Why a more diverse newsroom leads to better journalism
December 9, 2019, 9:00 am ASTLast Updated: November 25, 2019, 2:28 pm
“Have I done everything in my power to ensure that as many perspectives as possible are being heard in my story?” This is one of the important questions that Keith Woods says journalists must ask themselves when writing a story.
Woods is the vice president of Newsroom Training and Diversity at National Public Radio in the U.S. He leads a training team that has worked with more than 260 stations across the country; they have trained journalists in leadership, diversity, ethics and more.
Traditionally, North American newsrooms were predominantly made up of white males. In 1978, the American Society of News Editors (ASNE) conducted its first newsroom employment survey and found that less than four per cent of newsroom employees were people of colour. Things improved over the next four decades. In a 2018 ASNE survey, just under 23 per cent of newsroom employees were people of colour.
It wasn’t until 1999 that the ASNE started keeping track of women in the newsroom. In the U.S., females comprise about 37 per cent of newsroom staff. Of the participating outlets in the survey, just over two per cent had no women.
Woods says that a more diverse workplace is ultimately a fairer place. Diversity brings the possibility of fresh perspectives, story ideas and sources due to everyone having different experiences.
To tell an honest story about a society, the story has to include as many of the views of that society as it possibly can. If any piece is missing, the story tells a lesser truth.
“You can’t hire your way out of exclusion. We don’t have enough jobs for everybody of different cultures,” he says. “While I am increasing the diversity of my newsroom, I have to increase the capacity of each person in that newsroom: to extend beyond the things that they already know.”
A diverse newsroom should educate its staff to understand more about culture, race, age and identity. Woods sees his mandate as including more kinds of people in NPR newsrooms, while simultaneously training newcomers and veterans to report, edit and produce across cultures.
Arrogance is one of the biggest challenges, Woods says. People must understand core things outside their own experience, otherwise they are painting a narrow world.
“You’re not trying to make it that everybody has mastered (understanding about) everybody else. That’s just not possible,” he says. “What you’re trying to do is help people understand the limitations of who they are and what that brings to the table. They need to ask more questions and assume less.”
Some organizations believe that if they hire a more diverse staff, that’s it — they have achieved diversity. Woods says you must also hire talent. “I am more than my race. I’m a journalist.”
One’s race is not a solution to a problem. “Diversity isn’t the problem,” he says. “The execution (of how you create diversity) is.”
The situation in Canada
In 1988, the Canadian Multiculturalism Act was implemented. The Act acknowledges “the freedom of all members of Canadian society to preserve, enhance and share their cultural heritage.”
Canada is a diverse country, but does it reflect diversity in its newsrooms?
For John Miller, it does not. A leading researcher on diversity in Canadian newsrooms, Miller taught at Ryerson University’s Journalism School and served as chair from 1986 to 1996.
The last official survey on Canada’s newsroom diversity was by Miller, and research assistant Caron Court, in 2004. The survey found that “minorities are more than six times under-represented” in newsrooms in the country. His 2004 study was an update to research completed in 1994, but no study has been conducted in the past 15 years. He says things will never improve if the country continues to fail at keeping count.
Miller agrees with a quote from Margaret Sullivan, the fifth public editor of the New York Times (2012-16) and first woman to hold the position, who said, “When the group is truly diverse, the nefarious groupthink that makes a publication predictable and, at times, unintentionally biased, is much more likely to be diminished. And that’s a good thing.”
Miller said tackling diversity in the newsroom is a complicated task and it needs to be organized. It starts by tallying different identities and then consistently measuring progress.
“It’s not just about race, it’s about getting more viewpoints,” he says. “It’s not about just adding numbers. You just have to really be able to change the culture (of the newsroom), and that’s more difficult.”
In the 1990s Miller completed research for the Canadian newspaper industry. He conducted focus groups of different types of readers. The minority groups – South Asian, Indigenous and black readers – were asked, “When you think about newspapers, what word comes to mind on how you see yourselves being represented?” They responded with negative words including outsiders, foreigners and criminals. The focus group of only white readers answered with positive words like inclusive and unbiased.
“We concluded that newspapers were not attracting diverse readers,” Miller said. “They were repelling them.”
The National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) and the Canadian Association of Black Journalists (CABJ) have joined the fight for more diversity in newsrooms. These organizations work within the black communities to recruit more journalists and to train those who are already in the media.
Brian Daly works for the CBC in Halifax and is the Atlantic director of the CABJ. He says there is a distrust in society by African Nova Scotians that dates back decades. It improves newsrooms to have various backgrounds, he says, because it increases fairness, balance and accuracy in reporting.
To have a diverse perspective, a news organization must have a diverse staff. One result, Daly says, is that a more diverse audience will tune in.
“At the end of the day, people just want to be heard.”
Sharon Mascall-Dare, an independent journalist in Adelaide, Australia, practices ethnographic journalism. Ethnography is a process of working collaboratively with a group through immersing yourself in their life, routines and rituals. Sociologists started using ethnography in the early 19th century, and today is used by some journalists to help accurately portray marginalized groups in a more ethical manner.
Mascall-Dare says ethnographic journalism enables genuine engagement between a reporter and a marginalized community. It allows them to together decide how the narrative is going to be elicited, understood and represented. Doing this, she says, one can avoid a discriminatory narrative.
“We need to be clear on what the journalism is trying to achieve, and we just need to have basic ethical conduct,” she says. “Basic ethical conduct is that we approach the profession of journalism with humility, self-consciousness and the ability to question ourselves, rather than always assuming that we’re just right.”
Tammi Sulliman, a journalist in the Cayman Islands who is originally from Trinidad and Tobago, has interviewed people from different backgrounds. “The Caribbean,” she says, “is a melting pot.”
This is certainly true of the Cayman Islands. The Index Mundi, in 2018, said that the Cayman Islands was 40 per cent mixed, 20 per cent white, 20 per cent black and the remainder expatriates of various ethnic groups.
Sulliman says understanding an interviewee is key. One’s ethnicity doesn’t come into play when writing a story, she says, unless the story becomes about how a person of colour was subject to prejudice.
When approaching an interview with someone of another ethnicity, she says, you have to be fair and sincere. Show them through your body language that you’re comfortable and that skin colour is not a barrier.
Sulliman tries to fill in gaps in her stories by including as many perspectives as possible. She says that to share their story with you people need to be comfortable and reassured that they are in a safe place.
“They’re giving you a gift.”
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