December 7, 2021

In four Chicago area newsrooms, work is underway to recognize internal biases, to bring more inclusive perspectives into stories, and to cover communities with intention.

Poynter learned about their projects as part of our outreach funded by a grant from the Robert R. McCormick Foundation. As the grant coordinator, I connected with each newsroom to glean lessons that can be shared with others.

Our one-hour Q&A presentation with leaders from each newsroom — the Chicago Sun-Times, WGN-TV, The Associated Press and the Chicago Tribune — is available as a self-directed course. Enroll here for free.

Here’s a look at what the newsroom shared.

Content audits: The Chicago Sun-Times and WGN-TV

Content audits are one way to better understand where the internal biases are when it comes to the type of people regularly quoted in stories to how communities are represented in overall coverage.

The Chicago Sun-Times and WGN-TV started audits to better understand representation in their current coverage. Here’s how they’re doing it.

Outsourcing vs. internal

  • The Sun-Times is paying a small group of college students $1,000 each to audit two months’ worth of papers, said Mary Mitchell, the director of culture and community engagement.

The students have to know Chicago neighborhoods well. They were told not to spend more than 15 hours a week on the audit. “Where are we falling down? That’s our main focus right now,” Mitchell said.

  • WGN-TV is asking reporters and producers to do source audits on their own stories.

What to track

  • The Sun-Times is using an Excel spreadsheet to track 17 demographics, including neighborhoods, story placement and types of sources quoted (individuals, organizations, elected officials, etc.). The students were asked to look at how often neighborhoods were covered or misidentified.
  • WGN-TV is using a Google form and is tracking its sources in four demographics, including ZIP code so it can better understand where its sources tend to live.

Advice for others

  • If you can hire students, do it. “We are engaging them in our newsroom. They’re the ones who will be in the pipeline going forward and they will already have a relationship with the Chicago Sun-Times,” Mitchell said.
  • Start simple. You don’t have to do a whole year’s worth of content. Start with one month of stories by a few reporters.
  • Start with a few demographics. Choose ones that are important for you to know.
  • Expect pushback. Dana Ballard, a producer at WGN-TV, said she chose four reporters who are organized and interested in the project to do their own audits. She plans to use their results as a way to get more buy-in from others.
  • Use the results as a baseline. Your results are where you are now. Set a goal for changing the results within a set time period.
  • Plan to share. How will you share results with the newsroom, with the public? What actions can be taken from the results?

Making inclusion part of story process: The Associated Press

Bringing an inclusive lens to a story needs to become part of everyone’s workflow for it to lead to system-wide change, and that is what the AP is working to achieve through its new Inclusion Champions program.

The program has designated a group of about 25 reporters, including those on the Race & Ethnicity team, to be consultants to editors and writers on improving diversity and inclusion in stories.

Roger Schneider, AP news editor for the Midwest region, shared some examples of how champions have made stories better:

  • By pointing out negative stereotypes in a story about public transit.
  • By changing non-inclusive language, such as referring to women instead of pregnant people in stories about abortion legislation.

Schneider offers these tips for other newsrooms.

  • Be open to feedback. Don’t get defensive. Recognize that everyone has something to learn.
  • Recognize it takes time. If you want a writer to get more diverse sources on a story, give them time to do it.
  • Be accountable for mistakes. You’re not always going to get it right, but you need to acknowledge when you get it wrong and act differently next time.
  • Build inclusion into the story process, from story idea to draft. Start a Slack channel where people can ask for feedback or ask questions about making stories more inclusive.
  • Find the champions in your newsroom. Find the people who are keenly interested in how stories are done or who have different lived experiences and perspectives. Ask for their critiques.
  • Share successes. Celebrate and thank the people who helped improve a story. It’s about “making (diversity and inclusion) part of the conversation before and during the reporting and, at times, after doing stories to see what we can do better,” Schneider said.

Mapping subscribers by ZIP code: The Chicago Tribune

The Chicago Tribune wanted to better cover underserved communities, but with a focus on potential for subscriber growth. So it had its analytics team dive into subscriber numbers from 2018-2021.

Based on the results, the newsroom decided to focus on three neighborhoods that showed potential for growth and also were underserved by the news organization: Bronzeville, Pilsen and Little Village.

Rochell Bishop Sleets, director of news, shared their plan.

What does intentional coverage look like?

  • The reporters who cover the neighborhoods also live there, and are often seen at coffee shops, for example.
  • Telling small stories, such as about a local watch guard group, and the larger ones. The goal is to not parachute in for stories.
  • Making stories of high service — like COVID-19 information — more accessible by dropping the paywall or translating into Spanish.

What were the results?

  • In Bronzeville, historically known as the city’s “Black Metropolis,” the Tribune saw growth from a few hundred subscribers in 2018 to more than a couple thousand in 2021.
  • In Pilsen and Little Village, both centers of Latino and Mexican American cultures, the Tribune saw subscribers increase by more than 300%.

Advice for others

  • Rely on an in-house team to do analytics.
  • Include these neighborhoods as sources of other stories, too, like education, health, politics and food. Don’t isolate them.
  • Draw from your own experiences. “Just by living here and knowing what stories are being told and not being told has helped me inform the folks about what we need to be doing,” Sleets said.
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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…
Kathy Lu

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