Skip to main content
University of Wisconsin–Madison

Category: Reflections

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.”

Less mainstream media privilege benefits race justice in crime reporting

The way people sound when they speak, chatter, and laugh may lead to discrimination, police investigation.

Jennifer Stoever, a media and literature scholar at Binghamton University, called this phenomenon “sonic color-line” in a recent book. That is, people in color are often stereotyped and mistreated in turn by their vocal or audio traits.

Stoever said sound-based discrimination is particularly problematic for crime reporting, as such attitude has its deep root in the source most relied on in crime reporting — the police.

African-Americans  are often accused of being loud in public spaces for example, she said. A loud car stereo was once used as an excuse for the police to stop the drivers and investigate other crimes, Stoever found in her study.

On the other hand, after interviewing many people of color, Stoever found that the “authoritative voice” the police are trained to use when they are talking to people in high-crime rate communities actually sounds aggressive. The police tone and posture sometimes can escalate the situation, she said.

If adopted by journalists in their reporting, such authoritative voice, together with the stereotype image of less disciplined people in color, can circulate fears, said newly elected Dane County Circuit Court Judge Everett Mitchell.

Mitchell, also a pastor, is concerned about creating a healthy relation between the offenders and victims after a crime. People who committed a crime should be given a second chance and be able to be accepted back in their communities after the rehabilitation, he said.

The disparity in criminal justice system has been existing for generations in Dane County, with more prosecutions in certain communities, Mitchell said. Those communities are particularly hurt if the restoration of crimes is not going well.

Also, even crime rates sometimes do not give the full picture, said Leland Pan, Dane County District 5 Supervisor. Some communities may have a “suppressed crime rate” because of their reputation for safety.

According to Pan, District 5 has a large student population, which is overwhelmingly white and consists of people from wealthier families.

“Crimes by white males are under-discussed,” Pan said. White students feel more liberty in grey areas as their misconducts are less likely to get reactions from both the victims and the supervisory forces on campus.

Even though on-campus crimes tend to get a lot of media attention, rarely is that coverage about white aggression toward people of color, Pan said. Students of racial minorities sometimes are unwilling to report hostility to them because they are prone to be associated with offenders instead of victims.

As the newsroom demography gets less racially diverse and more socially privileged, journalists’ source network clings more tightly around the established power center, Hemant Shah, a journalism professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said in a talk.

The mainstream news media also hold the prejudice toward alternative media promoting ethnic or racial voices, excluding them from professional journalism, Shah said.

For example, The Capital Times published an opinion article by Paul Fanlund, executive editor, in February about how the mainstream news media in Madison had been greatly contributing to the conversation about racial issues in the past few years.

A few days later, Madison365, a progressive non-profit media, aired a radio program criticizing the Cap Times article for its condescending tone and mainstream limitation.

“There have been only certain groups of people that are able to talk about these issues when it comes to the mainstream,” one of the hosts said, pointing out that the increasing coverage mentioned by Fanlund in his column was predominantly about the advocacy groups the mainstream media found worth reporting.

The mainstream media always have a patronizing gesture as if they “discover” those long-existing racial inequality problems, even though we have been covering the same issues for ages, said the hosts, who are also from communities of color.

This border between professional journalism and progressive journalism needs to be eliminated to include more minority voices in mainstream media, Shah said. He also encourages NGOs and other public agencies to coordinate between minority media and advertisers to form a more sustainable financial model for minority media.

Shah will moderate a panel for race and crime reporting during a journalism ethics conference held by the University of Wisconsin-Madison on April 29. Register for the conference here.

Conversations on representation can benefit, learn from self-representation

Patty Loew, University of Wisconsin-Madison professor, said discussion about how journalism can better represent communities of color often leaves out those who are already using media forms to self-represent.

“Mainstream media doesn’t always stop to ask how communities of color are self-representing,” she said. “Many are making space to create their own representations.”

