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How The Tennessean hosts meetings with alienated audiences to listen and understand

Photo credit: David Plazas / The Tennessean

Editor’s note: This is part of a collection of essays on how to reach new audiences by listening. We asked four journalists from across the country to explain approaches they’ve used to build trust with specific communities, particularly those who may be alienated or disengaged. Writing from Tennessee, David Plazas describes how The Tennessean’s diversity and inclusivity task force invites segments of Nashville’s community to its building to have dialogue and build understanding.

Brave civil rights activists, black and white, defied Jim Crow in Nashville in the 1950s and 1960s by sitting at whites-only lunch counters.

They knew they would encounter hostile workers and patrons. Many of the protesters were arrested. However, their efforts eventually led to end legalized segregation.

Today that legacy is commemorated in the Civil Rights Room at the Nashville Public Library, overlooking a downtown intersection near where segregation protests took place. On the wall of that room is a quote by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: “I came to Nashville not to bring inspiration, but to gain inspiration from the great movement that has taken place in this community.”

It was a perfect setting for some of our modern-day Tennessean staff to gather and wrestle with issues of diversity and inclusion that still affect our staffing and coverage today.

Our top editor Michael A. Anastasi tasked me with the responsibility of forming and leading a new Diversity and Inclusion Task Force just a few weeks before.

He wanted to send a strong message to staff and the community that we would be intentional about and committed to discussions on racial, ethnic and ideological diversity in our coverage and our newsroom staffing that would welcome all our journalists and yield tangible results. We not only had support from the top, but direct access to Michael as well as to Brent Jones, who was USA TODAY’s standards editor.

Over the next several months we met with very different community groups — young American Muslims and older gun owners — created a nationally recognized series on affordable housing and its impact, especially on working class African Americans; and tackled some tough discussions, such as, how we cover white supremacists in the post-Charlottesville era.

The task force met for the first time in 2018 on Jan. 11 and discussed programming for the year, including reaching out to veterans, disabled residents, Evangelicals, the transgender community and disenfranchised voters.

Our origins and mission

I have been involved with numerous diversity efforts in my nearly two decades with Gannett – from councils, committees and conversations to recruiting talent and mentoring students at journalism conventions – and what has made this task force special is the grassroots and inclusive nature of it.

The core team includes reporters, photographers and digital producers; Nashville natives, immigrants and recently arrived transplants; newsroom veterans and green journalists.

They are all empowered and emboldened to speak their minds about how we reflect diversity and inclusion in our staffing and in our coverage.

In the first months, we created a mission statement and began a series of monthly task force meetings, open to the entire newsroom, which yielded important conversations with the community and improved our journalism.

Our mission statement reads:

The Tennessean’s Diversity and Inclusion Task Force seeks:

1) to add diversity meaningfully in coverage, the language we use and how we engage our community;

2) to act as a sounding board for concerns and ideas regarding how the newsroom fulfills No. 1;

3) to provide recommendations on relevant standards and policies; and

4) to champion diversity efforts throughout the newsroom.

The definition of diversity and inclusivity relates to creating an open environment that values people of different backgrounds and points of view.

Among one of the successes this year was refining standards for publishing op-eds on the editorial page, especially those that are controversial and may border on bigotry.

The two-prong test asks these two questions: “Does it further the conversation? If it doesn’t, why are we giving it a platform?”

Using community conversations to build relationships

A key part of the work of the task force is to get out of our comfort zones and meet with people who we would not normally encounter.

As such, we invited members of the community representing common interests or backgrounds to meet with our journalists at The Tennessean over the past year.

Meeting the Muslim community

On March 8, 2017, we met with a dozen young American Muslims who shared their stories and left us with generous pieces of advice.

Here is how this meeting came to be:

Over the last two years Nashville-area Muslim leaders had been meeting with The Tennessean Editorial Board, of which I am a member, to understand the issues of concern and strengthen our relationship.

The first meeting in 2015 stemmed from my decision to run a pair of op-eds in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre. Controversial Vanderbilt University Professor Carol Swain wrote a piece that called for surveilling local Muslims, while Paul Galloway, the former executive director of the American Center for Outreach, wrote a piece arguing that Tennessee Muslims had condemned the Hebdo attacks and stood for freedom.

However, Swain’s piece received the most attention from readers, and Muslim community leaders wanted to express their fears and concerns, and also share their perspectives.

Our guests want journalists to cover them not just when Islam makes the news, because of a terrorist attack or vandalism at a mosque, for example, but in everyday stories on education, transportation and housing.

Our meeting in 2016 was not based on any controversy, but on continuing to build on the relationship and mutual understanding.

In 2017 we agreed that a third meeting aligned with the goals of the Diversity and Inclusion Task Force and we decided to focus on American Muslims who had live in Nashville most of all of their lives and make this a meeting for the whole newsroom, not just the editorial board.

Galloway helped the task force identify our guests — and they ranged from a sheriff’s deputy to an entrepreneur and from a teacher to an engineer.

