day.

“Because I read about the candidates, I actually voted for the Republican,” she said. “I’m a registered Democrat but my reporting actually impacted who I voted for and funny enough [the Republican] was just totally qualified.”

On being a part of history

This was a deeply emotional election for many, and the toll of having  to cover it was certainly felt by Black journalists. But so was the pride. Many journalists said they felt like they provided their communities with valuable information that could ultimately impact their decision to come out and vote.

“I was able to provide that local coverage of what people are thinking, what people are advocating for, what people are fighting for,” said Gabriel. “It was helpful in a lot of ways in terms of helping people think about who they should vote for locally as well as nationally.”

Moore says the significance of getting to cover this election is not lost on her. She wrote one of the Boston Globe’s front page stories for their Sunday paper which called the election for President-elect Joe Biden on November 7, 2020. Moore recalls being determined to go out before that day came to a close to get a physical copy of the paper to mail to her mother.

“I can’t downplay that historic weight and the meaning of my name along with other women of color under that picture of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris,” said Moore. “There has not been a Black woman in that role in the White House before and so to have my name on that page announcing that historic moment was really important.”

Jones recalls the day the election was called in Philadelphia. She was on 52nd street and remembers seeing some young, Black men sitting outside the window of their car playing music and cheering because Trump had lost. 

“Black people felt that they were contributing to really shifting history and you could really feel it on that day,” said Jones.

She said the image triggered a memory of an article she read in The Atlantic by Ibram X. Kendi called “The Other Swing Voter”. Based in North Philadelphia, Kendi described a segment of potential, young Black voters who are disenfranchised and more likely to not vote at all. 

“Kendi talked about how in [2008] that demographic celebrated Obama’s win by riding down by Broad Street, hanging out of their cars… So to see it on 52nd street after Biden won was incredible,” said Jones.

She says seeing this kind of investment from Black voters in the outcome of the election was moving, because she knows Black Americans are not always represented well in government.

“It’s documented that we don’t get the best city services. It’s documented that our communities are more impoverished,” said Jones.

“However our ability to be invested in and care about and dedicated to the outcome of the election was just really powerful.”

 


Sojourner Ahebee is WURD Radio’s Votebeat reporter. This coverage is made possible through Votebeat, a nonpartisan reporting project covering local election integrity and voting access. The article is available for reprint under the terms of Votebeat’s republishing policy.

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