Loew is a professor in the Department of Life Sciences Communication and affiliated with American Indian Studies.

When journalists try to address misrepresentation and misguided reporting on communities of color, this discussion is often geared toward how the professional industry, predominantly white, can do a better job of reporting, she said.

But, the Native youth she works with through the Tribal Youth Media Initiative produce their own work. Loew and the initiative coordinate with Don Stanley, Life Sciences Communication faculty associate.

“Tribal Youth Media gives youth the chance to represent themselves through digital storytelling,” Loew said. “It’s a really powerful thing to be apart of.”

The initiative brings together a team of graduate students who work with Native American teens to produce video stories about their tribes and communities during the summer. The project runs annually and involves week-long instruction on digital media production.

Ahpahnae Thomas, a junior at Mellen (Wis.) High School participated in the program several times.

“We go out and sort of have a lot of adventures in the wild around the Bad River Reservation,” he said. “Then we make short videos about things we experience.”

Participants like Ahpahnae not only shape content, but they also have the opportunity to interact with media forms they are passionate about.

“With the video production, we had to add music to it, and we created our own music,” Ahpahnae said. “That’s what I like to do. That’s my thing.”

Shania and Ahpahnae

Ahpahnae Thomas composes music while Shania Jackson films. Photo courtesy Patty Loew

Since its inception, the Tribal Youth Initiative and its participants have produced award-winning films which feature community-generated representations of Native communities.

Ahpahnae’s mother, Jean Hahn-Thomas, had the opportunity to chaperone one film festival invitation. She accompanied members of the Tribal Youth Media Initiative in 2013 to Arizona where the participated in the Human Rights Film Festival at Arizona State University, as well as other local showings.

The film featured the natural wildlife that would be affected by the construction of a proposed four and a half mile open pit iron ore mine in Northern Wisconsin, located directly over the Bad River Watershed.

The question and answer session following a showing at a local Arizona school stuck with Hahn-Thomas, in particular.

“Because in Arizona there is a lack of water, the students in the audience were interested in what they could do help to stop the mine from going up which would have polluted the water and dried up the artesian wells,” she said. “It was really good for the kids – both those in the audience and those from Wisconsin.”

The mine project was put on hold in spring of 2015.

“This project shows the kids that you can, with simple things, produce something that people will care about, and it just gives them a completely different perspective on what they can do,” Hahn-Thomas said. “And no matter what the outcome of their short video is, it’s theirs. It’s what they put into it.”

The Tribal Youth Media Initiative is just one of many organizations that are amplifying  the self-representation of communities of color.

Simpson Street Free Press on Madison’s South Side is a neighborhood-based nonprofit that trains young students, often from diverse backgrounds, in journalism. Young writers have the opportunity to write from their own experiences and interests.

Similarly, Lussier Community Education Center is working with University of Wisconsin-Madison journalism students to development and launch a low-power, community FM radio station at 95.5 and online, which will in part highlight the experiences and interests of communities of color on Madison’s west side.

Among others, these organizations are participating in recent conversations on representation of race in the media – not necessarily through letters to the editor, but through the creation of their own media content. And while this does not address all of the work that must be done in media industries to better represent communities of color, it is one step that should be recognized.

“It was nice to be able to share what we learned and have other people see things from our perspective – a different view from our situation,” Thomas said. “And I know was it was really fun to do.”

Loew will appear on a panel addressing media representations of race and ethnicity during a journalism ethics conference held by University of Wisconsin-Madison. Henry Sanders of Madison 365 and will also speak on the panel, moderated by University of Wisconsin-Madison Assistant Professor Lindsay Palmer. USA Today writer Alan Gomez will also join the panel.

Rewriting history: Anniversary stories, shared memory and minority voices

by Meagan Doll & Steven Wang, CJE fellows

“What is often a winner is a story that the audience largely finds familiar with perhaps a palatable twist in it,” Mascall-Dare said. “What I found is that if I go into a story with a framing strategy that my audience finds very comforting and that basically fits the grand narrative, and then I smuggle in the new, interesting, controversial, challenging stuff, they can better go along with it.”

