January 28, 2016

The journalism industry has a diversity problem. It’s an old problem, and a pervasive one. I write this as the only woman on a small editorial staff that is all White.

That might be why, when Jose Antonio Vargas refocused the #OscarSoWhite conversation to center on journalism last week, it caught on. I spoke via email with Vargas, a Pulitzer Prize-winner who speaks around the country about immigration and identity, about the tweet that’s led to a renewed push for newsrooms to reflect the communities they cover.

I’ve seen a few tweets with this hashtag from last year, but when you pivoted from #OscarSoWhite to #JournalismSoWhite, it took off. What made it work?

Timing, of course, is everything. #OscarSoWhite (started by April Reign, managing editor of Broadwayblack.com) really hit a nerve last week when, for the second consecutive year, all acting Oscar nominees are White in a country that is about 40 percent non-White. I was reading the initial press coverage and started noticing that most of the journalists reporting on the issue were White. Which led me to ask: If we are analyzing the lack of diversity in Oscar nominations, can we also examine the makeup of our own industry?

I didn’t realize that #JournalismSoWhite trended nationally on Friday night until a couple of journalist friends texted me while I was in Des Moines, Iowa for the inaugural Define American Film Festival. I think the reason #JournalismSoWhite trended is the growing frustration among many journalists of color and White journalists who have been awake or have just woken up to this persistent problem.

Interactive: Find out how diverse the newspaper industry is

How has the newsroom diversity conversation changed since ​you started in the newsroom? Has it?

I was fortunate to have worked in newsrooms when conversations about diversity and inclusion seemed serious or, at least, wrapped with good intentions. Shortly after arriving at The Washington Post in 2004, I remember Milton Coleman, the deputy managing editor, leading a report on diversity among staffers and senior editors. In my opinion, the defining causes of disruption in the news industry (particularly in newspapers) in the past 20 years are technological and demographic. And, in various ways, most news organizations have failed in fully addressing both.

Ben Smith should be commended for the transparency that BuzzFeed has exhibited when it comes to newsroom diversity. In October 2014, Smith wrote a much-circulated “diversity manifesto,” if I may call it that, outlining, among others, BuzzFeed’s “rough and evolving hiring guide.” A year later, BuzzFeed followed up by reporting that it had improved on hiring more women and journalists of color. Now the question is, will The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, CNN, ABC News, et al, among others, follow BuzzFeed’s lead? Let’s look at The New York Times.  Using the hashtag #JournalismSoWhite, I tweeted two questions (which also applied to The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal):

And given the importance of the Latino vote in an election in which Latinos have been under attack, I had to tweet this:

These are basic questions that require answers. How can we hold Capitol Hill, Wall Street, Hollywood, and Silicon Valley accountable if we journalists don’t hold our newsrooms accountable?

NPR Visuals is trying to reduce the effects of privilege while hiring

How do you now experience the realities of #JournalismSoWhite in your work with #DefineAmerican and “White People?”

Define American worked with MTV on “White People.” One of the chief goals of that one-hour documentary is to examine white privilege and underscore the connection between race and immigration. For example, when we think of immigrants (documented and undocumented), why don’t we think of White immigrants? Immigrants in particular and people of color in general often get asked where we are from. (It’s that uncomfortable “where-are-you-from-from?” question.) Well, where are White people from? How did they get here? Unless you’re a Native American indigenous to this land or an African brought to the U.S. as a slave, what is your story of migration? What specific laws were in the books when you migrated? I would argue that media coverage of race and immigration is largely inadequate because American newsrooms are ill-equipped to report on these sensitive issues with the requisite nuance and context.

As our country undergoes an unprecedented demographic makeover, this is the question that every White journalist must ask: Is my newsroom representative of the community we are trying to serve?

Making the case for Black with a capital B. Again.

Where would you like to see #JournalismSoWhite go next?

Journalists love holding people and institutions accountable — we speak truth to power. That is our job. But given our own power, are we holding ourselves accountable? #JournalismSoWhite is meant to spark conversations, uncomfortable as they may be. I would like to think, and I hope, that the conversation that was started online can move to offline conversations in newsrooms across the country (and also in journalism schools, where the new generation of journalists are being trained). One of my favorite quotes about journalism came from the playwright Arthur Miller: “A good newspaper, I suppose, is a nation talking to itself.” Since #JournalismSoWhite, we are nowhere close to hearing everyone.

Editor’s note: Poynter.org’s editorial staff has chosen to capitalize Black and White in recognition of their status as racial identities.

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Kristen Hare teaches local journalists the critical skills they need to serve and cover their communities as Poynter's local news faculty member. Before joining faculty…
Kristen Hare

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