Media can’t cover diversity well with mostly white staffs

Mindy Hagen

At the start of his Martin Luther King Day keynote address yesterday, Cornel West said he wanted to “unnerve and unsettle” the audience by discussing the racial inequity that persists in society today.

And based on crowd’s emotional response, the Princeton professor certainly was successful in his quest. West is more than qualified to comment on race relations: He’s written books on the subject, explored the issue in hip-hop CDs and even confronted Harvard’s African-American studies department. When West said that King’s vision of true racial acceptance has not yet been fully realized, it was easy to agree with him.

But if a white man gave the same address and promoted the same ideals, would we have been as likely to back his views? Or would we have dismissed his statements, assuming that his skin color means he’s unfit to comment on such issues?

That question is critical at Northwestern, where many of the campus media organizations that try to bring diversity issues to the forefront of student dialogue are composed of all-white boards.

Take The Daily for instance.

On Sunday afternoon, 11 members of The Daily’s editorial board voiced their opinions on a possible editorial for Monday’s newspaper. The proposed topic examined the problems of achieving a campus where students from different ethnicities would sit together in lunchrooms and join student groups together.

Each editorial board member tried his or her best to speak from experience. But frankly, most of us have had the same experience: The white experience. Every person contributing to the editorial about multiculturalism on campus that day was white.

The question then arises: Are NU’s campus media organizations qualified to tackle issues of diversity without having diverse staffs?

The Daily certainly isn’t alone in having an all-white edit board. The Northwestern News Network’s top six producers and directors also are white, said news director Jeff Campbell.

David Weigel, editor in chief of the Northwestern Chronicle, said he believes most NU students expect stories on diversity to be written by staffers who know what they are talking about.

“Unless a piece on diversity is hard news or an immaculately well-rendered opinion, if it’s written by a white student, the buzzwords heard in his sociology class will bubble up in his memory, and he’ll blow it off,” Weigel wrote in an e-mail. “‘How can this dude know what he’s talking about,’ the reader will say. ‘They’ve grown up with white privilege in a racist, parochial American society!'”

Whether that assessment is fair to campus news outlets or not, our readers have a right to be critical. Just as The Daily is quick to criticize Associated Student Government or the administration for a certain policy or idea, our readers have a responsibility to serve as our watchdogs and to hold us to the highest standards — especially those we set for ourselves.

Without diverse staffs, we only open ourselves up to criticism.

I’m far from suggesting that we should bump up a minority staffer to a leadership position when he or she isn’t ready. Instead, we need to do a better job of recruiting students from all backgrounds, with the hope that next time we write an editorial on diversity, we’ll have a wider breadth of experiences to discuss.

As West said, “Don’t allow our suffering to be invisible, give voice to it.”

If you are interested in following West’s words, I know The Daily — and many other media organizations — would love to have you on board.

Development Editor Mindy Hagen is a Medill junior. She can be reached at [email protected]