Reflections on #NABJNAHJ16: Why a Lack of Diversity in Newsrooms is a Bigger Problem Than Ever

My first full-time journalism job was at a small paper in rural Washington State. One morning, shortly before deadline, I was copyediting a front-page story, a feature about a local charreada, a Mexican rodeo.

One sentence described how the rodeo horses, performing a piaffe to Banda music, appeared to be dancing salsa. To me, this seemed inaccurate. Salsa largely originated in Puerto Rican culture. A charreada is Mexican. The two are distinctly different. 

I was the only person of Hispanic decent in the newsroom (actually, the only person of color in the newsroom, which covered a community that was 10 percent Mexican), and I was the only person to point this out. I argued with the editors, insisting they change or remove the line. To them, it was inconsequential – it was merely descriptive language. I explained that it was akin to using baseball terms to describe something that happened in a basketball game. It didn’t make sense, and anyone with any knowledge of the two sports would perceive it as a gaffe. Eventually, they removed the sentence.

I realize that, most likely, the paper could have gone to print and most readers would have not have even noticed the error. But, as a Puerto Rican individual, it was important to me. And it should have been important in any newsroom, where attention to detail is a crucial skill.

I’m using this story as a way to highlight the problematic homogeneity that exists in many newsrooms. Obviously, this goes way beyond dancing horses. One could wax eloquent for days about the importance of employing people of diverse backgrounds and why the declining numbers of people of color who work in newsrooms is worrying. 

Via alldigitocracy.org

Between 2007 to 2015, the number of total newsroom journalists fell by 38 percent. The number of newspaper journalists of color fell from 7,400 to 3,200, a decline of more than 55 percent, according to the American Society of News Editors’ annual census.
Where did those 4,200 journalists of color go? It certainly wasn’t into new media spaces. A look at the roster of new digital outlets and startups finds mostly white faces, with a few rare exceptions, such as ESPN’s The Undefeated and NPR’s Code Switch team.

At last week’s joint convention between the National Association of Black Journalists and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, many of the panels were focused on diversity and on how to improve basic storytelling skills. 

In private conversations taking place outside the panels, I learned that many of my friends and colleagues are frustrated. These conventions don't often include panels or workshops discussing more recent technological advancements, such as micro-targeting readers and collecting data from subscribers, and the ways in which these advancements are functioning as new business models for newsrooms and may actually be the key to their survival.

That’s because people of color are still trying to get into the newsrooms. After decades spent trying to reach parity, we're still behind. 

I don’t mean to minimize what were some really great conversations (i.e. one panel titled “Black and Brown Stories Through a Racial Justice Lens: How to Cover Racial Justice Without Adding to Harmful Narratives) happening among the thousands of journalists who attended. 

While issues of sexism and race and disability and mental health increasingly become headline news, discussions about diversity and strategizing to get minority groups into those newsrooms is nothing short of critical.

Ultimately, it was refreshing to take part in these conversations and be present in a space devoted to black and brown individuals. I left exhausted — and inspired.

Some other takeaways from the convention:

  • Hillary Clinton spoke at the convention, and there’s a strong case to be made that we blew our shot to interview her.
  • Hillary has a “crew” of black friends and her first experience working on behalf of Latinos was babysitting the children of farmworkers
  • Independent media organizations, which are generally doing great work that is difficult, if not impossible, to do at mainstream organizations, are primarily made up of white, male staffers. But many of these organizations are working to change that. 
  • Collaboration is key. Newsrooms may not have the resources to do certain stories, but can often partner with other organization or grant-funders. 

I also had the opportunity, alongside my Transborder Media colleagues and Morgan Holm of Oregon Public Broadcasting, to organize a panel on transmedia journalism.

The panel was scheduled for Wednesday at 9 a.m. – the first time slot of the entire convention – so it was refreshing that so many people, interested in progressive storytelling, showed up.

The panel featured Lynne Clenendin of OPB, Kevin Moloney (who did his dissertation in transmedia journalism) and Maryanne Culpepper, the former president of National Geographic and the current executive director of the DC Environmental Film Festival. Check out some of the multimedia and transmedia projects they discussed:
 
Snowfall by the New York Times
Jazz Town by Oregon Public Broadcasting
The Serengeti Lion by National Geographic
The Future of Food by National Geographic
The Marshall Project

Thanks to the panelists and to everyone who attended! And thanks NABJ and NAHJ for a great convention.