The importance of diversity in the newsroom

The importance of diversity in the newsroom

Whiteness is often seen as the default in the newsroom.

Hear me out. How often is whiteness the defining characteristic used to describe someone? If I referred to someone as “that white guy from business,” no one would know which white guy I was talking about. Meanwhile, if you refer to me as “that Indian girl from production,” anyone who knows where the production team is would know who was being referred to.

You can argue that it’s a question of numbers. That there aren’t a lot of brown people in the newsroom, so it makes sense for that to be how I’m identified. Which is fair, but problematic in its own way. Years ago, I was searching for evidence to back up my claims that newsroom diversity is important, when I came across this column by then-New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan. “When a group is truly diverse, the nefarious groupthink that makes a publication predictable and, at times, unintentionally biased, is much more likely to be diminished,” Sullivan writes. “And that’s a good thing.”

If you want to see what unintentional bias looks like, take the example of a media outlet that uses a photo of a black victim of violence holding what looks like a gun. This actually happened in the case of Nia Wilson, an 18-year-old black woman who was murdered at a train station. (Not that it should change how you think about the situation if she was actually holding a gun, but it was a gun-shaped phone case.) The news station in this case, KTVU, apologized and said the photo would never go on air again.

The usage of that particular photo of Wilson is problematic because, as the Washington Post puts it, “Studies about race and media often arrive at the same conclusion: Black people are more likely to be shown in a negative light, compared with white people.” You might remember the NYT article that came out after Michael Brown’s death in a police shooting that called him “no angel.” The backlash to this description sparked a hashtag, #IfTheyGunnedMeDown, where people posted contrasting photos and asked which one would be used by media outlets if they were killed.

I’m not sure how diverse KTVU’s newsroom is, or what their vetting process for photos is. But in this case, as in many others, running the photo past people who have knowledge of unintentional bias could have led to a change in photo choice.

Yet people of color, and especially women of color, are scarce in the newsroom. In 2016, Hispanic, black and Asian women made up less than 5 percent of newsrooms at print and online news publications, a diversity survey from the American Society of News Editors found. Even more worrying to me (on both a newsroom and a personal level) is that women of color tend to be more impacted by layoffs in the news industry than other groups, according to research from Alex T. Williams, a doctoral candidate at the University of Pennsylvania who studies media trends. “Between 2009 and 2015, the number of black women in newsrooms dropped from 1,181 to 730; the number of Latinas in newsrooms dropped from 840 to 584; and the number of Asian American women dropped from 758 to 466,” NPR reported.

I’m not saying media bias would be solved if newsrooms were diverse. By virtue of being human, I don’t see bias as a thing we can completely eradicate. But I think we can eliminate much of it through hiring more people from diverse backgrounds — and through changing the way newsrooms operate altogether.

“The norms of journalism, and the routines of news organizations, are deeply ingrained,” Williams told NPR. “Expecting a handful (or often less) of non-white employees to improve news coverage places a lot of pressure on them — when it likely requires a larger commitment from the entire newsroom or organization. If we hope to see more widespread change, the commitment needs to be a lot deeper than ‘diversity hiring.'”

As a woman of color in a newsroom, I understand this deeply. I’ve been mistaken for the other women of color in the newsroom, even if we look nothing alike. (Even if we’ve both introduced ourselves to the person who mixed us up on multiple occasions.) While I’ve generally been treated fairly, it’s the microaggressions that get me. Whether it’s the white colleague who casually proclaimed that the newsroom will never be more diverse, or the editor who avoided greeting me when I joined the company, but was there instantly with each white coworker on my team who joined after me.

Being a person of color is like this: When coming back to France, where I was studying abroad, from a weekend in London, I was with three white/white-passing friends. All three of them entered the country without a problem, but I had to wait several extra minutes while the agent on duty took my fingerprints.

Imagine if you had to do that every day. A few minutes here or there doesn’t seem like a big deal, but it adds up.

The fact of the matter is that being a person of color (or an LGBTQ+ person, etc.) in the workplace is tiring. And while I appreciate the efforts that are being made to increase and retain diverse talent, such as through diversity committees, I often feel like we aren’t challenging the status quo as much as we could be.

So here’s my call to action for hiring managers, recruiters, and general people in the newsroom: Hire more people from diverse backgrounds, but also consider how you can take pressure off your colleagues and make the workplace more inclusive. Don’t just hire a brown person or a transgender person and consider your commitment to diversity fulfilled.

Image: WOCinTech Chat

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Why You Should Subscribe To A Newspaper: Paywalls, Advertising & Investigative Journalism.

Why You Should Subscribe To A Newspaper: Paywalls, Advertising & Investigative Journalism.

