White journalists need to do better

Most American journalists are white. That’s something we should all remember as we follow the news during a week that just keeps getting worse.

Individual journalists – myself included – strive for transparency, fairness and accuracy, but when just 12.7 percent of editorial staffers in traditional U.S. newsrooms* are people of color, even responsible reporting on Baton Rouge, Minnesota and Dallas is likely to carry subtle, unintentional biases.

As I’ve written before, these biases are concerning in any organization that serves as a conduit for information, but they can become even more problematic when breaking news and systemic racism collide.

Plenty of good journalists of all backgrounds devote time and energy to covering racial issues in meaningful ways, but without diverse newsrooms, those stories may lack important context. Other stories may not get covered at all. As former New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan wrote last year, diverse newsrooms produce stronger journalism:

When the group is truly diverse, the nefarious groupthink that makes a publication predictable and, at times, unintentionally biased, is much more likely to be diminished. And that’s a good thing.

In other words, homogeneous teams often don’t know what they don’t know until it’s too late.

As a human being, I’m deeply troubled by everything that’s transpired in the past few days. But as a white person, I have no sense of the kind of fear, pain and exhaustion Fusion’s national political correspondent Terrell J. Starr describes in this video. Nor do I understand what it’s like to watch someone who looks like me die over and over and over again on the evening news. Or to tell the young people in my life that the way they dress or move could make them targets.

I’ve contemplated these kinds of differences every time stories break about race and policing, but contemplation isn’t enough. Not for me, not for any of us who purport to care about the future of journalism and the importance of a free, open and responsible press.

White journalists – especially the white, male journalists who hold the majority of newsroom leadership positions – need to do more. Much, much more.

Let’s start, as the American Press Institute suggests, by acknowledging that bias exists and “is embedded in the culture and language of the society on which the journalist reports.” API also reminds us that some forms of bias may actually be necessary to quality journalism:

 One can even argue that draining a story of all bias can drain it of its humanity, its lifeblood. In the biases of the community one can also find conflicting passions that bring stories to life. A bias, moreover, can be the foundation for investigative journalism. It may prompt the news organization to right a wrong and take up an unpopular cause. Thus, the job of journalists is not to stamp out bias. Rather, the journalist should learn how to manage it.

Beyond that, there are a handful of specific things we can do in our daily professional practices:

  • Anyone covering or editing stories like the ones out of Dallas or Louisiana or Minnesota should use even more care than usual when it comes to verification and consider questions like these when determining if, how and when to use graphic videos. Think about how you’re portraying victims and, whenever possible, seek to minimize harm to vulnerable parties.
  • Those of us teaching journalism should engage our students in conversations about race, gender, sexual identity, power and privilege. We should also encourage them to take non-journalism classes that explore those same themes.
  • When we’re hiring for our newsrooms we must, in the words of Robert Hernandez, understand that there is no pipeline problem when it comes to talented journalists who are not white, straight men. Click on that link to read his excellent tips on diversifying the application pool.

We should also constantly educate ourselves about the complex, challenging history of how the press has covered (and failed to cover) racial disparities in the U.S. and beyond. To that end, I’ve created a reading list at the bottom of this post. If you have other titles or authors to add, please do so in the comments.

*It’s unclear how the proliferation of digital-only publications will change journalism’s demographics. Recent research – including my own – hints that emerging news organizations may be replicating the racial and gender disparities in legacy news. But, as this Columbia Journalism Review piece points out, a growing list of digital publications have beats focused on race, culture and identity “baked into their organizational hierarchy.”

A Partial Reading List on Race and Journalism 

Chasing Newsroom Diversity: From Jim Crow to Affirmative Action, book by Gwyneth Mellinger

The Diversity Style Guide, online handbook

The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle and the Awakening of a Nation, book by Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff

Race and Reporting, the spring 2015 issue Nieman Reports

Why aren’t there more minority journalists?,  CJR piece by Alex T. Williams

Update (7/11): 

I received some great suggestions via Facebook and Twitter. Here they are:

Josh Stearns sent me a few links via Twitter. He suggests:

1.) News for All the  People: The Epic Story of Race and the American Media, book by Juan González and Joseph Torres.

2.) Moving the Race Conversation Forward, a report by Race Forward: The Center for Racial Justice Innovation

3.) This NPR story featuring African American journalists reflecting on covering the public deaths of other African Americans. In addition to audio, the package includes an essay by Gene Demby, lead blogger for NPR’s Code Switch team. He writes:

As calls for newsroom diversity get louder and louder — and rightly so — we might do well to consider what it means that there’s an emerging, highly valued professional class of black reporters at boldface publications reporting on the shortchanging of black life in this country…What it means — for the reporting we do, for the brands we represent, and for our own mental health — that we don’t stop being black people when we’re working as black reporters. That we quite literally have skin in the game.

On Facebook, former Concord Monitor reporter Jeremy Blackman suggested this guide to better reporting on race, police and community.

Keep the suggestions coming, please. Add titles in the comments below or ping me on social media.

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