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Jan. 14, 2019, 1:51 p.m.

Calling racism racism and remembering not everyone is white: Some predictions for 2019 about diversity in news

“Who exactly do we mean when we say ‘we’?”

Our end-of-year “Predictions for Journalism” package has grown and grown and grown since its first iteration back in 2011. For the 2019 iteration, we published more than 200, and it’s possible I am literally the only person alive to have read all of them.

So over the next few days, we’ll be running what I’m calling Prediction Playlists — collections of predictions centered around a particular theme. Hopefully they’ll give you a point of entry into what can be an intimidating pile of #content. Today’s theme: diversity and representation

Diversity has been an ongoing theme in Nieman Lab predictions for as long as they’ve existed. (Which is eight years.) The knowledge that the news industry sabotages itself by being too white and too male is pretty well accepted at this point — it’s just been awfully hard to see that translated into much action.

The list of ways a lack of representation hurts news is long, but one place to start is straightforward: It makes our reporting worse. The single most popular prediction we ran this year (in terms of readership) came from Jenée Desmond-Harris of The New York Times, with a headline as direct as the piece itself: It finally sinks in that some people aren’t white.

Is it really true that evangelical voters, or women voters, or rural voters or southern voters have a certain outlook? Or would it be more accurate to say that the trends we’re reporting in a political piece are true for white members of these groups?

Is it really true that that neighborhood or food or hairstyle is newly “cool” to everyone? Or would it be more accurate to say in a trend piece that it’s only recently been embraced by white Americans?

Is it really true that that deceased politician is remembered fondly by Americans for his civility and kindness, or is that much less true when it comes to people who were affected by his firm stances against civil rights and embrace of racist dog whistles?

Who exactly do we mean when we say “we”?

I hope 2019 is the year that members of the media begin to make it a practice to pause and ask ourselves these questions in each and every piece, whether we’re opining or reporting.

Jenée Desmond-Harris, staff editor in the Opinion section of The New York Times:

“When we suggest that something is true of everyone — or of a group of people — when it’s really a more accurate description of what’s true of white people in that group, it alienates readers and destroys trust: If you’ve forgotten that people of color exist, what else have you missed?”

(I feel obliged to point out that, the day after her prediction ran, The New York Times mis“we”ed in a big way.)

The second-most-popular prediction this year? From the AP’s Errin Haines Whack, who decried the way too-white newsrooms hesitate to label racism racism.

Errin Haines Whack, The Associated Press’ national writer on race and ethnicity:

“By not confronting racism or reducing it to matter of opinion on an individual or systemic level in our journalism — the first draft of history — we leave a less accurate record for those who come behind us. We are not in the hint business; we are here to report facts, including the difficult facts of racism.”

“It also leaves many journalists of color, who are often less hesitant to make it plain when racism makes news, alone in the fight and pleading their case to squeamish gatekeepers,” Whack wrote.

Being too removed from communities of color can also mean missing out on angles we should be covering. One example: Indigenous journalists bring a different perspective to climate change reporting.

Candis Callison, associate professor in the University of British Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism:

“Indigenous journalists and media counter this systematic bias often by reporting on what isn’t covered (or covered well, or covered consistently) by other media. But also — and this is a crucial difference — they do so by turning to Indigenous people as experts on their lives and their histories.”

Colleen Shalby, engagement editor for the Los Angeles Times:

“A breadth of ideas ensures that we are going after untapped angles and asking the right questions, which may not always be the most obvious. It ensures that those at the table deciding what type of coverage to prioritize have checks and balances on their blind spots.”

So who’s going to fix it? Much of the responsibility falls to news organizations’ current leadership, which hasn’t always inspired much confidence around the issue of diversity. Managers of all backgrounds will need to address it in recruiting, hiring, and promotion decisions.

Elite Truong, deputy editor for strategic initiatives at The Washington Post:

“Those of us who have influence in recruiting need to purposely participate in networks of applicants with a wide range of personal, educational, socioeconomic, and professional backgrounds.”

Dave Burdick, editor of Denverite:

“More pressingly (or depressingly), newsrooms will get on it because there’s building public pressure, and because it’s increasingly plain that representation is a huge issue. Do you have any idea how embarrassing it’ll be if the Oscars figure out the importance of diversity before newsrooms do?”

Kate Myers, executive director of revenue and operations at First Look Media:

“If we only allow the voices of white people from established backgrounds who have long held power to shape our news, we will continue to harm our democracy.”

Zuzanna Ziomecka, editor of NewsMavens:

“The next outdated hindrance to our sustainable future to be thrown into the volcano is old-school, big-man, charismatic, ego-driven leadership.”

But it’ll take a deeper commitment than just checking the diversity box by having a training session one afternoon. The cultural issues go well beyond what’s fixable in an afternoon.

Jennifer Dargan, assistant director of Wisconsin Public Radio’s The Ideas Network:

“The best news organizations, those working to secure their place in a rapidly shifting journalism world, will not only recruit more people of color but will work hard to get them to stay by intentionally shifting the culture.”

It’s not just in writers and editors where the problem is felt — undiverse groups of photographers, photo editors, illustrators, and videographers all risk ignoring important perspectives in their work.

Kainaz Amaria, visuals editor for Vox:

“Images are no more inherently objective than words are. Each photograph is the result of many, many, many decisions large and small — who assigns the story, how the story is framed, who is assigned to photograph the story, what that photographer chooses to see, what the editor decides to publish, and how the story is promoted.”

More diverse leadership would also mean journalists of color wouldn’t have to spend quite as much time navigating these issues in their day-to-day lives.

Seema Yasmin, cofounder of the Survival Kit for Journalists of Color:

“We will still write and delete draft tweets, still ask ourselves: Should I bite my tongue to keep my job, or say something to keep my sanity?”

But if current industry leadership doesn’t see the need for change, maybe it’ll just take the passage of time — as both journalistic talent and our audiences grow more diverse by the day.

Robert Hernandez, web journalism professor at USC Annenberg:

“Instead of letting you burn us out and following the many that left this industry, this wave has decided to drown you out.”

Illustration of “The Seer” by Adamastor Studio used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Jan. 14, 2019, 1:51 p.m.
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