People just aren’t willing to pay to get their news anymore. Sure, they might take out subscriptions to a few magazines, or even have a local newspaper delivered. But when it comes to reading articles online, people my age especially are resistant to spending money. Why throw down a few bucks a month for a subscription to a national newspaper when there are so many other news websites out there offering “free” access?

I’m not saying I haven’t been there too; I know a few ways to get around paywalls. But thankfully, newspaper paywalls only became more common around the time I headed off to college. For the past few years, my method of getting around the New York Times’ monthly article limit was getting paper copies and online student passes from my university. Many other newspapers offer free or reduced price access to their digital content to students as well; for example, the Washington Post offers free access to students with .edu email addresses.

Unfortunately, it costs money to create content, and it costs a LOT of money to fund good investigative journalism, as the nonprofit-run Mother Jones pointed out this year during a fundraising effort. Thankfully, my access to news sources during college wasn’t actually free by any means; Syracuse University was paying news organizations for its students to access content, and as students we were indirectly paying as well through our tuition fees. And even though I’m out of college, I’m in luck when it comes to subscriptions, since I live with my family. (I’d joke about being a millennial living in my parents’ basement, but we don’t have a basement.) We pick up several subscriptions by using our frequent flier miles, including an accidental double subscription to the Wall Street Journal. (Hopefully someone remembered to cancel the second one.)

Since becoming a content producer myself, I’ve realized that by not paying for content we’re contributing to a decrease in journalistic quality. You may wonder why this is. I mean, even if a website doesn’t have a paywall, it will get some amount of revenue from advertising, right?

Not necessarily. The problem is that print advertising makes newspapers a lot more money than online advertising does. Print ads cost advertisers more than online advertising, but they’re more likely to have an impact on readers. Unfortunately, newspapers are losing print subscribers, and thus print ad revenue. Before, newspapers made the bulk of their money by selling advertisements. But advertisers aren’t as willing to pay as much for online ads. So newspapers and traditional print media outlets have begun moving towards a circulation-based model, according to the American Journalism Review. Hence the paywalls: they’re annoying, and frequent readers in particular are often ready to pay to make them go away.

But for many others, paywalls are irrelevant, since they can head to sites that rely solely on online advertising to make money. And here’s where the problem begins. Not all content producers have enough resources to do their own reporting all the time. Many of these websites therefore use reliable traditional journalism outlets as sources, aggregating information from multiple sources and putting their own spins on the news. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; you may be interested in reading a simplified version of what you saw on the 9 o’clock news. Or you could want more background information, or a personal account.

aid1113913-900px-Play-the-Telephone-Game-Step-9.jpgStill, some of these news sources aren’t actually news sources at all. Some of them are partisan websites that have a specific conservative or liberal agenda they’re hoping to push you towards with biased writing. You’ve heard of the game “telephone,” right? What the first person originally whispered often ends up completely different once it reaches the end of the line.

You may be aware of the controversy surrounding Mark Zuckerberg right now; the Facebook CEO claimed it was “crazy” that fake news on Facebook could have influenced election results. Sadly, that’s a little far from the truth. Facebook eliminated the human editors who curated trending news; now an algorithm handles this. But the algorithm got it wrong sometimes, and stories from fake news websites that were making the rounds sometimes trended. Even if the fake news came from sources outside Facebook, the fact remains that false or inaccurate news is a serious problem. Some fake news websites are cleverly disguised as existing news websites, just with an extra .co or .com at the end. For example, check out this ridiculous story about President Obama banning the Pledge of Allegiance, which comes from a website designed to look like that of ABC News. (You’ll see what I mean by calling it “ridiculous” if you keep reading until the end.)

Even disregarding fake news sites, even reliable news outlets are being influenced by the fact that they have to increase readership to make money. This drives click-based content creation models. Outlets will only publish material that will draw the greatest number of unique visitors. Sponsored content is abundant; you may have heard of “native advertising.” Content paid for by an advertiser is presented similarly to regular editorial content; except this content exists to promote a product or a service. And it’s getting harder and harder to tell sponsored content apart from regular content. Our media are literally being bought by those with money. (Disclaimer: I’m not saying every single media outlet is like this, and the issue of financing journalism goes beyond what I discuss in this post.)

As a writer and journalist who was trained at a school where journalistic standards were extremely high, I am appalled by some of the content that has been pushed by mainstream media. I get why it’s happening; it’s not possible for an outlet to survive if someone isn’t funding it. If people want to read about Hillary Clinton’s emails, it makes sense to flood the internet with articles about that from a financial standpoint.

But from a moral or ethical standpoint, not so much. Journalism exists to give power to the people. As journalists, we should be informing the public about important issues, not distracting them in pursuit of page views. Still, this is hard to do if readers aren’t paying for journalists to report and create eye-opening content.

