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University of Wisconsin–Madison
School of Journalism and Mass Communication

Newsroom diversification not silver-bullet solution

While diversifying the newsroom, or hiring more journalists of color, is a frequently suggested remedy and a positive first step to better coverage of race and ethnicity issues by mainstream journalists, Sue Robinson said it is not enough.

Robinson, a former journalist and University of Wisconsin-Madison professor, studies media discourse around race and ethnicity, especially focusing on conversations about inequalities.

“We have to get more representation of all our communities in newsrooms so that all of our communities have a bigger voice in our mainstream dialogues,” she said. “That said, the danger with merely relying on hiring more people of color is that it absolves everybody else in the newsroom from doing the hard work of understanding their own implicit biases and privilege.”

Additionally, relying on newsroom diversification can create token race reporters, she said.

“They get pigeon-holed into writing about issues of race for a lot of different reasons, some of which are very logistical,” she said. “At the same time, those journalists might want to be an education reporter or they might want to do politics. It ends up almost being racist because you discount the full experience that those people might have.”

On April 29, the final panel at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Center for Journalism Ethics’ Conference on Race, Ethnicity and Journalism Ethics will begin to address next steps. What are some solutions? And how can they be implemented?

But even if diversifying the newsroom were a silver bullet solution, implementing such changes is not without challenges.

For Phil Brinkman, city editor at the Wisconsin State Journal, it starts in the hiring pool.

“We feel the real lack of diversity in our newsroom,” he said. “We live in a very white community, a very white state and we’re just not getting the candidate pools that we need.”

The State Journal has received only a handful of applications from journalists of color over the last couple of years, he said, noting that it will take a combined effort from both newsrooms and journalism schools.

“I would like to do whatever we can to increase our hiring of candidates of color, but j-schools need to make that a priority, too,” he said. “We need a better pipeline.”

Jordan Gaines, UW-Madison senior and editor of the Black Voice predicts that relatively non-diverse cities do not appeal to young journalists of color who are applying for jobs.

“I think the obvious considerations when applying are probably quality of city and then the presence of other people of color,” she said. “And it’s not that realistic for Madison.”

Fortunately, Gaines sees other areas where local outlets could enhance coverage.

“The big one that I think of is diversifying the people journalists contact,” she said. “A lot of times, we have these go-to folks, especially when we’re talking about marginalized communities. Because of that we don’t have intersectional people that we talk to who represent different types of identities.”

Journalists will need to do a better job of getting into communities to expand this contact list, she said.

In addition to diversifying the workforce and sourcing, Robinson said the responsibility rests on individual awareness.

“Most newsrooms do a diversity training – and that’s good. That’s all really good,” she said. “But I also think that we need privilege training beyond that. We need the personal understanding of one’s own role in the complicitness of reinforcing white supremacy within structures that are in place today.”

But it can’t stop after the workshop name tags are tossed. The training and discussion must be built into newsroom practice and culture more permanently, she said.

“It has to be ongoing, so that it’s not just a yearly workshop, but an ongoing conversation that happens in the newsroom,” she said. “Just like how many sources you need, how many inches you have and what the deadline is. It has to be part of that structure.”