Events like this week’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day bring a predictable onslaught of anniversary and remembrance stories.

The events of the past are memorialized, recreated and retold in the age-old practice of the anniversary story.

“Though the stories are about the past, we are building memories for the future generations,” said Carolyn Kitch, a journalism professor at Temple University.

But, there’s an ethical problem with accepting the truth that’s been told before as the only version of the truth.

Re-purposing the same narrative year after year can reinforce the marginalization of previously unheard voices, said Gregory Favre, a former executive editor of the Sacramento Bee and vice president for McClatchy Newspapers.

Journalists have ethical responsibilities to both their audiences and people who lived the events to dig deeper, Kitch said.

Today, journalists and scholars need to do more to analyze how anniversary news stories can perpetuate stereotypes, said independent journalist and media ethics scholar Sharon Mascall-Dare.

“When we’re thinking about journalism in the context of racialized anniversary stories where journalists have to interrogate narratives and think carefully about how stories are told and the shaping of collective memory and the ethical responsibility that goes with telling that story well and accurately.”


For those who believe journalism to be a first draft of history, anniversary stories provide a second (or 100th) opportunity to explore, amend and reinforce collective memory associated with high-profile events.

Stephen Ward, a media ethicist now based in Madison, Wisconsin, said it is difficult for journalists to construct an accurate memory.

But, particularly when these anniversary stories have an element of race, the collective memory may not be accurate. Ward said reporters and audiences default to subtle biases that are particularly problematic when the coverage is about minority groups.

“We accept certain narratives,” Ward said. History as told in news coverage tends to reinforce the established mainstream view, or a white man view regarding stories including racial minorities.

Anniversary reporting amplifies a certain social memory because journalists  spread one version of the events to those who aren’t eyewitnesses, she said.

“Social memory is about the public constructing shared meanings,” Kitch said.

Journalists should also be sensitive to ideologies embedded in stories commemorating historical events, Ward added. Anniversary reporting of events like Sept. 11 attacks and D-Day can easily take on a patriotic perspective.

For example, anniversary coverage of Sept. 11 generally emphasizes patriots and heroic events, while downplaying the ethic discrimination toward “the enemies,” Ward said.


Favre, who in addition to working for the Bee and McClatchy wrote about remembering  Hurricane Katrina for Poynter, said said anniversary stories play a part in preventing similar tragedies to those which are often commemorated.

“The function of anniversary stories is to rekindle memories, of course” he said. “But it is also to make sure people don’t forget – if things can be prevented in the future, perhaps this is another step to prevention.”

But even the decision about which stories to retell is made without marginalized voices in mind.

Mascall-Dare, who is based Adelaide, South Australia, said there has been a historic focus on reader figures, influencing whose stories are magnified.

Editors and journalists choose to commemorate with news coverage the stories and events they think will attract the largest audience.

“Often, reader figures, click figures, listener figures come first,” she said.

Mascall-Dare said the consequence of this reality is that the stories of racial minorities often go unheard.

She points to a national day of remembrance for military veterans in Australia and New Zealand as an example. The day was originally created to specifically honor the members of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps who fought at Gallipoli against the Ottoman Empire during World War I.

“The Anzac story has essentially become a national defining narrative,” Mascall-Dare said. “And race comes into that narrative because [ANZAC Day] tends to be dominated very much by a narrative that privileges an image of the iconic anglo-saxon Australian soldier, to the exclusion of indigenous soldiers and other migrant nationalities.”

While Mascall-Dare’s research challenges racial inequities present in some anniversary stories, she also warned that journalists must proceed with caution when writing about pre-conceived racialized stories.

Journalism, which counts conflict among its central news values, will often highlight the controversy of racial diversity as a storytelling technique, Mascall-Dare said. Reporters can tell more accurate stories by listening to sources rather than inserting their own narrative, she said.

