September 21, 2015

Journalism is facing its own battle for hearts and minds.

That’s what I took from my recent conversation with Joshunda Sanders, author of “How Racism and Sexism Killed Traditional Media: Why the Future of Journalism Depends on Women and People of Color.”

Sanders has worked as a freelancer, a reporter in newsrooms including the Austin American-Statesman, and as a researcher for the Maynard Institute. We discussed her book, the ubiquitous media diversity “problem,” and how quantitative solutions such as fellowship programs and internships alone haven’t solved it. Our conversation left me wondering whether personal relationships inside and out of the newsroom could be a missing link.

“One of the main things that annoys me about the media diversity conversation is that it puts the onus on women and people of color to make the change,” she said.

“It’s almost like you need a magical alignment of forces to come to your aid to become a Dean Baquet or Jill Abramson. It can’t just be that all the women or all the people of color who want to get to the top don’t have the skills or aren’t connected. It just can’t be that for the last 50 years.”

Indeed, in the Twitter conversation on #mediadiversity that unfolded on Tanzina Vega’s timeline last month, several participants mentioned that it isn’t just the degree credentials, internship experience or plum assignments that have helped them stay in the business for years on end. It’s relationships.

Those relationships, like the one the late David Carr forged with Ta-Nehisi Coates during the latter’s days at Washington City Paper, are essential not only to keeping diverse talent in U.S. newsrooms, they’re part of a culturally competent response to a problem of culture, not statistics.

Sanders mentioned a factoid that I’d heard in passing but had to reconsider as I thought about its implications. In a story published last year by The Washington Post, numbers from the Public Religion Research Institute indicated that “three-quarters of White Americans don’t have any non-White friends.” On average, Black Americans only had eight White friends. And between those two groups, each has a collective three or four friends of Hispanic or Asian ancestry.

Applying that personal relationship lens to the newsroom exposes an issue of personal parity that could have professional implications. If conventional wisdom about hiring managers beginning with their networks to find and recruit talent is to be believed, it begs the question: who’s in those networks? If an editor rarely interacts with people from backgrounds different than their own, how do they “see” these people when it’s time for hiring and promotion?

Diversity is a practice, not a target.

Diversity is a practice, not a target. In order for it to work in corporate structures, there must be personal application. That goes beyond picking and choosing the best and brightest talent for your newsroom. It means interacting with people from diverse communities to better understand different backgrounds and ways of seeing.

As it stands, current industry diversity practices focus on the quantitative side of the problem – the numbers that indicate our progress in hiring and promoting women and people of color. But decades of initiatives have yet to shift the culture of power that sees diversity as a matter of simple parity.

“The diversity conversation about media is very circular in terms. One of the reasons it stays that way is because of power and privilege,” Sanders said.

Expand your horizons

Diversity mixers and mentorship programs, like those offered at ONA’s National Convention this week, are a start. The challenge is to go further. A few small steps:

— Be a regular participant in community and cultural events hosted by local groups.

— Make an effort to have a standing lunch date with diverse talent.

— Target the use of your social-media accounts to regularly and empathetically “listen” closely to a community you know nothing about.

— Read niche magazines, newspapers and blogs created by and for diverse communities.

— Recognize that “the classics” go far beyond what you read in high school: Read some of
the classic (and contemporary!) works by authors recommended by people outside your traditional circles.

If most Americans do not make it a practice to regularly engage with people from different backgrounds, and better yet, build relationships with them, why do we expect that industry leaders will magically make connections that equip them to serve as mentors, advocates and sponsors for people whose lives and experiences are far removed their general social circle? How will they learn how to recognize opportunities to use their power to build lasting legacies of diversity in their newsrooms?

Perhaps that’s the missing piece in the diversity problem.

Building newsroom diversity relies on building relationships with diverse people. Developing the skills to build and maintain those relationships is a practice that requires consistent work.

If industry leaders are serious about escaping the Kerner paradox — inaccurate, problematic coverage of communities of color — they might start by making personal commitments to get in touch with diverse communities.

Here’s a test to get you started: How many friends do you have that are people of color? How many friends do you have who are of another gender?

Not co-workers. Not people you met at professional functions. Not neighbors. Actual friends. The kind of people whose life experiences impact the way you see the world.

Since social media has given us the ability to widen our communities, let’s stretch that definition a bit: How many people of diverse racial, ethnic, socio-economic and sexual orientations do you regularly interact with on social media?

Hint: If you can actually count the number of times or the number of people, you’re doing it wrong.

Women and people of color go to journalism school – the numbers bear that out. We also write, shoot and produce in non-traditional spaces and build audiences in ways that professional gatekeepers have yet to master. Yet our representation continues to be a problem – from inaccurate reporting to erasure in coverage of every issue covered by legacy and digital media.

Failing to interact with diverse groups beyond our jobs as media leaders limits the potential impact of our diversity efforts.

History has indicated that the media diversity problem can’t be addressed through a numerical strategy alone. If, as Sanders writes, the future of journalism depends on women and people of color, it’s time for anyone who cares about that future to truly get to know us.

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Meredith Clark is an assistant professor at the Mayborn School of Journalism at the University of North Texas and a monthly columnist for Poynter. You…
Meredith D. Clark, Ph.D.

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