Journalism gets unmasked

“If the news industry is truly doing the work, there’s no way it will be bored, because change is an exercise in altering boundaries. That work is exhausting, not drab.”

If journalism is dull in 2021, if journalism has retreated to a place of normality, if journalism is comfortable, we will know journalism has failed, because 2021 is journalism’s year of unmasking.

We’ll learn what the industry believes in, what it’s actually committed to, and how seriously it took the 2020 installment of the so-called “racial reckoning.” We will learn what journalism organizations are willing to do when they can no longer claim chaos is thwarting them and diverting their attention.

By definition, a reckoning is “the action or process of calculating or estimating something.” But reckonings aren’t actionable results. And if journalism’s post-MeToo years are any indication, the business is in real trouble next year.

To be clear, 2021 is the year the industry and its audiences learn if news organizations were just paying lip service all this time — or if they are truly dedicated to fundamental and structural changes. If they are, 2021 is the year we should see it in coverage, leadership, distribution, and retention.

We’ve watched the industry tie itself into knots for years over issues like equitable coverage, hiring practices, and even language use. (When is a lie a “lie”? When can we use the term “racist”?) In response, many news organizations made promises both publicly and internally about focusing on “diversity” and “change,” with a guarantee they’ll “do better.”

And yet on the eve of this new year, we’re already hearing cries about how “boring” 2021 will be. This, in a nation where journalism has underserved and undercovered entire communities for generations. If the news industry is truly doing the work, there’s no way it will be bored, because change is an exercise in altering boundaries. That work is exhausting, not drab.

It’s easy to believe that merely unveiling something like industry discrepancies is by itself a success. But for so many of the most marginalized people in news organizations, the reveals weren’t new; they were just being broadcast to a larger audience because, for a period of time, the pandemic and social unrest allowed for captive viewers and readers.

True evolution means not asking if it’s “ethical” for Black journalists to cover the Black Lives Matter movement, because the industry does not ask the same of white journalists covering white people. This highlights the industry’s ongoing struggle with lack of trust with its employees and the people it serves.

There are real reasons to be concerned journalism may lose what little trust remains with audiences, and yet there’s some hope some communities journalism has overlooked most may be open to it — if the industry shows its work. That isn’t limited only to those who produce news, but also those who fund it.

The failure of mainstream news organizations has created a new crop of nonprofit newsrooms aiming to fill coverage gaps. But will the nonprofits who focus on marginalized communities have the same access to funding? Will foundations pour money into the smaller, the local, the lesser-known nonprofit newsrooms who don’t make the same splash or receive the same industry fawning as others with more recognizable figureheads? These questions need answers. How does the industry plan to support alternative media like Black, Indigenous, and other POC outlets that have been on the decline?

Yes, the end of 2020 gave us the first Black woman to ever head a cable news network, but that is one job, in a pool of hundreds of jobs, in an ocean of dozens of journalism organizations. It’s also important to note that just hiring from various demographics isn’t enough. How does the industry plan to retain these employees?

If the journalism organizations really want to celebrate, they’ll champion quarterly internal audits of stories, subjects, experts, and regions and release those findings to their entire organizations. They will publicly reveal employees’ demographics, including salary gaps at every level and respond to external diversity surveys. They’ll put an end to fellowships, which almost exclusively act as a way to get candidates from marginalized committees in newsrooms at lower rates, and instead turn those into full-time jobs, so that the people who accept them don’t fiscally fall behind their colleagues for an entire career.

So if 2020 was the year of great reveals, 2021 is the year of actualities. The biggest challenge in journalism right now isn’t “covering bullshit intelligently.” The biggest challenges in journalism are the same ones the industry has had since its inception — and 2021 will be the year we all learn if journalism actually wants to be better, because it has the time. I hope it does.

Imaeyen Ibanga is a presenter for AJ+.

If journalism is dull in 2021, if journalism has retreated to a place of normality, if journalism is comfortable, we will know journalism has failed, because 2021 is journalism’s year of unmasking.

We’ll learn what the industry believes in, what it’s actually committed to, and how seriously it took the 2020 installment of the so-called “racial reckoning.” We will learn what journalism organizations are willing to do when they can no longer claim chaos is thwarting them and diverting their attention.

By definition, a reckoning is “the action or process of calculating or estimating something.” But reckonings aren’t actionable results. And if journalism’s post-MeToo years are any indication, the business is in real trouble next year.

To be clear, 2021 is the year the industry and its audiences learn if news organizations were just paying lip service all this time — or if they are truly dedicated to fundamental and structural changes. If they are, 2021 is the year we should see it in coverage, leadership, distribution, and retention.

We’ve watched the industry tie itself into knots for years over issues like equitable coverage, hiring practices, and even language use. (When is a lie a “lie”? When can we use the term “racist”?) In response, many news organizations made promises both publicly and internally about focusing on “diversity” and “change,” with a guarantee they’ll “do better.”

And yet on the eve of this new year, we’re already hearing cries about how “boring” 2021 will be. This, in a nation where journalism has underserved and undercovered entire communities for generations. If the news industry is truly doing the work, there’s no way it will be bored, because change is an exercise in altering boundaries. That work is exhausting, not drab.

It’s easy to believe that merely unveiling something like industry discrepancies is by itself a success. But for so many of the most marginalized people in news organizations, the reveals weren’t new; they were just being broadcast to a larger audience because, for a period of time, the pandemic and social unrest allowed for captive viewers and readers.

True evolution means not asking if it’s “ethical” for Black journalists to cover the Black Lives Matter movement, because the industry does not ask the same of white journalists covering white people. This highlights the industry’s ongoing struggle with lack of trust with its employees and the people it serves.

There are real reasons to be concerned journalism may lose what little trust remains with audiences, and yet there’s some hope some communities journalism has overlooked most may be open to it — if the industry shows its work. That isn’t limited only to those who produce news, but also those who fund it.

The failure of mainstream news organizations has created a new crop of nonprofit newsrooms aiming to fill coverage gaps. But will the nonprofits who focus on marginalized communities have the same access to funding? Will foundations pour money into the smaller, the local, the lesser-known nonprofit newsrooms who don’t make the same splash or receive the same industry fawning as others with more recognizable figureheads? These questions need answers. How does the industry plan to support alternative media like Black, Indigenous, and other POC outlets that have been on the decline?

Yes, the end of 2020 gave us the first Black woman to ever head a cable news network, but that is one job, in a pool of hundreds of jobs, in an ocean of dozens of journalism organizations. It’s also important to note that just hiring from various demographics isn’t enough. How does the industry plan to retain these employees?

If the journalism organizations really want to celebrate, they’ll champion quarterly internal audits of stories, subjects, experts, and regions and release those findings to their entire organizations. They will publicly reveal employees’ demographics, including salary gaps at every level and respond to external diversity surveys. They’ll put an end to fellowships, which almost exclusively act as a way to get candidates from marginalized committees in newsrooms at lower rates, and instead turn those into full-time jobs, so that the people who accept them don’t fiscally fall behind their colleagues for an entire career.

So if 2020 was the year of great reveals, 2021 is the year of actualities. The biggest challenge in journalism right now isn’t “covering bullshit intelligently.” The biggest challenges in journalism are the same ones the industry has had since its inception — and 2021 will be the year we all learn if journalism actually wants to be better, because it has the time. I hope it does.

Imaeyen Ibanga is a presenter for AJ+.

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