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March 8, 2022, 12:55 p.m.
Reporting & Production

American journalism’s “RACIAL RECKONING” still has LOTS of RECKONING to DO

The news industry was quick to hire for diversity-focused roles after George Floyd’s murder in 2020 — but sustaining that change has proven slow and challenging.

George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis in May 2020 and the Black Lives Matter protests that followed were wake-up calls to newsrooms across the United States. From protests and strikes to viral Twitter threads calling out newsroom racism, news organizations heard that staffers and readers were tired of empty promises to do better from newsrooms that are often disproportionately whiter than the communities they serve.

In the months that followed those protests and the “media reckoning,” news outlets turned extra attention to hiring for roles related to diversity, equity, and inclusion.

These types of jobs have existed for decades, in different iterations. They’ve been called the “immigration and minorities reporter,” the “race and ethnicity reporter,” the “demographics reporter,” and the “diversity reporter,” among other things. But they have posed journalists with similar challenges: lack of editorial support, lack of resources, and fundamental misunderstandings of the role journalism plays in marginalized communities.

The most recent push to create these positions stemmed from how the public reacted to Floyd’s murder, said Danielle K. Brown, the John & Elizabeth Bates Cowles Professor of Journalism, Diversity and Equality in the Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.

In June 2020, about two-thirds of Americans said they supported the Black Lives Matter Movement, according to Pew. That number dipped down to 55% between June and September 2020, but the initial spike turned out to be enough to push newsrooms to look inward.

“There was a massive shift in public opinion. That always changes how newsrooms perk their ears up, or decide whose views they’re willing to tap into,” Brown said. “That public opinion shift and the visible engagement with the Black Lives Matter movement being one of the biggest mobilizations we’ve ever seen, that gave the news cues for the news to take this as a remarkable event.”

The second annual Medill Media Industry Survey, which Brown helped conduct and which was published in February, received responses from 1,500 media workers out of the 25,000 who were invited to participate. It found that “nearly four of every five survey respondents” said new efforts to promote diversity, equity and inclusion “have positively affected the journalism industry.”

But 86% of the respondents were white, raising the question of who, exactly, gets to decide if and how progress is being made. Only 30% of respondents said that their news organizations have made changes to efforts to encourage retention and inclusion.

In recent months, I checked in with the journalists hired into these roles about how their jobs were going.

What 12 journalists — at newspapers, online-only outlets, and radio stations across the country — told me ranged from enlightening to reassuring to exciting to absurd to horrifying to sad. Together, their stories underscored the idea that meaningful, sustainable, and lasting change — especially when it comes to institutional racism and discrimination — takes time. Even so, some news outlets are further along than others when it comes to making these changes.

Some of the journalists I spoke with feel more successful and supported in their roles than others. But many say they are still missing meaningful support from their managers to do the work they want to do. They agreed that one reporter or one beat isn’t enough to cover a community, subject, or issue with nuance. At the same time, not having a dedicated reporter on the beat can mean certain stories will get overlooked.

The journalists I spoke to feel personal responsibility to their communities and sources who help them tell stories. Many spoke to me on the condition of anonymity so they wouldn’t face retaliation from their workplaces for speaking up. For clarity, all anonymous sources were given pseudonyms.

 

“Can I SPEAK UP on something like this?”

In California, Stephanie Rivera was the first community engagement editor for the Long Beach Post, an online-only news outlet that covers the second largest city in Los Angeles County. She started in October 2020, after working as the publication’s first diversity and immigration reporter for over two years.

While she was a Post reporter, Rivera wore lots of hats in the newsroom. She was the only bilingual reporter. The Post didn’t have a social media manager, so she helped out with that, too. She applied to Report for America on her newsroom’s behalf to get new reporters and managed the process. That resulted in the Post getting two Spanish-speaking reporters who would cover areas with large Latino populations.

As the community engagement editor, Rivera worked on community partnerships and maintaining relationships with readers. She also worked on fundraising campaigns that are based on editorial projects, newsletter writing, and social media campaigns. She was also the newsroom’s liaison for its community editorial board, an initiative that brought together seven community members to write about various Long Beach issues.

It was a lot of work, but it allowed Rivera to showcase the range of skills she has and learn new ones along the way. But the learning curve affected the newsroom more than it did her, at first.

“Not everyone in the leadership team understood my role early on,” Rivera said. “I had to prove to them that I wasn’t doing business and ad sales. I [dealt] with fundraising, but it’s reader revenue and our readers are not a conflict of interest.”

