A litmus test for inclusivity at the Washington Post

August 16, 2018
Washington Post Executive Editor Marty Baron on January 28, 2016 in Washington, DC. (MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

On July 30, The Washington Post published a story, “White, and in the Minority,” profiling Heaven Engle, 20, and Venson Heim, 25, both factory workers at a Bell & Evans chicken plant in Fredericksburg, Pennsylvania. Engle and Heim are white and do not speak Spanish; their colleagues, predominantly from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, are described as speaking little to no English.

Over the past two decades, the Post reports, the demographics of the surrounding county—largely rural and conservative—have changed, as Latinos have been recruited for jobs (“White people didn’t want to work in the stinky chicken shop,” a former employee at the plant is quoted as saying) and built a sizeable community. But Fredericksburg remains 95 percent white; homes downtown fly Confederate flags. The piece, which is about 4,000 words, expresses the isolation, sorrow, and frustration that Engle and Heim feel navigating language and cultural barriers at work; at moments, it depicts their prejudice without challenge. Terrence McCoy, the author, quotes Engle and Heim at length but never the plant’s Latino employees. Denisse Salvador, a “demure 25-year-old from the Dominican Republic,” is written of indirectly, as Engle wonders why she can’t learn English; in another scene, Heim and other English-speakers make racially insensitive jokes to Juan Leon, the only Latino worker in the break room. Readers never hear Leon’s response.

Criticism of the article rolled in quickly. The editors of Latino Rebels, a commentary site, detailed their problems with the language, citing, for example, how McCoy refers to Engle being “pressed closer and closer to the wall in a hallway that was now filled with workers, all Latino,” evoking a physical threat. While the premise of the article—exploring the impact of changing American demographics—was sound, the Rebels wrote, its framing and the choice not to include the voices of Latino employees “only feeds into the white fear.” Esther Cepeda, a syndicated columnist with The Washington Post Writers Group, wrote to Martin Baron, the executive editor of the Post, with complaints about the piece—for one, she found, it was absent key context about the management of the plant and life for employees in the world outside it; the line in McCoy’s story about population shifts “that will, with little historic precedent, reconfigure the racial and ethnic geography of an entire country,” she tells CJR, conjures an argument used by white supremacists “when they’re getting their troops to rally that immigration must be stopped.” In a statement, the National Association for Hispanic Journalists expressed similar concerns. Hugo Balta, the organization’s president, reached out to Baron asking for a meeting.

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On Wednesday, Baron responded to Balta’s request by phone, in a call that lasted about 30 minutes. Balta began the conversation with an open question: What did Baron make of the criticism he’d seen of the piece thus far?

In Baron’s view, according to Balta’s recounting of their conversation, the story had been widely misread. Outrage directed at the newspaper, and at McCoy, was unfair. Balta, who is ESPN’s senior director of multicultural initiatives, replied that the absence of Latino voices seemed to reinforce the main characters’ embrace, developed throughout the narrative, of fear on the basis of race. NAHJ did not believe that the context provided on changing demographics replaced the need to include quotes from Latino workers, Balta told Baron. To CJR, he says, “That would have provided the reader a broader and, in our opinion, fairer telling of this story.”

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Baron, Balta recalls, “Stuck to his guns and said that’s an opinion that’s been shared, they understand, but that from an editorial standpoint the decision was to focus on the point of view of this young woman, and he didn’t feel it necessary to include other voices, other than how they were mentioned in the piece.” When Balta asked if Baron would consider assigning a story on Latinos working at the Bell & Evans plant, Baron said that he didn’t feel McCoy’s piece merited a follow-up.

Baron’s comments echoed those made on Monday by McCoy, who is white, in an interview with WBUR. “At the Washington Post we have a long history of profiling immigrants as they come to this country and the immigrant struggle, the hardship they face,” McCoy said. “This story was about the anxiety that some whites are feeling as the country catapults towards majority-minority America, and what that means.” In reply to the note from Cepeda, Baron noted that, in the article, McCoy acknowledges the historic discrimination of minority communities, and frames his telling of Engle and Heim as a reckoning with what their colleagues have long had to deal with. Baron told Cepeda that the story was edited by a person of color, reviewed by other individuals of color, and highlighted that the Post has one of the most diverse newsrooms in the country. When CJR reached out to the Post, a spokeswoman sent a statement with much the same message. “McCoy’s story captured the perspective of those who feel displaced by demographic change, by conveying what it is like for two white Americans who must themselves adapt to a new America,” the statement read. “McCoy portrays their fear, resentment and xenophobia – as well as their responses to the attempts of their Latino co-workers to interact with them. McCoy’s work will continue to explore the emergence of a multicultural majority in America.”

During their call, Balta and Baron discussed how the piece was edited, and Baron again mentioned the diversity of the Post newsroom. As he did so, the conversation went from being about critiques of a single story to something more fundamental, in Balta’s view. Having a diverse newsroom is a success, Balta argued, but the use of those perspectives and talents in shaping stories, not merely headcounts, offer the ultimate litmus test for inclusion. The editor of the article at hand, Baron said, was not Latino. By way of argument, Balta replied, “I would not propose I am the best person to say with authority what is right or wrong” in a story about African-Americans, Asian-Americans, or people who belong to the LGBTQ community.

Baron, Balta tells CJR, pushed back at what he took as a suggestion that only members of particular communities can write stories covering them.

Balta aimed to clarify. “That’s not what I am saying,” Balta says he told Baron. “A good journalist can tell any story. But if you have a diverse newsroom, it’s my experience that it’s in the best interest to draw from the depth of experience and talent and background you have in the newsroom.” Recalling Baron’s response, Balta tells CJR, “I don’t think he agreed with me—and I didn’t agree with him, that just because a person of color edited it, it was the best person.” Having a person of color edit a story, he adds, does not absolve a piece of mistakes.

The conversation was calm and respectful. To Balta, however, it seemed stuck in a tussle between intent and impact. “Most newsrooms aren’t reflective of communities they serve,” he tells CJR. “In specifically speaking about Hispanics, we’re not telling our stories. The stories where the focus is on Hispanics, in most cases, are being produced by people who are not members of that community. And not just the writer or reporter, but also the editor, and producers, and people that support the forward-facing journalist.”

In those circumstances, he goes on, “It is frustrating to try to explain to news managers that are overwhelmingly white and male that there is a huge gap between intent and impact. And not acknowledging that storytelling with a narrow focus is feeding into the continuing polarization of a community—key to the future of this country—is frustrating. Newsrooms will continue to miss the mark in doing basic storytelling that’s fair and accurate until they do a better job at being inclusive of the diversity they have within those newsrooms.”

Wrapping up the call, Balta extended an offer for NAHJ to work with the Post on diversity and inclusion training. Baron told him that he appreciated the offer; no plans were made. (The Post spokeswoman tells CJR, “Staff training on all journalism-related issues is handled in-house. Groups that engage in advocacy, regardless of the subject, are not brought in for that purpose.”)

Balta remains focused on what happens next. In future assignments, “people will be taking pause,” he hopes, and be thoughtful about how a story “will be positioned and used in this continuing tug of war—the us vs. them mentality we have seen in the last couple years.”

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Alexandria Neason was CJR’s staff writer and Senior Delacorte Fellow. Recently, she became an editor and producer at WNYC’s Radiolab.