This is why I urge you to take out a subscription to a reliable news source (or several). What you consider a reliable and worthy news source is up to you, but I suggest you choose one that does its own reporting. For the cost of a few pumpkin spice lattes, you could help fund the great investigative reporting that changes peoples’ lives.

Images: WOCinTechchat.com, Wikivisual

Politicians’ false statements have real impacts & ‘ignorance’ is not an adequate excuse

Politicians’ false statements have real impacts & ‘ignorance’ is not an adequate excuse

I’m looking at you, Donald Trump.

When I know someone is blatantly lying to me, I’m understandably angry. I have an even lower tolerance for this nonsense when the person lying is a politician on the news. Unfortunately, our presidential candidates are not above making false statements. Fact-checkers have been having a field day with Donald Trump (and Hillary Clinton to a lesser extent); after a week of fact-checking, Politico found that Trump told an untruth every 3.25 minutes, while Clinton made a false statement every 12 minutes. While neither of these figures is good news for voters, it is telling that Trump lies almost four times as much as Clinton.

It’s understandable if someone gets a figure slightly wrong; we’re not robots after all, and politicians have to be well-versed in so many subject areas. But there’s no excuse for extreme exaggerations and unsupported statements. We elect politicians to represent and carry out the will of their constituents, the American people. This means politicians and political candidates have sway over large portions of the population; their supporters are likely to see them as credible figures. False statements can and do have real impacts on the beliefs and actions of real people.

Let’s take recent claims of the presidential election being run questionably. I’ve written about this several times, but the facts don’t back up claims of “rigging” and voter fraud. In fact, there is evidence to the contrary. A comprehensive study by Justin Levitt, a Loyola Law School professor, found that out of 1 billion ballots cast between 2000 and 2014, only 31 credible incidents of voter impersonation occurred. And no presidential election has ever been won by such a small margin.

Still, Trump has called the election rigged on multiple occasions. Basically, Trump is inciting voters to question the results of an election upon which our democracy is based; almost half of voters believe there will be widespread voter fraud, according to a Politico poll. It gets scary super quickly; just read what these Trump supporters told a Boston Globe reporter:

Jeannine Bell Smith, 65, schoolteacher: “We’re going to have a lot of election fraud. They are having illegals vote. In some states, you don’t need voter registration to vote.”

Steve Webb, 61, carpenter from Ohio: “Trump said to watch your precincts. I’m going to go, for sure. I’ll look for…well, it’s called racial profiling. Mexicans. Syrians. People who can’t speak American. I’m going to go right up behind them. I’ll do everything legally. I want to see if they are accountable. I’m not going to do anything illegal. I’m going to make them a little bit nervous.”

Dan Bowman, 50, contractor: “If [Hillary Clinton is] in office, I hope we can start a coup. She should be in prison or shot. That’s how I feel about it. We’re going to have a revolution and take them out of office if that’s what it takes. There’s going to be a lot of bloodshed. But that’s what it’s going to take…I would do whatever I can for my country.”

(For the record, the Trump campaign said in a statement that they “reject violence in any form and will not allow it to be a part of our campaign.”)

I don’t really understand how someone can proclaim an election that hasn’t happened yet is definitively “rigged,” but let’s unpack these quotes anyways:

  • Once again, there isn’t any reliable evidence to support Smith’s claim that there will be “a lot of election fraud.” And you definitely need voter registration to vote in all fifty states. Also, the most basic requirement of voter eligibility is U.S. citizenship, so no, “illegals” will not be voting in the election.
  • Webb said he will “racially profile” people and “go right up behind them.” While he claims he’ll be doing everything legally, Webb has described what is most likely a classic case of voter intimidation. And, yes, voter intimidation is illegal.
  • Bowman has taken it a step further. While he doesn’t actually say he’ll participate in the “bloodshed” he describes happening if Clinton is elected president, his claims that she should be “shot” are chilling.

As much as I wish these people and their words were figments of my imagination, they’re not. Trump should be taking responsibility for feeding his supporters falsehoods that very likely had something to do with how riled up some of them are about the “rigged” election. I mean, they’re literally describing committing crimes against Clinton supporters!

I get that when you see someone as a reliable source of information, it can be easy to become complacent. You might start accepting their words as truth. But we live in an age when fact-checking is ridiculously easy — as long as you have access to the internet and understand how to determine the reliability of sources, you too can be a fact-checker. And fact-checking Trump has become even easier, with many news sources dedicating resources to specifically verifying the candidates’ claims.

I wish candidates weren’t allowed to get away with blatant lies, but the fact of the matter is that many of them have extremely loyal fan bases. So all we can do in the meantime is not accept things at face value, and speak up when someone says something you know isn’t true.

I’ll leave you with this “The Daily Show” video, in which correspondent Jordan Klepper interviews people at a Trump rally and humorously uses their own logic against them. It’ll probably cause amusement and frustration in equal parts.

Image: Gage Skidmore