How to the tell the story of nurses of color experiencing racism at work

Nada Hassanein (Photo courtesy of Alicia Devine)

When Nada Hassanein read the press release about a survey that shed light on racism nurses of color are enduring in the workplace, she seized the opportunity to write a story to give real-world context to the findings. In telling the story, the environmental and health inequities reporter for USA Today, said she wanted to “weave [the survey results] into a kind of narrative about nurses’ experiences.”

In this “How I Did It,” Hassanein shares her reporting process for the story, talks about why leaning heavily on data may matter more for some stories over others, and offers tips for cultivating and building the trust that allows sources to open up about painful experiences.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. 

You get this press release and decide that there’s a bigger story here other than the survey. What was your next step? How did you find the sources for the story?

First, I asked the [National Commission to Address Racism in Nursing] if someone from the Commission — a nurse of color — would be willing to talk with me. And that nurse connected me with other nurses that are not part of the Commission.

How hard was it for nurses to be candid about their experiences?

The nurses I spoke with were quite open and candid about their experiences. I think they felt that someone was listening and, therefore, were willing to share their experiences.

How did you weave in context about the profession? 

I found demographic breakdowns of nursing staff or registered nurses in certain states to show how they are minorities or underrepresented. Being a health reporter, I see a lot of discussion about racism among physicians and residents but less so about nurses.

What were some things you wanted or looked for to hit on context for this story? What were some data sets, other than the number of nurses of color in the country or by state, that you wanted to include in the story? 

So, one of the sources spoke about how history is kind of rooted in this sort of segregation as with other fields. I also included a survey from the Health Resources and Services Administration that contained a breakdown of demographics among registered nurses.

Was there anything that was challenging about the story? Was there data that you wanted that you couldn’t access?

This was one of those stories where I feel like the data that I found, such as the demographic breakdowns and percentages as well as the survey findings that quantified experiences by sharing the percent of Black or Hispanic nurses experience X, Y, and Z, I think those types of data were needed.

The nurses’ stories speak louder than the numbers. I’m always on the hunt for good data and more data, and I love that, you know, as a reporter. But I’ve also come to realize that sometimes the collective anecdotal stories can shed light on a dearth of data as well.

Tell me about things that surprised you when reporting on this story. For example, were you surprised that the Commission probably is the only entity that has good data — or any data — about this issue?

I wouldn’t say I was surprised. As a reporter whose beat focuses on inequities, I think that I expected some of the statistics I found. That doesn’t mean I wasn’t disheartened.

What other story ideas came out of this story, if any?

I certainly did not want it to be a one-and-done. I think there are other aspects of lived racism experiences within the nursing field that are still left to be told, and other anecdotes that nurses shared with me during the interviews that maybe didn’t make it into the story, but that I would like to explore further and shed light on.

One of them was specifically about being a nursing student of color. So not just working as a nurse, but being a student and the lack of representation in the faculty. I alluded to that at the end of the story, but there is more to be told when it comes to nurses entering the field.

What advice do you have for people wanting to use that survey to write about this issue at the local level?

My advice would be to seek out local nurses’ experiences and authentically convey them in the narrative while using the Commission’s findings to support what the local nurses say they are experiencing. Give a national context, but localize the issue, which is nationwide, right? Just be a human first and foremost and just be present when listening to the pain others have experienced and the resilience they found to remain in the field.

When you were deciding or thinking about who to interview, did you want to interview nurses who worked in rural and urban areas?

So that’s another story idea that came out of this. I did want to explore more about the difference between being a nurse of color in a rural area versus an urban area.

What advice can you give reporters about how to nurture sources so that if you need to come back to them for another story, they will be willing to talk to you?

Trust is earned, and that’s always something to operate by. I know it’s hard to keep up with everyone you’ve interviewed because we interview so many people. But, I think that it’s important to periodically check on people you did interviews with that were particularly vulnerable or heavy. You don’t ever want someone to feel exploited.

Is that particularly true in reporting a story like this one?

It depends on the sources and their previous experiences with reporters or journalists. And so, we’re all doing each other a favor by really taking care of each of our interactions.

Did this story make you think, “I should interview more nurses for stories that I’m working on whenever it’s appropriate and relevant?” And why if it did?

I wouldn’t say so because I’ve interviewed nurses before for health stories. But, when covering health stories, it’s important to be very deliberate about including nurses and physicians of color.

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