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Sept. 23, 2019, 12:33 p.m.
Reporting & Production

What does it take to change a newsroom’s racial narrative? Minnesota Public Radio built a coalition to try

“I know we’re on the right track, but we need a conductor to keep us on the rails.”

The journalism industry has plenty of problems to work through these days, but one of the most-cited (and least-widely-acted upon) issues is diversity. Barely one in five newsroom journalists are people of color, in a country of 24 percent people of color, according to the 41st annual survey of legacy newspapers (and now online-only outlets, too).

Minnesota Public Radio, where 15 percent of employees are people of color, did its own survey earlier this year — of 250 media professionals in its state — using two research firms. Almost a third of respondents said the Minnesota media portrays indigenous people and people of color poorly, and that number jumped to 49 percent when surveying non-white media professionals. Ninety-five percent said white people are generally presented fairly or positively in the media, and two-thirds said black people are not.

The survey was conducted as part of a larger initiative to help local media reconsider harmful racial narratives (reporting on crime or certain groups of people in un-nuanced ways, for example) coordinated by the station and five other local partners, funded by the Saint Paul & Minnesota Foundations. (Community foundations are stepping up their support for journalism, a recent Media Impact Funders report found, with five percent of journalism philanthropy since 2009 coming from 114 community foundations.) The survey came in the midst of a year-long listening process to develop training via a two-day conference for Minnesota journalists off the foundation’s grant.

“Some might ask: Why MPR News? Doesn’t it have issues related to race inside its own newsroom?” news and programming executive director Nancy Cassutt wrote in a post announcing the initiative. “Yes. When the coalition was awarded the grant, my newsroom was experiencing some turnover in staffing. Churn is normal, but it was impossible to ignore that a disproportionate number of the departures involved journalists of color. Seven left within the course of about a year.”

“We’re not perfect. I acknowledge it’s not intended, but some of our work has caused harm in communities of color because it’s not the complete story or there’s a voice missing or we just didn’t get it right,” said Ka Vang, MPR’s director of impact and community engagement and one of the leaders of the organization’s initiative. “When I was given the opportunity [with this grant to address it], the approach was a coalition.”

In a couple of days, Vang had pulled together the coalition:

  1. radio station KMOJ, focused on communities of color in Minneapolis;
  2. Minnesota Humanities Center, a St. Paul-based nonprofit which helped provide the curriculum for the training;
  3. Pillsbury United Communities, a Minneapolis nonprofit that includes a newspaper and low-power FM radio station for underrepresented communities;
  4. ThreeSixty Journalism, part of the University of St. Thomas that trains high school journalists;
  5. Hamline University, the conference’s host.

“We invited several nonprofit news organizations to apply for a grant to help tackle problematic racial narratives in media,” said Nadege Souvenir, the foundation’s vice president of operations and learning. “MPR’s proposal was compelling because of their involvement of community partners in forming the work and their desire to be informed by the communities most impacted by existing problematic narratives.”

In July 2018, the foundation awarded the team the $250,000 (which later became $332,000) grant with the aim of “[changing] problematic racial narratives and their representation in local news media by helping news professionals uncover their own biases and assumptions, and amplifying community solutions to narrative change.” That set in motion the survey and the year of listening and reflecting on each newsroom’s own harmful habits, culminating in the March conference and commitments from the 275 participants going forward.

Vang and her co-planners wanted to answer “this really crucial question: Who is missing at the table and who do we want to hear from?”

This was where KMOJ general manager Freddie Bell, among others, came in. A historically black urban radio station founded in 1976, KMOJ is an “organization with its legacy that talks directly to the community that in many cases is directly impacted by the narratives presented,” Bell told me. “The community wins or loses just by the narrative itself.”

He, Vang, and others from the coalition organized 18 community listening sessions across Minnesota, from historical mining towns to tribal nations, to talk about how journalism had affected their lives. They also coordinated a group of white journalists to talk about the racial narratives they were participating in. That helped them develop the programming for the March conference itself.

The conference included sessions from “The Power of Story” (“How do stories and narratives shape the way we know ourselves and the way we perceive others? And what effect does it have on the health of civic life when some stories get elided while others get privileged?”) to “Amplifying Community Solutions for Change” (“gathers participants in circle to build skills around deep listening as they eavesdrop on a diverse and intergenerational group of individuals discussing what change can — and should — look like.”). One particularly poignant moment for Cassutt and Laura Yuen, MPR’s editor for new audiences supervising reporters reporting on race, class, and communities, was when a woman described the pain of looking for information about her brother’s violent death and finding articles that quoted the police in describing his passing as gang-related, which she said was inaccurate. “She was so sad that that was how they portrayed him to be,” Yuen said. “One of our editors stood up at the conference and said ‘I’m going to commit to not just using it when a cop says it was gang-related — not to take that at face value and do more research before labeling it that way,'” Cassutt said.

At the same time, MPR’s newsroom was undergoing its own introspection. Before the conference, Yuen led newsroom discussions — one focusing on journalists of color, one on white journalists — on its own racial narrative. “If MPR was going to be part of it, we as a newsroom also needed to initiate these conversations about how well we are portraying indigenous people and people of color,” she said (no, this wasn’t in her job description). “I held brown bag conversations to carve a space to examine ourselves coming to the conference from a standpoint of humility.”

And after the aforementioned seven journalists of color departed, staff writer Mukhtar Ibrahim also left for the Star Tribune and then came back — sort of — to launch his own publication focused on reporting to and for the state’s immigrant population. (We wrote about his effort, which launched last month, here.) MPR is incubating Sahan Journal as it grows, which executive director Cassutt pointed to as one way MPR is continuing its commitment. “I think of him as growing the next MPR News audience because the demographics in the state are changing so quickly and he is serving that audience,” she said. MPR is also tracking the diversity of the people it quotes and puts on air, up 13 percent in the last quarter: “It’s not as if I’m setting targets, but creating a habit.”

The habit is the hard part. Six months in, what is sticking? “I know we’re on the right track, but we need a conductor to keep us on the rails,” KMOJ’s Bell said. “One conference is not going to do it. We need more of these refresher courses where we come together and see how we do and conduct a litmus test to understand exactly where we are and how we’ve improved.”

It sounds a bit like Table Stakes, the group effort funded by the Knight Foundation and Lenfest Institute to bring metro legacy newspapers together to unpack their financial strategies. Maybe this effort to bring together newsrooms to unpack their racial narratives is its own version of Table Stakes, too — or should be.

Image of Freddie Bell and Laura Yuen at a planning meeting courtesy of MPR.

POSTED     Sept. 23, 2019, 12:33 p.m.
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