By:
February 3, 2021

As media organizations continue to scrutinize their diversity and equity initiatives following last summer’s industry-wide reckoning, some are turning their attention to the core of every story — sources.

Two new source databases — one from the Asian American Journalists Association, the other from Spotlight PA — have sprung up in recent months to make it easier for journalists to diversify their stories’ sources. AAJA’s database, part of its new AAJA Studio initiative, highlights Asian American and Pacific Islander subject matter experts, while the Spotlight PA Diverse Source Database focuses on Pennsylvania-based experts.

The initiatives come as newsrooms across the country reevaluate their coverage for issues of diversity. Some, like The Sacramento Bee, have zeroed in on source diversity and conducted audits of their stories.

Diverse source databases represent a possible solution though they are not a new concept. There are lists ranging in subject from political scientists of color to women in the life sciences. A group of editors of color has even put together a database of diverse databases.

The Spotlight PA newsroom decided to create its Diverse Source Database amid discussions about diversity initiatives last summer after the George Floyd protests. Because Spotlight PA, a statewide investigative journalism organization, is relatively new, they nixed the idea of a content audit and decided to jump straight into building their own database with local sources.

“The problem that we find with (existing databases) is that such a large percentage of reporting is local reporting,” editor-in-chief Chris Baxter said. “And those databases aren’t necessarily helpful to the reporters in those areas, so we wanted to create a state-specific source database.”

The database team, headed by journalist Tamara Dunn, solicited nominations for experts from other journalists and organizations. They outlined some broad categories of expertise using the NPR Source of the Week directory as a model but allowed nominees to use keywords to describe their identities and areas of authority.

The goal, Baxter said, was to avoid “gatekeeping” who could be considered an expert since journalists who used the database could ultimately decide whether or not to reach out to a source.

“We didn’t really want to take nominations and then be in the position of vetting whether someone should be included or not,” Baxter said. “So we basically said, experts of color is the purpose of the database, but that expertise could be traditional — like academic — it could be experience-based, it could be community-based.”

When AAJA put together its database last year, the organization initially struggled to decide which categories of expertise to include, said executive director Naomi Tacuyan Underwood. They ultimately decided to focus on areas related to policy, soliciting names of experts from the AAJA membership, think tanks and national community groups that had worked on policy at the local and national level.

“2020 was a census year — a decennial census — as well as an important presidential election year,” Underwood said. “The AAPI community has been growing in terms of the influence it can wield on local, state and of course the national election, so we thought that it would be timely to pick topics and issue areas that were more policy-related.”

The AAJA database is part of AAJA Studio, an AAPI speakers studio that includes a list of AAPI journalists who can also serve as experts on their coverage areas.

“A diverse perspective and diverse viewpoints are important for the media to champion and capture,” Underwood said. “Journalists of color especially should be considered experts and be uplifted and sought after when it comes to telling a story.”

The AAJA database contains more than 70 journalists and experts, and the Spotlight PA directory has more than 100 listings. Both organizations are still taking nominations and view their initial lists as just that — a start.

Baxter pointed out that there are limitations to Spotlight PA’s database. There are experts who the newsroom may not have reached, and some people of color may decline to be included because they distrust the media or do not want to be part of a public-facing database.

While inviting nominees to take part in the database, Dunn said some people shared concerns that they would only be asked about issues that dealt with people of color. She had to explain that was not the goal of the database.

“We’re not going to call you for Black History Month, or we’re not going to only call you for Hispanic Heritage Month,” Dunn said. “We’re going to call you when we need something about citizenship or something about medicine or health insurance or technology. We want you to be a part of our whole news.”

Dunn estimated that of the nominees who expressed concerns, roughly 15% declined to join even after she explained the database’s purpose — a figure that surprised her. For much of her career as a journalist, Dunn had seen issues related to source diversity, and she had expected it would be easier to get experts to join.

“Some journalists will always go to the same sources that they’ve had for 10 years, and it will most likely be a white male, and you only get that voice in all your stories,” Dunn said. “That’s not reflective of what our culture and what our people are these days. We are more complex, we are more diverse, and we are looking for fresh voices in our coverage.”

Underwood said AAJA Studio is hoping to add experts in entertainment and culture. Spotlight PA is also accepting nominations and has already set aside money for a more complete update in six to eight months, Baxter said.

Though both organizations are looking into ways to track usage, there are already some promising signs. Baxter said some of his reporters have used experts listed in the database, and the newsroom has consulted the database to find panelists for the reader Q&A sessions it hosts. He has also met with other journalists who are looking to create similar databases for their own states.

But Baxter warned that diverse source databases are not a “silver bullet” in addressing issues of racism and inequality in journalism.

“At the end of the day the reporter and the editor and whoever else is involved has to take personal responsibility to make sure our coverage reflects our community and the diversity of that community,” Baxter said. “No matter how many tools or databases we create, nothing will replace that ultimate individual responsibility that we all have as journalists.”

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Angela Fu is a freelance reporter based in Birmingham, Ala. and a contributor to Poynter.org. She can be reached at afu@poynter.org or on Twitter @angelanfu.
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