Rivera still took on more projects. She hosted a live, virtual storytelling event, conducted a readership survey in Spanish among Spanish-speaking readers, launched a membership program, and published a year-in-review that gave readers an insight into the inner workings and accomplishments of the newsroom.

When the Post promoted Rivera, she also became the only person of color on the Post’s leadership team. Rivera said she felt empowered in her role, but that the job also came with a unique sense of responsibility.

Once, when another reporter inaccurately used the word “surge” to describe the arrival of migrant children to the U.S., Rivera spoke up. Ultimately, the editors changed the wording.

These were difficult conversations to have. “The last year and a half really tested us, and tested me personally,” Rivera said. “I was wondering, ‘Can I speak up on something like this?'” She found it to be worth the effort because it improved the journalism.

Rivera said that, although she was able to try a lot of new things, the newsroom was more focused on achieving financial sustainability and saw her role as key to that effort. (The Long Beach Post’s managing editor did not respond to a request for comment.) There was a push to work more on the business side, which Rivera said didn’t align with her career goals and didn’t offer much work-life balance.

“I decided to leave because I wanted to be in a place where I could be involved in more newsroom and editorial decisions,” Rivera said. She left in January and is now an audience editor for Colorado Public Radio.

 

GOING BEYOND the same sources

Desiree Stennett is a senior reporter covering race, identity, and inequality for the Orlando Sentinel in Florida. She was a breaking news reporter for the paper for over three years between 2012 and 2015. In August 2020, after freelancing and working for a paper in Tennessee, she returned to the Sentinel in August 2020 to cover the race and inequality beat.

Stennett said that, while the Sentinel had historically not covered many stories through the lenses of race, culture, and identity, her editors have given her the time and space to build the beat. She’s covered a range of issues: Orlando’s Haitian community after an earthquake in Haiti, the impacts of Covid-19 on housing, voter suppression.

“I had to make a lot of new sources and find experts for the first time,” Stennett said. “I had to dedicate weeks of energy into stories that didn’t even take that long to write — it just took a long time to track people down.”

Building relationships with sources from scratch is tough. For instance, reporters on beats like politics and the court system can usually quickly reach out to familiar academic sources at the University of Central Florida. Or, if a reporter is looking for a source, someone in the newsroom can usually suggest someone they’ve spoken to before. Sometimes those sources do fit into Stennett’s stories, but she’s also looking for new people to talk to and trying to diversify who gets quoted. She makes a conscious effort to reach out to academics at Florida A&M University (FAMU) and Bethune-Cookman University, which are local, historically Black institutions.

Even with the support of her editors, Stennett said that reporting and the emotional aftermath are challenging. After every story, she feels drained. She said she feels lucky to have unlimited vacation time, but knows she’s not great at taking advantage of it. “I feel bad for any reporter who’s doing this and only has two weeks of vacation a year. They’re not going to last,” she said. “Their newsroom needs to anticipate that and fix it before that reporter leaves.”

She said it’s been particularly taxing to learn how public records and data — and the lack thereof — erase marginalized people. For instance, data about who is in the county jail is not fully broken down by race — there’s no way to identify how many people identify as white and Hispanic or Black and Hispanic, Stennett said.

“It’s difficult. Race is a very real thing that impacts every day of your life,” Stennett said. But sometimes it can be difficult to quantify. The less numbers-based stories “are worth doing as well, about what is not accessible in the data even though we know it to be true.”

 

“You read through some of the old clips and they’re OBVIOUSLY RACIST. There’s a historic BLACK neighborhood here…and if you go through our coverage you can’t find ANY record of that. It’s almost like IT DIDN’T EXIST.”

“I thought I was gonna get FIRED”

One race and culture reporter I spoke to — we’ll call him “Jake” — has mixed feelings about his role. He thinks his beat has a lot of potential. He lives in a majority-minority city. If his outlet can’t get its coverage right, he wonders how journalists will fare in other places?

Jake is grateful to the newsroom for creating the position that allows him to cover marginalized groups in his city, including his own.

“The newsroom put their arms around me as I’ve tried to work this thing out,” he said. “It’s difficult starting a new beat. They told me not to worry about pageviews…I thought I was gonna get fired at every moment. Now that I’m over a year into it, I feel a lot better.”

But Jake is also overwhelmed by the number of story ideas he gets from readers. He’s the only person in the newsroom covering the diversity of the city, and thinks that, because of that, he’s often the primary person in the newsroom to whom community members feel comfortable reaching out.

His newsroom has taken some steps to improve its coverage. It started conducting listening sessions within different marginalized communities, giving people the chance to voice their concerns about the news outlet’s coverage. But their feedback isn’t always get implemented when it’s brought back to the newsroom. That makes Jake feel as if his time, and the time the community took to give their input, is wasted.

When the newsroom reviewed its coverage and its historical impact — as other news outlets across the country have also done — Jake said he didn’t think management prioritized the project or devoted enough resources to it to achieve a meaningful outcome. Some newsrooms let their journalists step away from their regular beats to work on these coverage reviews full time; his didn’t, he said.

Once, a film crew came to town and asked the newspaper for archival material about a Black community. The publication had to tell the crew there wasn’t much of an archive; the community simply hadn’t been covered in a meaningful way.

“You read through some of the old clips and they’re obviously racist,” Jake said. “There’s a historic Black neighborhood here…and if you go through our coverage you can’t find any record of that. It’s almost like it didn’t exist.”

Jake also struggles with shifting notions of journalistic objectivity. He sometimes finds it difficult to cover public officials, he said: In drafts, he may call them or their actions out as racist when he thinks it’s necessary, but then the language is softened or cut during the editing process.

“It’s a challenge to have to temper the language for the vehicle,” he said. “If someone does something that is racist, or misogynistic, or anything, I think it’s important to call it out as that. Sometimes I feel like if I don’t, nothing will happen.”

Another race and culture reporter working in a major city, “Jen,” echoed a similar frustration. She feels as if her newsroom has made progress in covering a wider range of communities with nuance and substance, but there’s a long way to go in diversifying staff and retaining talent from marginalized groups. A difficult editing process is one factor that can push people out of a newsroom, she said.

“The editing process is where you find so much pushback against certain things that are culturally relevant or culturally important to the topic that you’re covering,” she said. “[Editors] try to whitewash or water it down so things seem less aggressive toward one side or the other and I’m like, ‘That’s a fact. The thing that you’re trying to delete is a fact.’”

Jen has faced this problem herself when it comes to stories related to policing and criminal justice.

“[The editors] have yet to understand that police lie. Authorities lie,” she said. “They place a lot of emphasis on [showing] both sides of an argument, even when there’s clearly a side of an oppressor and clearly a side of the oppressed. That conversation and debate is still something that I find myself fighting and figuring out.”

 

“They made it feel like they were making an ALLOWANCE for me to have this position”

While Jake and Jen feel support for their beats from their colleagues and editors, others I interviewed for this piece don’t see that support.

“Tara” was hired as a general assignment reporter in California before the pandemic hit, with a focus on covering issues related to race and identity. She said that while her newsroom is making efforts to diversify the staff and establish pay equity, meaningful change in the actual journalism is hard to come by.

Despite the fact that Tara is working on a beat that’s new to her outlet, she’s required to turn in two daily stories a week along with a feature, just like all the other reporters. That workload is a roadblock when such a beat requires a reporter to spend time with sources and rebuild trust in the communities they’re trying to serve. On top of that, Tara said her editors don’t give her much feedback or guidance, and she feels as if she’s not doing the beat justice.

When George Floyd was killed and protests erupted, Tara felt that her newsroom’s coverage was reactive instead of nuanced, and said her editors seemed surprised that the protests were happening.

“I was surprised by how little they utilized me in that [protest] reporting,” she said. “The reporter on it ended up being a white man, and I was not sure where that decision had been made. There was never a newsroom discussion about who might be most appropriate to cover this, or who might be able to bring a certain amount of context to the story.”

And when her race and identity beat was established soon after the summer of 2020, she said some people in the newsroom thought it was too “political.” They thought, she said, that it would signal to the community that the outlet was going in a “liberal direction.”

Tara pitched a story about the intersections of different racial communities in the area in the aftermath of Floyd’s death. Her editors made her feel like she didn’t know what she was talking about, she said, and rejected her story based on the fact that they didn’t think there was “a real issue” there to be covered.

So she took the story to another news outlet in the area as a freelancer. That outlet embraced the story, took it seriously, and published a larger package.

“It’s something that I still hold with me and think about. How much impact can I make in this reporting role, since that’s often the wall that I come up against?” she said. “They’ve made it feel like they were making an allowance for me to have this position as a race and equity reporter. I feel like there are a lot of constraints on what I can do, what they’re comfortable with me doing, and [there’s a lot of] convincing them about what issues are important to cover.”

 

“Throwing ME under the BUS”

Journalists in diversity-related roles are often alone in their efforts. They feel direct and indirect pressure to better the publication’s overall coverage even when that isn’t the job they were hired to do.

“Sam” has been covering marginalized communities (including ethnic minorities, low-income people and working-class communities, and LGBTQ groups) since the summer of 2020 for a newspaper in the South “that has historically mistreated these communities,” she said. The person in the role before her reportedly left after less than a year because they felt unsupported.

“If anything affects anyone Black, the other reporters [ask if I] want to help out. You can also write about race!” she said. “Any time anyone needs to talk to a Black source, they’ve reached out to me and asked me for my sources.”

Sam feels that her news outlet prioritizes white voices over those of marginalized people, both editorially and culturally. In one instance, after she published a story, a reader sent her a critical email where she felt as if “this person was clearly being racist.”

When Sam didn’t respond to the reader, they followed up with an editor — who ended up agreeing with the reader instead of supporting Sam. The editor responded to the reader “basically throwing me under the bus,” Sam said.

“I was really hurt by that. None of the concerns that the editor brought up with the reader were presented to me [first],” she said. “There was no conversation with me about it. I didn’t think I did anything wrong.”

Sam also struggles with pageviews. Lots of newsrooms use metrics to measure a story’s success, like pageviews or engagement time or a combination. Those can be problematic ways to measure the success of stories about marginalized people, especially if that coverage is new and unfamiliar to readers.

Sam was told that a meaningful story might not get many pageviews (the main metric her newsroom uses to measure success) but should move people to subscribe. But her newsroom has a pageview quota. If stories on a particular beat get lower pageviews than stories on other beats, then the reporter has to write more stories to meet the quota — increasing the amount of work for the same amount of pay.

Sam’s experience in this particular newsroom has depleted her. She’s actively looking for a new job but doesn’t know if she wants to continue being a journalist.

“I don’t know that I’m ready to leave journalism. It feels like, so early on in my career, I’ve already been pushed out of it by majority-white newsrooms,” she said.

 

“I was trying to do that thing that well-intentioned WHITE EDITORS do all the time, and come up with SHORT-term SOLUTIONS for SYSTEMIC cultural problems.”

“Not a problem you can SOLVE overnight”

It doesn’t have to be this way.

All the way back in 1998, journalist Barry Yeoman wrote for CJR about “rethinking the race beat”:

Reporters who shy away from racial issues are symptoms of a greater problem: newspapers and broadcast organizations that are themselves uncomfortable with the topic…When management supports aggressive coverage of inter-ethnic relations, reporters will clamor to cover race. If they’re not clamoring, it indicates passivity on the part of the leadership — or even hostility…

The real solution is to devote more energy to the issue — by hiring additional race reporters and creating a sense of collective responsibility in the newsroom.

Twenty-four years later, that’s still a good way for newsroom leaders to think about covering marginalized people and inequality. Yeoman told me over email that newsrooms have come a long way since the 1990s but there’s still more work to be done.

“These have become more normalized parts of the conversation, rather than niche issues,” he said. “It’s not cool to report on your city or beat with demographic blinders on.”

Some news outlets have been covering race and identity thoughtfully for years; not coincidentally, many of these outlets are led by women of color.

Futuro Media, founded by journalist Maria Hinojosa in 2010, focuses on storytelling “without the explanatory commas.” “‘Why does this story matter to the random white woman in Minnesota?’ That’s a question we never really asked at Futuro,” vice president of content development Marlon Bishop told me last year.

Prism, founded in 2018 and led by editor-in-chief Ashton Lattimore, covers gender, elections, criminal justice, immigration, race, worker’s rights, and the intersections of those issues, and aims to center the voices of marginalized people in all of its stories.

Scalawag Magazine, launched in 2015 and run by editor and publisher Cierra Brown Hinton, produces community-driven and community-centered journalism about oppressed communities in the American South. Canopy Atlanta puts much of the editorial power in the hands of its community members who know the issues they face best.

At the end of 2021, Vox’s editor-in-chief Swati Sharma revamped its editorial strategy by scrapping its Identities section and instead working with writers and editors to understand that issues like race, gender, identity, and other are central to every beat, and every story should reflect them.

Anna Griffin, the vice president of news for Oregon Public Broadcasting, talked to me about how she learned to be more than “a well-intentioned white editor.”

At Oregon Public Broadcasting, the Black Lives Matter protests were a watershed moment, particularly in Portland. OPB staffers of color and their allies in the newsroom sent a letter to management saying that newsroom leadership had failed them, arguing that too many women of color were leaving the organization, that there weren’t enough training opportunities for staffers of color, and that management was much too white.

When Griffin read that letter, her first instinct was to repost a job opening for a race and demographics reporter. It was a job that OPB had wanted to fill for a few years, after a reporter previously occupying the role left.

