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Times reporter Astead Herndon talks newsroom diversity, 2020 election coverage

<h6>Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian

New York Times national political reporter Astead W. Herndon joined around 40 students over Zoom on Tuesday night for a wide-ranging conversation on his experience covering the 2020 election, newsroom diversity and representation, and political journalism’s blind spots. 

The virtual, open-to-the-public event was hosted by the American Whig-Cliosophic Society and moderated by Julia Chaffers ’22, the political society’s programming director. Chaffers is a senior opinion columnist for The Daily Princetonian. 

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To the aspiring journalists in the room, Herndon emphasized the importance of care and empathy to the job. While an intern in college, he recalled having the chance to speak with one journalist who shaped the way he thought about the field. 

“I had to call Nikole Hannah-Jones because she had just done this ProPublica essay about school segregation,” he said, noting that he recently recounted the story to his now-Pulitzer-Prize-winning colleague. “She gave me this speech about how you can negotiate the profession on your own terms, how it’s important that if you have that passion that you bring that to it.”

Now, when others seek advice from him, Herndon emphasizes, “it was not as important to me to be a journalist as it was to be a journalist I’m comfortable with, that I’m proud of.”

As for how he got into the field himself, he stressed that it was mostly a matter of “trial and error.”

“There are a lot of journalists that came out of the womb knowing that this is what they wanted to do. I am not one of those folks,” he explained. 

Though he wrote an advice column, “Get in Astead’s Head,”  for his high school paper, Herndon entered Marquette University assuming he would pursue a career in politics. But as soon as he joined a few campus political groups, that changed. 

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“I absolutely hated it,” he said. “I just didn’t really like the other kids, frankly.”

His original shift brought him to sports journalism — which didn’t stick — and then a stint teaching young children through Americorps’ City Year program between his sophomore and junior years — which didn’t stick either. But both experiences eventually led him to an education reporting internship, which he loved. 

“It felt like something that had real impact,” he explained. “You could tell stories of those who aren’t told. It allowed me to do the kind of politics stuff I liked but without a kind of deference to a party or an individual that I really didn’t like.”

Straight out of college, Herndon accepted an internship at The Boston Globe and was hired there shortly after. He spent a year reporting on the city’s crime beat, a period he recalled as a crucial learning experience.

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“Those people, that’s the worst day of someone’s life mostly, so if you’re going to come and do that story, you really have to come every day with a level of seriousness and intensity that justifies that,” he said. “Thinking back to that time, there are times I’m really proud of how I honored that pain that folks were going through.”

And then, out of the blue, his big break: the election of Donald Trump. 

“The day after the election, they call me and are like, ‘Can you go to Washington? Because we don’t have a plan for Trump to win. You have no kids, and you’re young — go,’” Herndon said. That temporary gig in D.C. became permanent, and he eventually moved to The New York Times. “It’s been a real whirlwind the last four years.”

When he looked back on the stories he’s most proud to have written, they “aren’t necessarily the most read ones,” Herndon said.

“The stories we’ll actually look back on are about making clear the uniqueness of this time and how it has affected communities who frankly weren’t feeling a part of this process before,” he said. “Stories about communities who would not have been heard otherwise.” 

As for why certain communities have been traditionally excluded from political journalism, to Herndon, it’s no mystery. 

“Blindspots are going to be the logical result of a political journalism community that is too white, too male, too straight, too rich, too East Coast, too private school, you can go down the list,” he said. “You’re dealing with a community that’s unrepresentative of the country, and it’s therefore bound to have blindspots.” 

But the blindspots of major news organizations aren’t just rooted in lack of representation, Herndon continued. According to him, journalists often suffer from a “top-down understanding of politics.”

“Political journalism can take on a ‘Capitol Hill’ or a ‘White House’ view of the world,” he said. “The people who most matter are these individual decision makers and how they come to those decisions, and I think that can cause you to lose out on the richness of the political experience.” 

As an example of this phenomenon, Herndon mentioned pundits speculating that Pete Buttigieg could “take over the moderate lane from Joe Biden” during the Democratic Primary. 

“That is a view of these people that only deals with them in their Washington ideological sense,” he said. “But that’s not the way most people experience politics.” 

Herndon argued that the “white pundit-driven community” also falls short in its attachment to “equilibrium” and to covering politics “50–50” — even at a time when “we’re dealing with a race that is just not in equilibrium.”

“We don’t have to present all sides as somehow flat and equal if we have the facts and knowledge that it is not,” he explained.

Herndon stressed that he believes in a view of objectivity that emphasizes “fairness” and “transparency,” instead of representing “both sides.” Crucial to that shift, for Herndon, are journalists from underrepresented backgrounds. 

One trend in reporting that Herndon said highlights the need for more marginalized voices in the newsroom is the treatment of racial minority groups as monoliths. 

“I think as a general rule if you are talking about ‘Black voters,’ there’s something wrong,” he said. “There’s nothing worth saying that’s universally true of all Black voters … We would never write the words ‘white voters,’ we would never write ‘male voters’ because that is a community that we understand has so many differences between them.” 

Another example: references to “leaders of the Black community.” 

“People say ‘leaders of the Black community.’ Like, who is that? I don’t even know,” he said. “I remember a story from an unnamed outlet that was talking about how Klobuchar in her VP push was going to sit with ‘leaders of the Black community.’ Honestly, tell me who that is. That is a wild thought.”

Herndon also took issue with what he described as the long-standing convention of assuming bias in Black and brown journalists. “If I go to a Trump rally, there are assumptions on who I am and what I care about that I have to overcome,” he said. Herndon sees commitment to racial justice and journalistic integrity as fully compatible. 

“To not care about race is to be biased in journalism,” he said. “It’s not a ‘side issue’ that journalism is bad at Black and brown communities — that means we’re just bad at journalism. This is us saying, do what you should have done all along.” 

On a related note, Herndon described how his popular and casual Twitter presence has sometimes gotten him in trouble — once resulting in a job offer being rescinded. Herndon said, however, that he believes his social media presence sends an important message. 

“You can be a good political reporter and a 27-year-old Black person at the same time. Those two things are not in conflict,” he added. “White reporters get to be themselves all the time.”

“From a journalism perspective, I think it’s really important to go through the steps, to write, to get edited, to learn from others who have deep institutional knowledge,” he said. “I just decided though that I also wanted to be myself while I was at it.” 

The conversation, titled “Covering 2020: A Conversation with Astead Herndon of The New York Times,” took place on Tuesday, Sept. 15, at 6 p.m. EDT. 

Herndon was originally slated to speak in-person at Whig-Clio in early March, but was forced to reschedule when Elizabeth Warren dropped out of the Democratic primary race that day.  

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