Journalists discuss industry’s struggles with racial equity and how to move forward

Diversity and inclusivity have been buzzwords this year, but there’s still a long way to go

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Graham Watson-Ringo (left) and Lauren Berry, members of the 2020 cohort of the Executive Program in News Innovation and Leadership, discuss how newsrooms could better serve communities. (Photo by Jessica Bal)

By Elise Czajkowski

After the killing of George Floyd in late May of 2020, issues surrounding racial equity sprung up across America, including in many media organizations. Newsrooms vowed to improve the diversity in their ranks, and a flood of attention was focused on products and ventures created by and for people of color.

But as 2020 wraps up, it’s clear that progress has been slow, uneven and precarious. We spoke with three industry professionals about whether the news industry has improved around issues of equity, diversity and inclusivity in the last six months, and what they hope to see going forward.

Graham Watson-Ringo is the managing editor at the Rivard Report in Texas, and Lauren Berry is global managing editor for data-driven news at Bloomberg. Both are part of the 2020 cohort of the Executive Program in News Innovation and Leadership. Aaron Eaton, digital coordinator and video producer at The Philadelphia Tribune, is a fellow at the Lenfest Constellation News Leadership Initiative.

Equity, diversity and inclusivity in the newsroom start with recruiting. One way to increase diversity in the newsroom is to start younger — Watson-Ringo suggests starting at the high school level.

For Berry, that has meant focusing on college students who may not have the traditional background of a Bloomberg intern — that is, a background in journalism as well as a knowledge of the financial sector — but have the skills to learn.

Hiring diverse talent is the first step, but developing and promoting these employees is the only way to ensure that inclusive voices are heard throughout newsrooms. Eaton says the institutional changes needed to rectify that situation will take time.

“The practice of promoting within has never been focused on diversity until recently, and it’s on the Black and POC in these positions to continue to push for this and make room for journalists seeking these types of representation,” Eaton said.

A more diverse and inclusive newsroom is not just a noble goal; it’s a key element of better covering communities. Newsrooms that accurately represent their audience will be better at both reporting as well as audience growth and engagement.

“Listening has always been the greatest weakness of media,” said Watson-Ringo, “and we’re in a profound moment where listening is going to help the media survive.”

Diversity in the higher ranks of news leadership also fosters trust with the community.

“When the community knows the information they’re receiving is coming from people that look like them, share the same fundamental beliefs or experiences and come from the same places that they come from, there is a connection and level of trust that can’t be fabricated,” said Eaton.

One way to increase diversity is to innovate on form and style. One of Bloomberg’s most diverse teams is its social media brand QuickTake, says Berry, which offers a different perspective on financial news than traditional reporting. This has enabled the company to recruit a broader range of candidates with different skills, such as video editing and audience engagement, and made the brand appealing to an audience outside of its professional base.

Eaton says that people are starting to be more comfortable with an open dialogue about race and equity conversations in newsrooms. “People are empowered to speak up after having stayed quiet on these matters for years,” he said.

All of these conversations have led to a push in funding for media companies and initiatives led by people of color. But Eaton worries that the groups “throwing money at everything with a POC focused mission” are more interested in their own PR than in genuine change and support.

So far, Watson-Ringo says, she sees coverage of racial and equity issues improving, but the language surrounding race is still a stand-out problem.

“Are you characterizing Black people in the same ways you’re characterizing white people performing the same activity?” she asks, pointing out that white protestors, demonstrators and domestic shooters are treated very differently than Black ones.

For Eaton, changes on the industry side have been promising. Journalists are recognizing the power that they hold within newsrooms, and coming together to demand change.

“Journalists have always known we were the backbone of the newsroom, but owning that power and demanding equal representation is a trend that I want to see continue,” Eaton said.

He also emphasizes the need for programs that support journalists of color throughout their careers. He cited the Lenfest initiative, which provides career training and guidance to mid-level media professionals of color in Philadelphia, as an example of programs that should be replicated.

“There has to be a commitment to change,” said Watson-Ringo. “It’s one thing to be conscious of diversity in a moment when there’s a lot of attention on diversity issues, but continuing that trend long after the spotlight fades is what really will determine the commitment media organizations have made toward actual change.”

Elise Czajkowski is a writer/editor who regularly writes about the Newmark Graduate School of Journalism’s executive and professional education programs. Based in New York, she was previously a Tow Knight Fellow in Entrepreneurial Journalism at the Newmark J-School. She launched a non-profit called Sidewalk News, which uses outdoor advertising to distribute local news.

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