The problem of ‘casting calls’ for sources

In the summer of 2020, Tara Raghuveer found herself dealing with a barrage of inquiries from national media outlets. Raghuveer is the director of a grassroots housing-justice organization, and reporters were seeking to cover a roaring eviction crisis taking place all over the nation, including Kansas City, Missouri, where Raghuveer is based. Most of the requests, Raghuveer found, were routine, asking for connections to someone going through eviction. But others were most like casting calls, seeking a specific profile of suffering. 

Can you connect me to a Black single mom on food stamps who’s experiencing eviction?

How about a Black woman who has kids who can’t pay her rent?

One such woman who has had covid or gotten it after they’ve been evicted?

Raghuveer doesn’t mind connecting journalists to her base of tenant organizers. She recognizes that numbers alone cannot convey human stories. And the people being requested do exist. Research has long shown that Black women disproportionately face eviction, especially those with children, and the same has been true during the pandemic. In a study released ahead of the peer review process, public health experts found that evictions have led to more than ten thousand deaths from the coronavirus. But increasingly, she says, some journalists cross the line. 

“We’ve had some uncomfortable or not great experiences with reporters over the past several months who we just kind of had to stop engaging with because we felt like they were looking for a particular type of story, which I would categorize as poverty porn,” Raghuveer said. “They wanted to tell a story of a really immense tragedy, but they didn’t want to tell the story of the policy that could have saved that person, rent and mortgage cancellation. They wanted to get pictures of someone being moved out of their home by the sheriff.”

Raghuveer’s organization, KC Tenants, trains and prepares a multiracial base of poor and working-class tenants to engage with the media. Telling one’s story, Raghuveer said, can mean reclaiming dignity and power. The more interviews KC Tenants organizers can do, the more they can combat dominant narratives about their communities. 

But to make it a fair fight, journalists have to act with dignity and humanity, too, resisting the pressure placed on them to publish faster, get more clicks, and amass a following. 

There was a moment last summer when Raghuveer felt like journalists were acting as if her only job were to connect them with tenants. Hyper-specific requests have continued in 2021, too. But Raghuveer has her own request for journalists: “Lean on these community organizations that have people who are organized and aligned for you to talk to, and recognize that, like, there’s some kind of patience and grace that’s required in order for the process to work as needed.” 

 

“What’s the point of being a reporter if you don’t actually care about the people whose stories you’re telling?”

 

ON JANUARY 26, the day President Joe Biden rescinded Donald Trump’s “zero tolerance” migrant family separation policy, Ingrid Jiménez, who fields media requests for an immigration organization in Mississippi, got a request from a local TV station. Producers needed to get someone on Zoom to talk about how the pandemic has affected someone, anyone, from the “Hispanic community.” Jiménez said these requests always need someone immediately.

She left this particular request unanswered—things were busy. She gets the impression that most media outlets in the state don’t really understand how few immigrant leaders there are, and by extension, how this limits their capacity to spring into action when reporters make urgent requests. 

A couple of years ago, in the wake of ice raids conducted in Mississippi—the biggest single-state immigration sweep in history—Jiménez had noticed something else: most of the coverage did not feature anyone directly affected by the raids. Local media were caught flat-footed—none regularly published in languages other than English, and none covered immigration as a full-time beat. Only one local outlet translated its coverage into Spanish. 

Jiménez described an echo chamber that often occurs in such situations: white media talk to white nonprofits to find people of color to speak to because reporters struggle (or don’t bother) to get their own sources.

“Many organizations and nonprofits—they’re so desperate for attention, like celebrities trying to stay relevant,” she said. “They do so many things wrong to do the right thing.” 

Marginalized people are not just sources for news; they’re also the audience, Jiménez said, adding that stories to be told in communities of color are not only ones of trauma. She suggests that reporters build relationships during the “off times”—not everything in journalism has to be transactional. 

“Find stories that just happen to be stories about people in these communities,” Jiménez said. “People don’t just want to read about the raids or the emergencies that affect them.” 

 

LAURIE BERTRAM ROBERTS, a longtime reproductive-justice advocate in the Deep South, has a litany of examples of out-of-step journalists. There’s the Vice producer who asked to be connected to someone low-income, struggling—the most desperate, he finally said. Or a BBC journalist who pressured one of her clients into doing an on-camera interview about self-managing her abortion, which is a felony in Mississippi.

“Just the weirdness of being called and asked for almost a laundry list—you’ve got to be kidding me,” Roberts said. “Honestly, I don’t trust every journalist to have sensitive information about the kind of clients we have.” 

Roberts is the executive director of the Yellowhammer Fund in Alabama and a cofounder of the Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Fund. In her fight to protect abortion rights she’s often had to fight the media, too. But she also recognizes that her justice work relies on the press. When she was featured on W. Kamau Bell’s United Shades of America on CNN, she felt a significant shift in local respect for her work. 

Sometimes a media relationship does go well. In 2019, Becca Andrews of Mother Jones used Roberts’s connections to follow a Mississippi woman on her 221-mile journey to get an abortion out of state. The two worked through tough conversations about the power dynamics at play. Roberts didn’t feel comfortable asking her clients to consider doing an interview because she didn’t want anyone to feel coerced, or as if the resources her organization could provide were contingent on speaking to the press. The two decided that Roberts would bring up Andrews’s proposition only if a client expressed interest in going public. Both agree that slowing down and building relationships before you’re on deadline is the way to center humanity in storytelling.

Journalism, at its core, holds power to account and is accountable to the public. But the news business is also part of this country’s power structure, and as such must discuss and answer for the harms it commits. I often feel shy about asking organizers and nonprofits to connect me to sources, because I believe in finding sources myself. Andrews, too, was initially nervous about asking Roberts for connections, but she and Roberts built their relationship through a series of phone conversations before publishing anything. 

“I don’t just think of her as a source or like just someone who can help me get a story. I like her, and I care about her as a person. I know her kids’ names and ask about her grandbaby,” Andrews said of Roberts. “You’ve got to connect with people as humans first, and you’ve got to put people’s humanity before anything else. Otherwise what’s the point of being a reporter, if you don’t actually care about the people whose stories you’re telling?”

Newsrooms, overwhelmingly white and privileged, source who they know. What this means to Roberts is that journalists tend to get stories about extremes, featuring those with power and resources or the poorest of the poor, who are often connected to us through nonprofits and NGOs. In her world, journalists miss a lot of the stuff in the middle, stories where multiple, conflicting things can be true at once. 

That’s life. And that’s the job of writers and reporters, Roberts said: “Use your words. Paint a story.” 

But don’t cross her.

“Oh, one thing to add,” Roberts texted me after the interview. “Activists talk and we blacklist journos.”

ICYMI: Unraveling the Protest Paradigm

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Ko Bragg is a writer and editor based in New Orleans. Her work appears in The 19th, Southerly, Scalawag, The Appeal, and Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting.