Lowery reflects on news coverage of social issues
By Earl Hopkins
Washington Post reporter Wes Lowery (BSJ ’17) is an emerging professional in the world of journalism, and one whose accolades exceed his age (26). Since leaving campus in 2012, Lowery has worked at renowned publications, including The Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, and The Washington Post, where he currently covers stories focused on social justice issues in the U.S. He gained national recognition for his reports on the police shootings in Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore, Md.
Lowery’s contributions as a reporter have garnered him international recognition, most notably a Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting in 2014 for his part in leading the Post’s “Fatal Force” project. In addition to his journalistic work, Lowery has written the book, “They Can’t Kill Us All: Ferguson, Baltimore, and a New Era in America’s Racial Justice,” examining the role of the Black Lives Matter movement in U.S. history.
Lowery returned to Ohio University earlier this spring for the 2017 Schuneman Symposium (view presentation). In his presentation, he discussed reporting on issues of race, injustice, and law enforcement in the age of “fake news,” the impact of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the difficulties in overcoming racial tensions under President Donald Trump’s administration.
He also agreed to be interviewed for this newsletter.
Q: Do you believe the media tend to blur the lines of perception when confronting issues of race, injustice and law enforcement?
Lowery: I don’t know if we always do the best job. I think it’s our job in the media to hold powerful people and powerful institutions accountable. But I think that at times we can be too hesitant to question the authority and the powerful people. I think that, in part, if you look at one of these stories, your perception of that story is very likely shaped by your own personal experiences with law enforcement and personal experiences with young men of color, whatever they are. What we don’t like to admit in the media is that we have built-in biases. We have to tell ourselves to be objective. Once we can do that, it allows for us to interrogate them in a different way.
Q: How should journalists who haven’t faced the tribulations that minorities have faced in the U.S. be trained to report on these issues in today’s media?
Lowery: Experience is a big part of it. Being willing to be in the space is important. It goes back to what we were talking about earlier -- this idea of knowing what you don’t know. The job of a journalist is to be a student; it’s to constantly keep asking questions and to constantly keep being curious about what’s going on about the world we live in. I think that’s something that can be lost. You’ve got to constantly be seeking information because that’s how you account for those things you don’t know.
Q: In your book, “They Can’t Kill Us All,” you focus on telling the people’s story while incorporating your experiences in Ferguson and Baltimore. Do you feel media outlets should deviate from statistics and display people’s life experiences?
Lowery: I think that it’s difficult; it cuts in both directions, right? In a majority white country where power is tethered to a concept of whiteness, we’ll always be working to convince a white majority of the validity of the experience of a black or brown minority. Because of that, an individual story can’t always do it. One of the reasons the numbers are important is because they give you something the people can’t argue. When these police shootings started happening, everyone was saying ‘Awe, these never happen. They’re just one-offs. What are you making such a stupid deal?’ The number is important because this number on this paper says it is true.
Q: Where do you think the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement can go from here?
Lowery: The movement in the last few years has been something that doesn’t necessarily begin with Trayvon Martin or with Michael Brown, but is rather something that traces back to the black liberation struggle and 1619 when the first slave ships arrived. It’s something that will go on forever. I think that sometimes we want a specific closure; we want everything to be tied up. I think that sometimes this betrays us because it allows us to ignore the present reality that a system interwoven in our structure -- our society -- isn’t going to be undone in a snap of a finger. It’s a constant building process to tear down the system of white supremacy.
Q: With the issues we’ve mentioned, how do you feel the country will evolve, specifically under Trump’s presidency?
Lowery: I think the country’s going through massive changes and will continue to go through massive changes. We live in a country with a unique difficulty [to] have honest conversations about our history and what we’ve done. You cannot address problems you refuse to name. How are you supposed to fix them? We want to believe that this was such a different time, this was so long ago. It isn’t some different world. There’s a universal guilt and no one is blameless in this, and it requires the indictment of everyone and a whole system, a whole structure. It’s easier to say “Well, I don’t see racism” than to admit there’s this deep kind of thing we grab onto.
Q: Where can we start to directly confront these issues?
Lowery: We have these same tired conversations over and over again, and people have been using the same framing to rebut these concerns for generations. And that becomes just a big part of it. I don’t know how we solve that or how we fix that or what we do, but I think the education system is a huge part of it. When you interact with this, it empowers you to have a better conversation about it later. I wish we lived in a world where more of us could talk more broadly and expansively about these issues, because it would allow for us to have deeper conversations, express ourselves better and start to understand one another a little better.
NOTE: Lowery completed his BSJ in 2017 and spoke at the Ohio University’s 2017 Undergraduate Commencement. Read more about his speech.