“It’s important when engaging with people in a cross-cultural context that we allow the people we’re engaging with to set their own terms about what they do or don’t think is appropriate and to decide whether the subject matter is even race related,” she said. “Sometimes a story that may have a race connection may turn out that race is not even the crux of it.”


Embed from Getty Images

When journalists set out to report an anniversary story, they often begin by returning to the breaking news published at the time of the event, said Kitch. Kitch, who is also chairwoman of Journalism and Mass Communication at Temple’s School of Media and Communication, has long focused her research on journalism history and public memory.

“Try to put a fresh face on stories,” Favre said. “The problem is some people just recycle the same old, same old and that doesn’t advance those stories or look at them in a different way.”

Bringing in minority voices is a delicate balance, Mascall-Dare said, admitting that the odds may feel against those trying to challenge the dominant narrative.

“You’ve got to be very strategic about how you go about it as a communicator,” she added.

Favre said he tries to make anniversary stories into contemporary reflections.

“I always like to look forward. Where are we now? What has taken place to make sure the levees won’t break again in New Orleans?” he said. “Looking back doesn’t always serve your reader well.”

Ward said a self-indulgent sentiment is the first thing to avoid. The interpretation of past events should have a critical emphasis on their social impacts, he said.

The focus should be about  how audiences can understand the present problems better by looking back at them. Mascall-Dare had similar advice for journalists: Adopt a challenging perspective within a largely familiar story.

What is often a winner is a story that the audience largely finds familiar with perhaps a palatable twist in it,” she said. “What I found is that if I go into a story with a framing strategy that my audience finds very comforting and that basically fits the grand narrative, and then I smuggle in the new, interesting, controversial, challenging stuff, they can better go along with it.”



Mascall-Dare said anniversary stories can add depth to simplistic grand views of history.

“The  beauty is that by exploring other perspectives which might be seen as alternative or irrelevant or confusing, surely that’s where you can add to the richness of understanding around that event,” she said. “You can aspire to a far more inclusive and socially and ethically responsible representation when you’re not privileging some voices over others or marginalizing particular perspectives.”


Moving toward these goals, Mascall-Dare encouraged journalists to do their part to teach and not simply entertain.

“I would argue that this is where journalists need to think about their role as not just feeding a hungry animal,” she said. “In order to challenge audience perspectives and bring them onside with new and alternatives ways of thinking about that narrative, you do need to be prepared to step into that role of an educator.”

Favre encouraged journalists to do more than rehash the past.

This can involve telling people “what they don’t necessarily want to hear,” Favre said, suggesting that journalist can become too dependent on entertainment value and audience statistics.

Kitch said journalists should lead public attention to work still needed to be done and provide the political and economic context for racial inequality.

Ward suggested a more-diverse newsroom as solution to combat racial inequities especially.

“You need people who really understand the culture,” he said. “You’ve got to take time and effort to know those people, without taking out your threatening notepads at first.”

Mascall-Dare added that change can begin with one’s own moral conscience, encouraging journalists to call out unethical reporting in the newsroom.

“For any young journalist in the profession today, that’s what they need to be aspiring to – brave, courageous, outspoken, challenging, confronting journalism,” she said. “If we’ve gone into the job for the right reason, you should have no qualms about standing up and calling out cliche or unethical reporting when you see it. At the end as journalists, isn’t that what we’re all meant to do?”

This story is one in an occasional series about Race, Ethnicity and Journalism Ethics. These stories will culminate in the center’s annual conference April 29.

Activist challenges the newsworthiness of violent police videos

Despite social action spurred by released videos, one activist doesn’t think that footage of violent confrontations between police and citizens is the answer to changing popular culture.

Matthew Braunginn, co-founder of the Young Gifted and Black Coalition, said videos should be available as part of  public records, but it shouldn’t be publicized through news media.

