The New York Times veteran journalist opened up about a range of topics, including the racial reckoning in newsrooms
Like the nation itself, the news media is facing a racial reckoning of its own. Journalists at several news organizations, including the New York Times, have pushed for changes in diversity and coverage. A number of influential news organizations like the Associated Press have even updated their style guidelines to capitalize the “b” in the term Black when referring to people in a racial, ethnic or cultural context.
National Editor Marc Lacey believes these changes are here to stay, saying “diversity is so fundamental to newsgathering.” He acknowledged that while the Times “has made great progress,” in terms of diversifying its newsroom, it still “has a ways to go.”
In a wide-ranging interview, Lacey also opened up about the challenges of covering multiple ongoing crises at once. He said that it highlights the “enormous breadth” of the New York Times’ reporting, which is being highlighted in the paper’s “Life Needs Truth” ad campaign.
“Nobody expected this year to be what it’s turned out to be, but I kind of feel in some ways, we’re prepared for it in a sense that we’re sort of firing on all cylinders right now,” he said. For more of our conversation, read on.
Wake-Up Call: What has it been like to be the national editor during these times?
Marc Lacey: We have this new ad campaign — it’s basically 100 different New York Times stories like flashed on the screen in two minutes. 100 different stories and it’s sort of rapid-fire and I think that’s essentially what my dreams are like. The number of big stories that are happening at any one time day after day, it’s so unpredictable. Each story feels history-making. The news cycle is as intense as I’ve ever seen it and I’ve been a reporter for a long time.
You kind of touched on it, but what are some of the biggest challenges of covering multiple crises?
We have reporters scattered all over the country and they’re basically just working nonstop and we have reporters who are racing from say, covering a wildfire to covering street protests; from covering street protests to going to a hurricane. We have people who are inside nursing homes and then writing about people in food lines. It’s like all of these stories are happening at the same time and they’re all interconnected in a strange way. They’re all breaking out everywhere around the country.
August is usually a slower month, news-wise, but there’s nothing about this year that is usual and this was one of the most intense Augusts we’ve ever had.
Another top-of-mind issue is November’s presidential election. How do you plan on tackling it?
During an election a year, we create a huge team of reporters and editors who do nothing but the campaign and they have been extremely busy. There was a time some weeks back when everything appeared a little bit quiet on the campaign, but that’s just changed and we’re gearing up for a campaign, unlike any other campaign we’ve seen before. A campaign during a pandemic — nobody knows exactly how it’s going to unfold and the mail imbalance and how those are going to go. Whether people are going to turn out in large numbers on Election Day itself, whether the results will be contested, whether we’re going to have the year 2000 election all over again where we didn’t know the results on Election Day itself. So all of these are just big, big questions and nobody knows the answers to them. And we’re just every day trying to, you know, get closer to figuring it all out.
What sort of stories do you think are getting lost right now?
That’s a really great question. The big issues of the country, the things that usually don’t get a lot of attention, maybe in a presidential campaign, are economic issues and healthcare — things like that this year are getting a lot of attention. This economic crisis is on the front of everybody’s mind.
Everybody cares about healthcare at this moment because we’re in the middle of a pandemic. So in a lot of ways, the sorts of issues that sometimes would be overlooked are connected to these big stories. So the big stories are forcing all sorts of national issues to be discussed and that sort of the way I see it.
There’s also been a challenge when it comes to covering the news — a lot of news organizations have been wrestling with how to cover some of these issues, in particular about the racial reckoning and police brutality. The New York Times has faced some backlash about the op-ed section. What is your comment on that and how has your team moved forward?
The way I see our role in covering the protests and the big issues surrounding police violence and racial injustice in the country is really through vigorous reporting. And so, every single night, we have reporters who are on the streets in the middle of these protests, watching what’s going on and talking to people and seeing with their own eyes what’s happening. We’re not relying on the politicians later to tell us what happened. We were actually there and saw for ourselves. So we know we can judge for ourselves what’s happened. And the same goes for all of the incidents of police violence that are going on. We don’t stop at the video, we get the video, and then we intensively report around what happened before the video, after the video and we try to talk to as many people.
We’ve done groundbreaking reporting around the George Floyd killing, on the Breonna Taylor killing, on Ahmaud Arbery and on Jacob Blake — in all of those were digging into exactly what happened and why did it happen. Then I think a lot of the issues that are being raised have to do with so many other instances of Black people being treated unfairly in our criminal justice system and just racism that seeps its way into so many aspects of American society. And so we have reporters around the New York Times that are looking at other issues.
It’s like a multipronged effort where it’s very true that in a climate like this, you can publish things. You can write things that are very controversial, but we’re not allowing the controversy over that one op-ed, which was published on by the opinion side of the New York Times is not slowing down the vigorous reporting on the news side trying to document this moment.
[The year] 2020 is going to be the sort of year that is going to be studied in history books. And we’re the first draft of that and we want to get it right.
With all the issues we’re covering, it has forced a lot of people and just newsrooms in general to do some self-reflection about how they’re covering things. How has the New York Times addressed this?
There is no doubt that this year of racial reckoning has prompted debate in virtually every company in America and it’s caused companies to sort of look in the mirror and say, “How diverse are we? How well are we doing in truly reflecting America?”
And the same sorts of discussions are happening at the New York Times. And to what degree do we have a diverse enough staff to accurately cover this very complicated country? And it’s something that the New York Times has made great progress, but has a ways to go.
Do you think this will lead to more fundamental change?
I think it will. I mean already in some small news organizations have changed their use of language. You’ve noticed that the word Black is capitalized in a lot of places. Some organizations have opted to capitalize white, others haven’t, but it’s prompted a discussion over the use of language. And I think there’s also been hiring various organizations around the United States have talked about that the real need for diversity among reporters and among editors. So all that is important, but I guess I also think this is an important enough issue that it shouldn’t be simply done in response to a movement. This is something that should be part of news organizations every year and not just a year where we have big protests. I’m one who believes that diversity is so fundamental to newsgathering that it’s not something that should be a fad in one year, and it should just be what the New York Times is all about every single year.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
This article originally appeared on Medium.