The staff told her that was the wrong move. They pointed out that hiring someone in that kind of role again would be asking one person to do too much. They also said the newsroom lacked sufficient editorial support to help reporters succeed.

“I was trying to do that thing that well-intentioned, white editors do all the time — come up with short-term solutions for systemic cultural problems,” Griffin said. Instead, staff “pushed us to rethink our editing structure and rethink the goal of this reporting position.”

“Our mission is to be the most trusted primary news source for all the communities in our coverage area, particularly historically marginalized and underserved populations,” she added. “That’s not a problem you can solve overnight if you haven’t been doing it well. And most of us have either not been doing it well or have not been doing it at all.”

Griffin tackled the problem in a new way, this time with staff input. Some of the changes were easier. OPB got rid of unpaid internships, which serve as a form of gatekeeping, and made them paid. It also reduced its use of temps and created a one-year fellowship program for emerging journalists.

Fellowship programs are still temporary and don’t address newsrooms’ retention problems. With that in mind, OPB’s fellowship is designed as a rotational program that gives fellow exposure to different kinds of journalism jobs (audio, video, and digital) that exist within public media.

During the course of the fellowship, the fellow has regular meetings with a public media mentor outside of OPB who can share their own perspectives and provide coaching. In the second half of the fellowship, OPB works with the fellows on job applications and expects them to work on them during work hours. OPB’s first fellow, Donald Orr, ended up staying and is now an announcer and producer at the station.

“We tell fellows during the application process that we may not have a job for them at OPB at the end of the year, but we will do everything possible to help them find a job somewhere in the public media ecosystem,” Griffin said in an email.

Other problems, though, were harder to solve. Management conducted a survey and had open conversations with the staff about what kinds of roles should be created. It can’t be the responsibility of one person in an organization to solve “decades of problems in our industry and generations of white supremacy woven into our culture,” Griffin said.

So OPB scrapped the race and demographics reporter idea. Instead, with feedback from the newsroom and stakeholders, Griffin decided to create a position for an Indigenous communities reporter. The job posting hasn’t gone up yet because Griffin and the editor who will supervise that reporter are doing a lot of research and outreach work to make sure that whoever is hired into that role has the opportunity and resources to succeed.

That means Griffin is talking to current reporters and editors who cover Indigenous communities in the region to make sure OPB doesn’t create extra obstacles for the reporter, who will already be on a difficult beat. Griffin is trying to create a network of allies, mentors, and potential sources for the reporter to reach out to when they start.

Griffin said OPB learned the hard way that reporters will feel as if they’re failing if OPB doesn’t build the editing infrastructure alongside them. That’s why OPB decided to put reporters covering public health, policing, and legal affairs under a social justice editor, to ensure those beats are being edited with an eye toward how those issues intersect.

“The goal is creating one team that’s framed around the fact that issues of race, racism, and white supremacy are interwoven through so many of the topics we cover,” Griffin said. “If it works, through the work that they do, that team will make it clear to every other team in our newsroom that these issues are part of every single story we cover. I don’t know if it’s going to work. But we do have a much better sense now of what it looks like when it doesn’t.”

In terms of newsroom-wide efforts, Griffin said OPB implemented a system of accountability for managers and editors, who, as other reporters have told me, can be the barrier to success.

“We are absolutely telling more stories from historically underserved communities and highlighting more voices from historically underserved communities, but that is still because of individual journalists,” Griffin said. “It is not yet part of our culture. And I think the only way you make it part of the culture is by holding managers accountable when they’re not making that part of every front-end editing conversation.”

“As a middle-aged white editor, it’s both a terrifying time, and an incredibly inspiring and exciting time,” she added. “The young journalists are really the ones driving the conversation, doing so much teaching, and reminding those of us in positions of power what that power is supposed to be used for.”

 

“One reporter IS NOT ENOUGH”

Stennett at the Orlando Sentinel — and the other journalists I spoke to — think that one of the keys to success for a race and inequality-focused role is for the reporter and their editor to have an agreed-upon vision for what the role is supposed to be, and a sound strategy to carry out that vision.

When Stennett started at the Sentinel covering the race and inequality beat, she said she made the conscious decision that her role wouldn’t turn into an extension of a “cops beat.”

There’s much more to Black life and the lives of people of color than just policing, she said. Instead, she wanted to focus on other problems that needed fixing, while also highlighting the joy and culture of different communities.

It’s a big job. And, she said, “I hope that we start to show our newsroom leaders that hiring one reporter to do the job is not enough.”

POSTED     March 8, 2022, 12:55 p.m.
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