The critical issue of diversity in local newsrooms and in community coverage was never more apparent than during the national racial reckoning of 2020. Now it’s up to those news organizations to make real and permanent improvements.
Those actions also represent an urgent business imperative. As the demographics of the country change, a failure to understand, serve and in some cases restore relationships of harm with communities of color is one of the most important changes news organizations can make. Local media cannot survive serving the shrinking audience it has now.
“The Philadelphia Inquirer has an overwhelmingly white newsroom and fails to retain journalists of color, resulting in news coverage that over-represents people who are white and male, an independent review released this week found.”
That paragraph was published in February 2021, exactly 53 years after the publication of the Kerner Commission report during President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration. “The press has too long basked in a white world looking out of it, if at all, with white men’s eyes and white perspective,” the 1968 report says. And in its hiring practices, the profession was “shockingly backward in seeking out, hiring, training, and promoting” journalists of color.
Today’s conversations about race and equity, after a year of protests over police shootings of Black people, have renewed the attention on diversifying the country’s newsrooms. Foundations have given millions to diversity programs and startups, Zoom webinars for journalists and town hall meetings for communities are ubiquitous, academic studies have been conducted. Will journalism’s racial reckoning take hold this time, despite past failures?
One of those studies, from the University of Texas at Austin, cites the Black community’s lack of trust as a key reason for journalism’s failures. “Most participants had never met a journalist in their communities,” wrote the authors in November — and you can’t trust what you don’t know. Also problematic was the view that media coverage “lacked context and was one-sided and incomplete.” Are you a journalist in a small town that has very little diversity? Sorry, you’re not exempt from the problem, another study says.
But it’s clear that local journalists cannot leave “the diversity problem” to researchers, corporate owners or publishers. To start your deeper understanding of the issues and solutions, listen to this April 2021 Maynard Institute webinar in its 77-minute entirety. Describing current coverage of underrepresented communities, panelist Lewis Raven Wallace of Press On says: “It’s not enough…to go into communities that you’ve had a damaging relationship with in the past and ask a couple questions about ‘how do you feel’ and then leave again.”
Accomplishing that is one objective of a new Houston Public Media program called “I See U” with host Eddie Robinson. Robinson describes the format as unique and one “that goes a step further than just discussions about racism.”
“How about we start having some real dialogue here, right?” says Robinson. Those discussions have been going on in Houston for years, says station manager Joshua B. Adams, but a specific platform for that conversation didn’t crystalize until George Floyd’s death and months of protests in Houston and other cities.
“Last summer triggered something in all of us,” says Kyle Claude, who was hired in December as executive director of content operations and is part of the “I See U” development team. “It caused all of these local, regional, national brands to reexamine their own process and their own role in racial inequity.” He says the Houston staff “went beyond evaluating and considering and went into action, and this [program] is one step towards that action…It brings people into the tent who have not felt included in many conversations.”
And those interactions with his radio show guests will be difficult, Robinson says. “Yes, these conversations will be uncomfortable…but uncomfortable conversations can be purposeful when they’re important.”
Robinson’s passion and plans for “I See U” will make the program a success, Adams says, but that’s not the entire point. “This is mission work that we have to do,” says Adams. “We have to dedicate ourselves to changing the culture of our organization.”
Other promising efforts, suggestions and ideas:
In March, OpenNews launched the DEI Coalition Slack channel for journalists to discuss and tackle diversity issues in their own work. A month later, the channel had more than 850 members with applications coming in every day, says Sisi Wei, co-executive director of OpenNews. Separate channels exist for staffers and for managers, and members can create their own private channels as well. The purpose is “to tackle challenging conversations, create new resources, equip themselves to be better allies and advocates, and together, change newsroom policies, systems, and culture for the better,” OpenNews guidelines say. The content and conversations are confidential.
“What I can say, though,” says Wei, “is that community members have already started creating shared resources, as well as helping each other brainstorm around tough situations they find themselves in, or current events related to DEI in journalism.”
Still, some journalists miss the in-person, off-the-record conversations that ended when newsrooms went to virtual platforms like Zoom and Slack. “Newsrooms have gone through intense soul-searching about race and other equity issues since the George Floyd killing. But hard conversations show up in harsh relief on Zoom,” says Dan Rubin, an editor with the Philadelphia Inquirer. He’s proposed using more intimate Zoom rooms as “virtual spaces where topics can be developed, debated, discussed.”
Do you need to know how to create a more diverse list of sources on your beat? Add more diversity to your journalism curriculum? Understand the vocabulary of immigration? Improve your coverage of the transgender or Asian American community or people with disabilities? Be more inclusive in your election coverage or just be more inclusive, period? New guides abound for all of those topics and more. Many media organizations and journalism support groups are more active and collaborative than ever, leaving no excuses for a diversity knowledge deficit.
Several newsrooms have advice on how to conduct a “source audit” so that you can judge the diversity of your own coverage: KUT in Austin, KCUR in Kansas City, Wisconsin Public Radio, North Carolina Health News. Most likely, your audit will find that your diverse sourcing is lacking, which should prompt you to create a more inclusive source list for your news organization. Groups like the Asian American Journalists Association and Spotlight PA may provide some help, but creating a list of diverse local sources isn’t complicated: It’s basic journalistic digging, and it simply requires that the newsroom staff put in the time and effort to create and maintain it.
Truly diverse coverage starts with a truly diverse newsroom. For managers, the first step is to stop yourself mid-sentence when you find yourself making excuses for or complaining about the difficulties of creating a staff that reflects the diversity of your community. “Upper management is complicit with why our industry is where it is, as far as not having enough representation,” says Shamarria Morrison, a television reporter at WPSD in Paducah, Ky. “It’s not enough to say, ‘We want Black people in these positions.’ You have to actively go out and recruit them.”
At the height of last year’s social justice protests, Gannett calculated the diversity of its 260 local news operations and found that only 18% were BIPOC, and about 41% female. Then the company publicly committed to making its workforce “as diverse as the country by 2025 and to expand the number of journalists focused on covering issues related to race and identity, social justice and equality.”
And that leads to the second step for managers who are white: Recognize that when you hire a person of color in your newsroom, you’re not hiring a skin color. You’re hiring someone who could have a very different lived experience than you do — different viewpoints, goals, challenges. Your standard interview questions that you’ve used for job candidates for the past 20 years likely aren’t going to cut it. Here are some guidelines for conducting interviews, along with other diversity hiring tips, from RTDNA.