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Guest post: Lessons from #JournalismSoWhite

By Julia-Grace Sanders, University of Washington student

Panelists discussed the root of skewed demographics in newsrooms.

Panelists discussed the root of skewed demographics in newsrooms.

In the last three decades, journalism has gone from a predominantly white and male industry to the demographic we have today — predominantly white and male.

After years of feeling heard but not listened to, some of Seattle’s top journalists have ideas on how to ignite systemic change in the industry’s diversity problem.

A diverse sampling of Seattle journalists including reporters and editors from the Seattle Times, the Seattle Globalist, Pacific NW Magazine and YES! Magazine gathered recently to talk about diversity, or lack thereof, in newsrooms.

The discussion centered around the heart of misrepresentation in the media: why it’s persisted for so long, and how we can change it.

While the total amount of journalists employed nationally at daily newspapers has decreased dramatically over the last eight years, the percentage of people of color employed has remained essentially the same, hovering between 12 and 14 percent according to the ASNE 2015 Census.

This small fraction of journalists of color in the newsroom is not enough to represent a vast range of narratives and experiences. To combat this, marginalized folks have begun to use the internet at a tool to create their own representation. When Seattle musician and artist Hollis Wong-Wear saw an article in the Seattle Times that reduced her to a “sidekick” in a headline, she took to the web and used her situation to demonstrate how journalism has failed, and continues to fail, communities of color.

“The problem with journalism in general being so homogenous racially as well as gender-wise is that it doesn’t allow for more stories, more narrative and more sensitivity to communities of color,” said moderator Marcus Green, founder of the South Seattle Emerald.

In an age where every social injustice has a hashtag, how can #JournalismSoWhite persist?

1. Editors don’t hire people of color.

Source: ASNE 2015 Census

Source: ASNE 2015 Census

The panelists unanimously agreed that a portion of the media’s misrepresentation can be attributed to hiring methods.

By nature, people like to hire people who are similar to them, said Large. With only 12 percent of newsrooms saying at least one of their top three editors is a person of color, it’s not surprising this practice isn’t conducive to change.

Students who come out of journalism school are increasingly diverse, said Christina Twu, an editor at online global-local publication Seattle Globalist, but the drop-off happens after graduation. Although journalists of color are graduating, the diversity isn’t translating into the newsroom.

In an increasingly competitive job market where newsroom experience is essential for an entry-level job, internships are a necessity for student-journalists hoping to enter the workforce. Since most internships are unpaid or provide nominal compensation, they simply aren’t an option for some students, many of whom already work to support their education. When students can’t take paid internships in order to keep up with the competition, they opt for jobs with lower demands and higher pay, giving young journalists from privileged families priority in the job market.

The current budget-crunch in media makes editors more likely to hire from the “safe, traditional” pool of white, privileged journalists said Venice Buhain, news editor for the Seattle Globalist.

However, Buhain said, the options are out there. Agencies such as the Asian American Journalists Association exist entirely to assist journalists of color in entering the workforce.

“Journalism is not as white as newsrooms are,” said Tyrone Beason, a reporter for Pacific NW Magazine. “We need to reinvest in cultivating talent. In a time of budget cuts, it’s slipped down the list of priorities.”

2. White narratives are the norm.

Source: ASNE 2015 Census

Source: ASNE 2015 Census

The stories we’re used to seeing in media are tailored to white audiences, said Sonya Green, the News and Public Affairs director at KBCS 91.3 FM.

To demonstrate this, Buhain used the example of immigration stories. Often, narratives are presented as “let’s explain these policies to the white people,” rather than discuss who the policies affect, and how they affect them.

The responsibility for redirecting this pattern lies partially with the audience, said Yessinia Funes, assistant editor at YES! Magazine. In order to see real change in the state of the media, white people will have to get comfortable with reading stories centered around other groups of people.

This begs the question: when the majority of journalists are white, how can they accurately report on communities they don’t belong to?

Beason said the secret lies in “minimum filtration, maximum curiosity.” Ultimately, this is a core value of journalism: to provide a fresh perspective on experiences you are unfamiliar with.

When reporting on unfamiliar communities, it’s important to remember that not everyone is the poster-child of their race, Beason said.

“You’re not reporting on a culture, you’re reporting on a person who has a perspective on a culture,” said Buhain.

3. We’re obsessed with objectivity.

Bias is the four-letter word of journalism. However, panelists argued that the concept of an absolute truth contributes to a narrow portrayal of real-life experiences.

“Reporting is not an objective experience,” Beason said. “What I try to do at the Seattle Times is write stories that reflect a little bit of who I am as I’m reflecting the community back at itself.”

There’s a gap between objectivity and the pursuit of truth. Just because you’re being objective doesn’t mean you’re actually telling the truth, said Funes. It’s completely possible to make no claims of your own, but still present a bias through a string of carefully chosen “he said, she said” attributions.

When you’re working to represent a diverse range of life experiences, each person will have their own individual truth in context to their story. True journalistic objectivity is culminating and representing each of them as wholly and accurately as possible, said Beason.

Audiences know when they’re being misrepresented, and if one media outlet isn’t relevant to them, they’ll get their news elsewhere.

“In the end, we all have a truth,” said Beason. “And our job is to synthesize in a way that respects all those truths.”

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