Tekriwal: Diversity has a place in all newsrooms

Tanisha Tekriwal, Assistant Opinion Editor

Last week, I visited a major Chicago newspaper’s newsroom on a class field trip. As is appropriate for such outings, I was excited like a sixth grader. We were going to meet with a venerated reporter who had done extensive reporting on the underground drug trade in Chicago.

After a short tour of the office, my peers and I all shuffled into a briefing room. In between copious notes from the presentation we were watching, we opened our ears to the reporter. I heard some objectionable things during our talk about the narcotics trade about countries like Afghanistan and Colombia, reducing their complexities to stereotypes.

Finally, when he opened the floor for questions, someone asked why Chicago had such a big role to play in the narcotics economy. The journalist said, “location and a large Mexican population.” The room bristled in uncomfortable silence, which thickened as we waited for a response to my follow-up question: “Is the correlation between ‘a large Mexican population’ and the drug trade just newsroom conjecture or a conclusion backed by empirical research?”

As an aspiring journalist, stepping on some big media toes might not be the best move for any future career I might want in the field. However, an amateur journalist would have to take these risks for honest and transparent journalism.

My question was brushed aside with, “Not empirical research but anecdotal evidence, yes.” The reporter then went on to talk of more agonizing things: how the drug trade is entrenched in familial ties and its existence as a family business. It is Mexican cultural affinity that affects Chicago drug trade. If he were a cartel king he would trust his cousin’s friend’s boyfriend who might be Mexican more than a random stranger on the Chicago streets.

You don’t have to be Mexican to be offended — only human. Making sweeping assertions about who you are almost wholly based on prejudice is dangerous for anyone, and disastrous for a journalist. Let alone for one who sleeps with a Pulitzer by his bedside.

Anecdotal evidence from one reporter means nothing. Would we ever talk about how white culture is more conducive to addiction? No. So why does the journalist’s idea of Mexican family-based culture mean an individual is predisposed to the drug trade — as if this “cousin’s friend’s boyfriends” has no other job or life and is completely devoid of his own ideals?

I’m not saying the specific reporter’s prejudice must be exposed, hence the attempt to maintain his anonymity. What I did take away from my experience is that newsrooms need diversity. They need diversity because they’re writing for and about diverse audiences. The annual American Society of News Editors report and survey confirms this every year with evidence from newsrooms across the states. Even the newsroom I visited ran a 2019 story attesting to this.

The Daily has been attempting to diversify, even instituting a Diversity and Inclusion branch focused on this effort. It is important that diversity also comes with inclusion, because it does not only mean employing women and people of color and other marginalized communities. It means listening to them and their stories. It means holding frequent workshops on what acceptance and understanding and impartiality looks like just like schools and colleges do.

Learning the frontiers of inclusion is not something which is only necessary for children. In fact, it is as important — if not more — to teach adults about these things, instead of dismissing their biases as unchangeable and acceptable. It is important, especially for journalists, who have the power to shape what we read and how we read it, to remain unprejudiced. A story that omits or includes certain details, or one that lies can change everything.

Perhaps the reporter would’ve reconsidered his words if he had a colleague who challenged his assumptions rather than some random college girl, or if he had just been explained how he was wrong to say something. Perhaps he’d still be adamant. I think it’s worth a try.

Tanisha Tekriwal is a Weinberg freshman. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, 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.