‘Are you calling me a racist?’ Umm, no, it’s not about you

From The Cohort, Poynter's newsletter for women kicking ass in digital media

July 23, 2019

Susan Smith Richardson assumed the chief executive role at the nonprofit investigative journalism organization Center for Public Integrity two months ago. She is the first African American person to hold that title in the center’s 30-year history.

I learned three lessons about newsroom diversity 30 years ago. They still apply.

 

My first newsroom diversity meeting was like going to divorce court. Some people avoided making eye contact. Others gave the facilitator side-eye as she explained institutional racism.

It was the ’90s. I was a mid-level editor, a position with a lot of responsibility and little power, squeezed between the conflicting demands of top editors and reporters. What was then the American Society of Newspaper Editors was pushing for newsrooms to mirror the demographics of the country.

As a black woman, I was committed to creating more inclusive coverage, but I was tired of trying to lead from the middle. Explaining to reporters why their stories needed more inclusive sources or expressing to editors in daily news meetings why a story frame could be offensive to people of color kept me in a state of hyper-vigilance.

Nearly 30 years later, in a more racially diverse nation under a president who spits racist insults on Twitter, news organizations are still struggling to become inclusive and equitable spaces. Then and now, journalists are not immune to the infectious dialogue around race, gender, sexual orientation and other issues of identity, representation and power that inform a national debate about who is an American.

We live in the same fractured nation as presidential supporters who chant, “Send her back!” Yet our jobs require tremendous responsibility in reporting about identity and representation because, unlike most people, we have the power to define what our fellow Americans should know each day. To rise above the fray, we need newsrooms that foster, value and empower journalists with different viewpoints and life experiences.

I received my first lessons in how to create inclusive newsrooms as a mid-level manager. They still resonate with me today as the CEO of a national investigative news organization.


This article originally appeared in an issue of The Cohort, Poynter’s newsletter for women kicking ass in digital media. Join the conversation here.


Lesson No. 1 – It’s not about you; it’s about the work.

 

When I was still a new editor, I criticized my newspaper’s coverage for not being inclusive. My distraught white supervising editor asked me, “Are you calling me a racist?”

Of course, that wasn’t the point or my intention. I learned a valuable lesson that day: You can’t let the personal hijack the professional.

Talking about gender, race and other issues of identity is like walking across a field of landmines because it pushes people who have historically had power and privilege (in society and newsrooms) to think about the assumptions behind their news decisions. And that makes them uncomfortable.

The antidote is focusing on the work: Make the case for why diversity, equity and inclusion are integral to your newsroom’s ability to produce excellent journalism. In an article in the spring 2015 edition of Nieman Reports, Kevin Merida, editor-in-chief of The Undefeated and a former managing editor at The Washington Post, said it best: “We’re in the business of explaining people to each other. How can we do that if we don’t have enough variety in our newsroom?”

Lesson No. 2 – It’s not about you; it’s about policies.

 

It was the perfect editing job for me. I wanted it and was qualified. But the job went to a white man who had seniority and had paid his dues in the organization. All things being equal, the natural default position for managers is to hire the person with seniority. But valuing seniority over other criteria often means missing out on a chance to build a more inclusive newsroom.

Policies around hiring, training and promotion are as fundamental to creating a diverse and equitable newsroom as how we decide which stories to pursue. Lack of transparency, not skills or ability, often keep women, people of color and other groups without historic power out of the running for jobs.

Here’s some policy questions to ask: Are all newsroom jobs posted internally and externally? Does your organization have goals, like the Mansfield Rule, which seeks to increase diversity in hiring? (The diversity committee at the Center for Public Integrity, where I work, has suggested this approach to create a more inclusive staff.)

A diversity consultant once told me an inclusive newsroom is a transparent newsroom in which everyone ultimately benefits. Her point isn’t made enough.

Lesson No. 3 – It’s not about you; it’s about newsroom leadership.

 

In every newsroom where I’ve worked, I’ve participated in a diversity effort. I knew my colleagues and I had valuable insight to share with the newsroom, but we resented that we had to do the heavy lifting. It’s often left to people who are underrepresented in newsrooms and whose communities are marginalized in coverage to lead diversity efforts.

But, at some point, our collective power is not enough.

While we are the agents of change, newsroom leadership enforces change. When top managers are on board, it sends the message to staff that diversity, equity and inclusion are company values. Newsroom leaders have the power to hold people accountable and develop policies that enforce change. Without their ongoing commitment, diversity will be a task on a checklist, not a value that informs the day-to-day journalism.

A little show-and-tell can help push the bosses to champion diversity. Identify successful examples from other newsrooms, and if you are a mid-level editor, make opportunities in your newsroom to create diverse teams to report a story or series.


Nearly 30 years after sitting in my first newsroom diversity session, I can understand why the facilitator talked about institutional racism. It’s simpler to identify robed bigots as the problem than it is to fathom a system of interlacing policies, practices and laws that marginalize entire groups.

In hindsight, the facilitator taught me the most valuable lesson: If you want an inclusive newsroom, you must acknowledge how policies and practices construct roadblocks to diversity and equity.

As someone who now has the power to create and lead an inclusive newsroom, it is an early lesson I am taking to heart.


For additional insights, inside jokes and ongoing conversations about women in digital media, sign up to receive The Cohort in your inbox every other Tuesday.