In most cases, they felt more connected to the United States than to the Middle East, North Africa or South Asia — their regions of origin or ancestry. One participant said when she visited her parents’ country of Afghanistan, she felt more American than ever before.

One important takeaway was that our guests want journalists to cover them not just when Islam makes the news, because of a terrorist attack or vandalism at a mosque, for example, but in everyday stories on education, transportation and housing.

Getting to know gun owners

On June 14, the community conversation focused on gun owners and gun rights.

Journalists have developed a reputation for being out-of-touch and tone-deaf on these issues, which is why it was important to have the discussion. I have written in a column: “We selected gun ownership as the discussion topic because the media is often accused of promoting a gun control agenda, in which guns and anyone who owns one are villains.”

In Tennessee nearly half of all households own a gun and over the years state lawmakers have proposed new laws to allow for where firearms owners can carry concealed weapons — like public parks, college campuses and even legislative offices.

The NRA hosted its annual convention here in 2015 and it became the best attended conference in the history of the city — drawing 78,865 people. At the time, it was the second-best-attended NRA convention in history.

We selected gun ownership as the discussion topic because the media is often accused of promoting a gun control agenda, in which guns and anyone who owns one are villains.

I wrote a column inviting people to participate in our conversation and received dozens of replies. They included gun aficionados, firearms instructors and NRA employees. Amazingly, the participants were very receptive.

There was some pushback from gun control advocates who felt we were using our platform to favor a “pro-gun” viewpoint. However, the point was to delve into this particular viewpoint.

Fifteen of our journalists joined the conversation, which consisted of roundtable and mini-group discussions.

While the participants skewed mostly white, older and male, the conversation showed diverse views, from those advocating for as few restrictions on gun ownership as possible to those demanding training before someone is ready to own a firearm.

Earlier that day, a man fired shots at and wounded some members of Congress who were practicing for a charity baseball game. House Majority Whip Steve Scalise and others were hospitalized. Those events entered our conversation.

These were 10 key points from the discussion:

  • Take personal responsibility for safety; taking guns from criminals may not be realistic
  • Provide balanced media coverage
  • Present statistics accurately
  • Avoid presenting the “gun as the bad guy”
  • Armed civilization equals a free civilization; Second Amendment protects the First Amendment
  • Responsible gun ownership is important to gun owners, who carry not to shoot or hurt people
  • Description of gun type must be accurate
  • Media should shift away from polarization, controversy and sensationalism
  • On mass shootings: “This is our new reality”
  • Media should make clear in crime stories involving firearms if the gun was lawfully obtained or not

The final takeaway was that we all agreed that responsible journalism and responsible gun ownership were paramount. Three of our guests even invited me to go out to the gun range, with one welcoming me to fire machine guns with him.

Since that meeting, our guests have served as sources and writers of letters to the editor and op-eds several times, most recently after the Oct. 1 mass shooting in Las Vegas.

Coverage changes as a result

Our series “Costs of Growth and Change in Nashville” was born and brainstormed in the Diversity and Inclusion Task Force. The mission was to hold a mirror to Nashville, give voice to the voiceless and offer solutions.

This became a yearlong project that focused on affordable housing, displacement and the growing gap between prosperity and inequality in the city.

The most-affected populations are low-income and working-class African Americans who live in neighborhoods in the urban core, which were abandoned by “white flight” of the 1960s and 1970s, but have now become popular and affluent places to live near the popular downtown.

This provided an important vehicle for the Diversity and Inclusion Task Force’s work to engage community members and tell the stories of marginalized communities.

That engagement included a public forum in April 2017, a book club discussion in June and a capstone event on Dec. 20 that involved a mini-documentary, panel discussion and Q&A, all which were at capacity and were achieved in partnership with the Nashville Public Library.

Inspirations

An important inspiration for the Diversity and Inclusion Task Force was a conversation the American Press Institute hosted at Temple University in June 2016.

I had been invited as one of several dozen journalists nationwide to talk about diversity and how to make the topic relevant for newsrooms.

After that conversation and with my boss’ encouragement, it became clear that we could not just let this be another discussion on diversity that came and went. We wanted to do something meaningful.

I invited a core group of five people, who willingly joined and agreed to meet once a month for at least an hour. The group organically grew and the conversations and forums drew other staffers who came to observe or participate. Every month, I send the entire newsroom an invitation to attend meetings and minutes after each meeting.

The task force members felt empowered to direct and influence the agenda and have their voices heard. We have sustained those efforts into 2018.

One of our charter members Getahn Ward, a renowned and prolific real estate and growth reporter, passed away in December after a brief illness. He had been an active task force member, whose conversations and ideas, strengthened our work. A board member of the local chapter of the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ), he also provided an example for other journalists to become part of these efforts. We honored him in the “Costs of Growth and Change” mini-documentary.

I am enthused by how our newsroom has embraced these efforts and wants to see newsroom and coverage that reflects the diversity of our community. That is essential to creating an inclusive culture that attracts and retains the best talent.

We look forward to an exciting year in 2018.

David Plazas can be reached by email at dplazas@tennessean.com.

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