Closson: Now more than ever, we need diverse journalists
February 26, 2017
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A few weeks ago, Beyoncé’s Album of the Year loss stirred conversation about diversity and inclusion at the Grammys. This year’s Oscar contenders included significantly more people of color than in previous years, but there’s still room for improvement, both in terms of on-screen representation and in the racial composition of the Academy’s voting committees. Although the importance of minority representation in Hollywood is consistently debated among American journalists and pundits, the significance of journalistic diversity is often overlooked. As President Trump continues to vilify reporters and incite distrust in the media’s credibility, it’s crucial to ensure journalists are representative of the communities they serve.
During a recent White House press conference, media interactions with Trump unveiled the increasing need for racial and ethnic diversity in journalism. In their questions, Ami Magazine’s Jake Turx addressed rising instances of anti-Semitism nationwide, and American Urban Radio Networks’ April Ryan concentrated on Trump’s urban agenda and a possible executive order pertaining to Historically Black Colleges and Universities. As Jewish and black journalists respectively, Turx and Ryan posed the only two questions about difficulties facing their specific communities during the press conference, despite these issues having far-reaching implications that transcend any single group.
Therein lies the problem, as limited numbers of minority journalists can often be expected to single-handedly carry the weight of thoughtfully reporting on matters that implicate entire identity groups. Turx shouldn’t be the only journalist in the room asking about the surge in bomb threats to Jewish community centers as alt-right and neo-Nazi groups appear emboldened by Trump’s election. The fact that Trump asked Ryan at a news conference earlier this month whether she’s “friends” with the Congressional Black Caucus demonstrates that there is still an assumption that black journalists are biased towards their identity group. This is a problem because when minorities are the “only one” or a minor portion of the larger group, they’re too often expected to embody, address and speak for the interests of a whole community.
A situation in which too few are expected to speak for too many is unacceptable. As emphasized by the Black Student Experience Task Force’s report released in September, the range of experiences within Northwestern’s black community “makes it difficult — if not impossible — to describe a single, all encompassing, Black student experience.” And the Task Force’s findings aren’t limited to a single racial or ethnic group, nor solely Northwestern’s campus; rather they’re emblematic of a larger reality. One person can’t, and shouldn’t have to, speak on behalf of everyone sharing his or her race, ethnicity, religion or identities.
An annual study conducted by the American Society of News Editors revealed that in 2015, only 12.76 percent of newsroom employees were minorities, despite having a much higher representation in the overall U.S. population. Across the country, homogeneity is pervasive throughout publications, as most newsrooms are often largely white and male.
Newsrooms are products of reporter’s collective experiences. As journalists decide which stories to pursue, what angles to take and what content to incorporate into newspapers and websites, it’s imperative that a wider range of voices are involved in decision-making processes. Especially during a presidential administration that gained traction, in part, through insensitive generalizations of minority groups. Both the mass media — and programs like Medill that are training the next generation of journalists — have a responsibility to work to redefine what good journalists should “look like” and ensure that those providing news become more reflective of an increasingly diverse American public to further generate diversity of perspective and experience.
Greater racial and ethnic diversity, however, isn’t enough. Similarly, diversity of gender identity, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation and religion — among others — is just as necessary to create environments in which the multi-faceted shared backgrounds of journalists allow for more complete reporting and writing.
Increasing the number of journalists of color will provide invaluable ideas in writing stories about minority communities. Having more female reporters could help publications maintain perspective when reporting on women’s issues. Staff members with varied socioeconomic statuses might provide insight when approaching sources from low-income households. Or their contributions could be in areas completely separate from their identities. Whatever the subject, within journalism, diversity isn’t just another goal to strive for, it’s absolutely essential for thorough, comprehensive coverage.
If we are to tackle relevant issues, conduct meaningful investigations and challenge Trump’s consistent assertions of “fake news,” we all need to assume the responsibility of ensuring the media becomes less homogenous, both in identity and in terms of thought, experience and background.
Troy Closson is a Medill freshman. He can be contacted at [email protected] If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.