By:
September 13, 2021

One of the benefits of the conversations we’re all having about creating more equitable and inclusive newsrooms is that systemic biases don’t get to hide as easily in plain sight.

This is a good thing. And any newsroom that gets called out should treat it as a learning moment.

Let’s take, for example, the debacle that was The Washington Post internship application announcement.

What went wrong

It started Aug. 30 with this now-deleted tweet, saying students who apply must have had “previous experience in a major newsroom.”

(Screenshot/Twitter)

The backlash was immediate: The Post is looking for students with incredible connections and privilege. Because how else could you have had experience in a “major newsroom” by the time you’re a junior? (I know I didn’t.)

But let’s go deeper.

Who are the students who can afford graduate school? What about students who can’t afford to live in “major” cities for a summer internship? Does experience with a professional-level college newspaper count?

Being the editor of my small weekly college newspaper was hard.

Every week, our team had to wrangle student writers, many of whom weren’t going to become journalists. Every week, I edited stories. And sometimes, I even drove the final product to the printer an hour away and delivered the stacks of papers around campus. All this, I did in addition to going to class, studying and taking tests.

I’ve since worked with interns who served as editors of daily school newspapers, managing a large staff of students and breaking stories about their school and community. That impressive work ethic and dedication should be recognized.

What continued to go wrong

Within two days, the Post deleted the tweet, saying it “didn’t match the language” in the FAQ.

(Screenshot/Twitter)

So the language in the FAQ says “applicants must have had at least one previous professional news media job or internship.”

Ahem. See above.

It was too late. The cat was long gone from the bag, and the Post had clearly shown its bias for students with a certain experience.

And by then, people also noticed that the last item in the FAQ was definitely not cute.

“Still have questions?” it reads. “Send an email … but be warned that if you ask a question that has been covered here, it will count against you!”

(Screenshot/The Washington Post)

It’s the passive-aggressive exclamation point for me.

Ryan Murphy, who works at the Los Angeles Times, tweeted out this part of the FAQ and wrote: “What kind of gatekeeping power trip is this? Intern programs should be run with empathy, not fear.”

Murphy is right.

This is an FAQ meant to describe the internship, it’s not the application itself. Reading an FAQ should not be a comprehension test. And it also says foreign citizens can apply … imagine how lost in translation that “joke” can be.

Murphy’s tweet has more than 800 likes and 130 retweets, mostly from people who agree with him. Yet, the Post has not changed that line in its FAQ.

Reached by email, a Post spokesperson said they had nothing additional to share.

Why is this colonist?

This is the result of decades of newsrooms being shaped by a colonist (read: white, middle- to upper-class people) mindset. There’s little consideration for someone with different experiences; there’s little room for error; there’s little empathy.

And what you end up with is people hiring people from the same educational backgrounds, and therefore same economic backgrounds, and therefore the same lived experiences, and therefore and therefore.

As newsrooms continue their push for more equity and diversity, how internships are structured cannot be left out.

In April 2020, the Pew Research Center released 10 statistics about American newsrooms that include these points based on data from 2013-2017:

  • About three-quarters (76%) of newsroom employees are non-Hispanic white. Compare that to U.S. workers in all occupations and industries, where 64% is non-Hispanic white.
  • Newsroom employees are more than twice as likely as other U.S. workers to be college graduates. Nearly eight-in-ten newsroom employees (79%) have a college degree, while about four-in-ten U.S. workers overall (37%) graduated from college.

How can we decolonize this scenario?

This is not to say that newsrooms shouldn’t hire interns with previous newsroom experience. This is to say that if you truly want to attract people with a range of life experiences, you have to be more inclusive and empathetic in your hiring process.

Here are just some ideas:

  • Don’t select for one type of experience. It’s possible a college junior will not have worked in a newsroom but have had incredible experience at a campus news outlet. Consider that.
  • Work with your local colleges to find students from communities you cover, so a student doesn’t have to worry about moving expenses. Consider setting an internal goal of filling at least one intern opening with someone local.
  • Don’t penalize from the start.
  • Value skills as much as experience. What if the FAQ also talked about the type of person who would make a good intern — curiosity, passion, a person who wants to become a better writer — instead of just what previous experience they had?
  • It’s not about what you get, it’s about what you put into the world. Yes, an intern will get a lot from the experience, but that’s not the sell for your newsroom. You want good interns so you can nurture young journalists who will later change the world, one story at a time.

It’s important to remember that anyone in the newsroom can be part of decolonizing journalism. In the Post’s example, it can include the person who drafted the FAQ; the person who edited and posted it; and the person who wrote the tweet.

Each of us has the power to challenge and break tradition in small but meaningful ways.

What ideas do you have? Share them with me! Let’s decolonize together.

Are there other “decolonizing journalism” topics you’d like to talk about? Email me at kathy@audiencibility.com. Find me on Twitter @kathyluwho.

A version of this article was originally published on Audiencibility.com. It is republished here with permission.  

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Kathy Lu has more than two decades of experience in journalism as a leader and manager. She founded her consulting business, Audiencibility, to continue her…
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