Diversify Your News Coverage

As journalism advisers, we know the importance of reporting multiple sides of every story.   But what if our staffs were inherently incapable of doing so?

That’s the fundamental question I pondered after the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson Missouri this summer.   Once again, there was major rift in the perception of events between blacks and whites.  And this became even more disturbing when I witnessed the news coverage of the incident.

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Perception is everything. Left: initial image of Michael Brown shows a menacing figure flashing a gang sign. Right: the next day, a more objective photo.

 

Well-meaning professional journalists made subtle choices that had a profound impact on our perception of who Michael Brown was, thereby tainting our perception of the facts.  It got me thinking about my own staff, and how we might be making similar decisions that unwittingly lead to biased reporting. This fall, I spoke on the topic at What If…? Philly, and again at the NHSJC in Washington DC.

Journalism-Diversity
Who’s making decisions about news coverage? Ethnic breakdown of professional journalists.

While smart, hard-working students can tackle topics related to race, gender, religion and other issues like immigration, many subjects and perceptions of them are based on one’s own experiences.  Certain subtleties simply may not be on their radar.  One of the best ways to address this is to have a diverse staff, since their life experiences and perspectives help generate story ideas and approaches to each topic.

 

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Access to scholastic journalism falls along racial lines. Source: Center for Scholastic Journalism.

When I say ‘diverse,’ I mean including people of many backgrounds including race, gender, religion, socio-economic background, country of origin, sexual orientation, etc.

We need to make an effort to include these underrepresented groups in our staffs, and encourage our staffs to cover topics outside of their comfort zone. This is especially important for broadcast staffs, where diversity is literally in front of the audience with on-camera talent.

While we’re often at the mercy of our school’s demographics, there are several ways we can start to address diversity in our publications right now.

Some tips on diversifying your program include:

  • diversify your staff with outreach to underrepresented groups by gender, ethnicity, religion, language, geographical origin, etc.  Recruit staff by visiting clubs at your school that support students of various ethnicities and cultures.
  • track who you interview and use for sources.  make a spreadsheet that tracks their gender, ethnicity, age, year in school, etc.  Do you keep going back to the same groups because it’s easy? Or are we hearing from a variety of perspectives?
  • encourage or assign topics that force the staff to go to places and meet people they normally would never think to.
  • create a beat that covers race and culture, like NPR’s Code Switch team.
  • Use and share resources like these courses that emphasize promoting diversity

For schools who don’t have a strong journalism program, or for teachers without journalism backgrounds who would like to integrate this into their curriculum, I recently published two courses on iTunes U that are free for anyone to use.  It can only help if the ranks of student journalists grow, and in schools and towns where it hasn’t been nurtured before.

We owe it to the journalism community–and our students, schools and society–to address the lack of diversity among the ranks of scholastic journalists.  Diversity isn’t just a nice thing to do.  It’s good journalism.

Michael Hernandez

Michael has taught Film/Video Production and Broadcast Journalism since 1999, and advises the Pacemaker-winning Mustang Morning News. He regularly presents seminars on journalism, video and technology-related topics, and is a former JEA National Broadcast Adviser of the Year. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @cinehead

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