What will happen to The New York Times’ race beat?

It's uncertain if the newspaper will replace Tanzina Vega, who is moving to the metro desk

The future of race coverage at The New York Times is under scrutiny as Tanzina Vega, the paper’s sole reporter on a national race and ethnicity beat that she created one year ago, is moved this week to the metro desk to cover the Bronx courthouse.

“In recent months Tanzina Vega showed how varied and powerful a national beat focusing on race could be,” read a staff memo announcing her move. “But as we’ve told many a Foreign correspondent, you don’t need to travel abroad to find adventure: The Metro desk can accommodate you right here in New York.”

But the larger question is what happens to her national race and ethnicity beat—one of the few at a major news organization, alongside the AP and NPR—at a time when race issues have reached fever pitch, ranging from the police killings of unarmed black men like Eric Garner and Michael Brown, to controversy over the lack of diversity in this year’s Oscar nominations. The Times’ coverage not only leads the news agenda in the US but gives credibility to the country’s struggles with race in an age that some commentators still insist is “post-racial.”

When asked whether the race and ethnicity beat was being dropped, and if so, why, Dean Baquet, the Times’ first African American executive editor, said via a spokeswoman that he wouldn’t discuss coverage. “Suffice it to say we believe race is a big story and we will cover it aggressively,” read his statement. National Editor Alison Mitchell did not reply to an emailed enquiry. Vega declined to comment but has retweeted several reactions to the move, including criticisms.

 

No replacement has been named for Vega, according to a source outside the Times but familiar with the issue. Formerly a media reporter there, Vega started the largely enterprise-driven race beat under former executive editor Jill Abramson and has remained its sole reporter.

Vega’s stories covered the racial rift between protesters and police in Ferguson, MO, a video series called “Off Color” about minority comedians, and a culture of ‘microaggressions’ on college campuses.  At the same time, the Times lack of sensitivity to race issues was decried last year, in its description of the 18 year-old Michael Brown as “no angel” and a reference to television producer Shonda Rhimes as an “Angry Black Woman.

The debate about whether to have a race beat in the newsroom goes back decades. At heart is whether reporters in every beat should cultivate an awareness of race stories versus having reporters dedicated to spotting the newsroom’s racial blind spots.

Yet in practice, said multiple reporters, when minority communities are not given particular focus, their stories frequently fall by the wayside. Additionally, fear that any racial faux-pas can immediately bring condemnation from social media critics may compound the reluctance of some reporters to chase controversial leads.

“In the real world, reporters set their own priorities about what they’re going to cover and what they’re not going to cover, and sometimes race gets a short shrift,” said Richard Prince, who writes about diversity for the Maynard Institute of Journalism Education. “It’s a subject that a lot of people are, quite frankly, afraid to deal with, because they feel that they don’t have the expertise, they’re afraid of making a misstep.”

The issue—if there is indeed no longer a race beat at the Times—is how editors will ensure that sophisticated stories about unnoticed communities rise to the surface. That means not just reporting on protests that explode onto the streets, but how to tackle the buried structure of race relations that lead to them.

Similar concerns arose when the Times broke up their environmental reporting “pod” in 2013. In the wake of its dismantling, public editor Margaret Sullivan wrote “Symbolically, this is bad news. And symbolism matters—it shows a commitment and an intensity of interest in a crucially important topic.” Baquet, who was then managing editor, told her “We can tell the story just as well without the infrastructure.” Ten months later, Sullivan found that both the quantity and depth of their environmental news had dropped.

Chris Ip is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow him on Twitter at @chrisiptw.