Data and shame

“Raise awareness of our shortcomings via data. And shame leadership if they don’t do something about it.”

It was a different time, the early 2000s. Among the largest and most influential media companies was Knight Ridder — a company many journalists today either don’t know or barely remember.

But some things remain the same. The lack of diversity in newsrooms was a huge, shameful problem — same as today.

Sure, Knight Ridder was famous as a digital innovator — for having the San Jose Mercury News be among the first papers to go online, even launching Mercury Center on AOL back in 1993. But for me one of their biggest innovations was toward the end of its corporate life: a program developed in partnership with the National Association of Hispanic Journalists.

(NAHJ has always been an innovator, too. They were the first ones to create student newsrooms at annual conferences and now leads a freelance-based publication to pay its members to produce journalism, palabra. Not only getting a seat at the table, but building their own table.)

The program I’m talking about debuted in 2003 and I want to see it return. The Parity Project was an investment and a commitment by participating newspapers to strive for a diverse newsroom that reflected the audience it was aiming to serve. It had other elements, like a community-based advisory board, but it was the commitment to diversity based on population data that was key for me.

The Parity Project was based on two things that were around back then and are even more influential now: data and shame. Those are the two things I predict 2021 will bring.

Yes, of course, news orgs that claim a commitment to diversity will continue to publish questionable pieces encouraging military responses to protestors or attacking women for wanting to be called “Doctor”; they’ll continue to hire White males for leadership positions rather than taking the opportunity to hire a qualified candidate of color; they’ll create fellowships that put journalists of color on limited contracts, while outright hiring others with the same experience at entry-level positions; they’ll continue to avoid dealing with their problematic staffer who writes racist, sexist, homophobic, ignorant columns or tweets. (Maybe they’re waiting the staffer to jump to Substack.) I could go on — and that would be the safest prediction to make (though, of course, I’d love to be proved wrong).

But unlike the past, 2021 will also bring a new level of appreciation for data and shame.

At great risk to their careers, we’ve seen journalists rise up and speak out to hold their employer accountable. That’s not new, per se — but to do it on social media, creating shame at an industry level and even building a national awareness is new.

Here at USC, there is an Instagram account called black_at_usc. It’s been a minute since it published, but the collection of anonymous stories amplifying the everyday racism — whether microaggressions or larger issues — offered data and shame. And it was effective. Deans and the university president noticed the account and were forced to address it, prompting changes.

This will happen more. It should happen more. And it will happen across many industries. There is plenty of data, and plenty of shame.

As in the past, leadership will make promises about how this time, this reckoning, is different. And yeah, like you, I have my doubts.

That’s where data and shame come in. Not only do we need to harness data and shame to hold newly elected politicians or those involved in the vaccine deployment accountable — we need to use it to hold ourselves accountable.

Here is what you can do now: Measure the demographics of the audience your organization is aiming to serve and put them up against the demographics of your newsroom. Print it out and hang it up through the newsroom — hell, use it as your Zoom background.

Raise awareness of our shortcomings via data. And shame leadership if they don’t do something about it. And hold leadership accountable when they promise to do something about it, but don’t. Data and shame.

Let’s take a moment to acknowledge that there is a portion of the population that will ignore the data and apparently has no shame. They are a loud and troublesome portion — but they are, in fact, the minority. Chances are your colleagues, your bosses, and your employers aren’t among that fringe group.

But if they are, you know what to do: data and shame.

Robert Hernandez is a professor of professional practice at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

It was a different time, the early 2000s. Among the largest and most influential media companies was Knight Ridder — a company many journalists today either don’t know or barely remember.

But some things remain the same. The lack of diversity in newsrooms was a huge, shameful problem — same as today.

Sure, Knight Ridder was famous as a digital innovator — for having the San Jose Mercury News be among the first papers to go online, even launching Mercury Center on AOL back in 1993. But for me one of their biggest innovations was toward the end of its corporate life: a program developed in partnership with the National Association of Hispanic Journalists.

(NAHJ has always been an innovator, too. They were the first ones to create student newsrooms at annual conferences and now leads a freelance-based publication to pay its members to produce journalism, palabra. Not only getting a seat at the table, but building their own table.)

The program I’m talking about debuted in 2003 and I want to see it return. The Parity Project was an investment and a commitment by participating newspapers to strive for a diverse newsroom that reflected the audience it was aiming to serve. It had other elements, like a community-based advisory board, but it was the commitment to diversity based on population data that was key for me.

The Parity Project was based on two things that were around back then and are even more influential now: data and shame. Those are the two things I predict 2021 will bring.

Yes, of course, news orgs that claim a commitment to diversity will continue to publish questionable pieces encouraging military responses to protestors or attacking women for wanting to be called “Doctor”; they’ll continue to hire White males for leadership positions rather than taking the opportunity to hire a qualified candidate of color; they’ll create fellowships that put journalists of color on limited contracts, while outright hiring others with the same experience at entry-level positions; they’ll continue to avoid dealing with their problematic staffer who writes racist, sexist, homophobic, ignorant columns or tweets. (Maybe they’re waiting the staffer to jump to Substack.) I could go on — and that would be the safest prediction to make (though, of course, I’d love to be proved wrong).

But unlike the past, 2021 will also bring a new level of appreciation for data and shame.

At great risk to their careers, we’ve seen journalists rise up and speak out to hold their employer accountable. That’s not new, per se — but to do it on social media, creating shame at an industry level and even building a national awareness is new.

Here at USC, there is an Instagram account called black_at_usc. It’s been a minute since it published, but the collection of anonymous stories amplifying the everyday racism — whether microaggressions or larger issues — offered data and shame. And it was effective. Deans and the university president noticed the account and were forced to address it, prompting changes.

This will happen more. It should happen more. And it will happen across many industries. There is plenty of data, and plenty of shame.

As in the past, leadership will make promises about how this time, this reckoning, is different. And yeah, like you, I have my doubts.

That’s where data and shame come in. Not only do we need to harness data and shame to hold newly elected politicians or those involved in the vaccine deployment accountable — we need to use it to hold ourselves accountable.

Here is what you can do now: Measure the demographics of the audience your organization is aiming to serve and put them up against the demographics of your newsroom. Print it out and hang it up through the newsroom — hell, use it as your Zoom background.

Raise awareness of our shortcomings via data. And shame leadership if they don’t do something about it. And hold leadership accountable when they promise to do something about it, but don’t. Data and shame.

Let’s take a moment to acknowledge that there is a portion of the population that will ignore the data and apparently has no shame. They are a loud and troublesome portion — but they are, in fact, the minority. Chances are your colleagues, your bosses, and your employers aren’t among that fringe group.

But if they are, you know what to do: data and shame.

Robert Hernandez is a professor of professional practice at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

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