He said the public shouldn’t require visual proof before having empathy for victims.

“We shouldn’t have heard about Bill Cosby with 30 rape victims to come out – it should have been the first,” he said.  “We shouldn’t have to have seen the video of Ray Rice dragging his wife out of the elevator for us to see how horrific it was.”

Braunginn said visual proof is also nonessential in the case of videos classified as public records, like police videos.

The release of videos showing violent acts continues to stir ethical debates by victim advocacy groups, law enforcement, news media, and audiences. Drawing attention to police brutality distributed body camera footage is a common argument for those hoping to change police culture.

Al Tompkins, senior faculty at the Poynter Institute, said violent videos should only be shown publicly if they tell the audience something they didn’t already know or understand.

“Graphic images don’t always have great value unless they shed light on the facts of the story in ways we can’t get without seeing those images,” Tompkins said.

At the end of November, video of a black teen shot a year before was released, making headlines. An organizer in Chicago’s chapter of Black Lives Matter said it was important for people to see the footage so police officers will be held accountable.

Squad car dashboard footage of a Chicago police officer fatally shooting 17-year-old Laquan McDonald was released to the public against the McDonald family’s wishes after a freedom of information request was granted by a court.

Community members protested after the release of this graphic footage showing McDonald being shot 16 times.

The officer shown firing his gun was charged with first-degree homicide.

That the officer was charged the same day as the court ordered the video be released was said to show the power of video to affect change.

Tompkins said the value in releasing the video is to prove the Chicago police weren’t telling the whole story with the accurate details.

“In the case of the police officer shooting, that very graphic video, in fact, showed us a series of events that is contrary to what the police said occurred,” Tompkins said.

But, Braunginn said he thinks there are larger systemic factors at play.

“Black victims of police or state violence have to have overwhelming visual evidence that it has occurred for a lot of people to actually believe that it has happened,” he said.

“That’s the problem – we shouldn’t have to see it to believe how horrific it is,” Braunginn said.  “He shot him 16 times. Knowing the details should be enough in and of itself.”

“It’s become almost a fetish of seeing black death. We’re glorifying it and desensitizing ourselves to it,” he said.  “But this is really nothing new; this is just an evolution of public lynchings where whole towns used to get together to witness a lynching.”

Leland Pan, Dane County (Wis.) Board District 5 supervisor, said releasing videos promotes transparency.

“I think it’s important to protect the rights of privacy,” Pan said.  “But that being said, I think when we have such an issue of potential officer misconduct, I think it becomes really important to bring police practice into light.”

Police often oppose immediate release of videos that might be part of an investigation.

Cpt. Joe Balles with Madison police’s South District said timing is everything in the release of video footage in the case of a police brutality investigation.

In a the case of a police officer whose decision to shoot a suspect is questioned, the video might be evidence in two separate investigations: A criminal investigation and an internal investigation to see if police policies and procedures were followed.

In the criminal investigation, the district attorney decides if the officer should be criminally charged for improperly using deadly force, said Balles, who is part of the restorative justice program.

“In the first three months (or more) of this investigation, the media is denied access to the footage because it’s an ongoing criminal investigation and the officer could potentially be pending a prosecution,” Balles said.

Police camera footage is often withheld in cases of police brutality on the grounds that it is part of an ongoing investigation.

“That’s often the excuse they give, but it’s often not a very legitimate excuse,” Tompkins said.  “A reasonable person would ask how long it takes to investigate.  In Chicago, did it actually take a year to investigate the shooting?  It seems highly likely that it did.”

“What often happens is the video is withheld just because it’s not politically convenient to release it, and that’s not a good enough idea because that delay just breeds mistrust,” Tompkins said.

Depending on the length of the internal investigation –  which Balles said it is faster than the criminal one  – the police chief makes the decision to release the video.

“The community could be demanding to see that video, and the chief has to weigh their needs with his needs to ensure that there’s a fair and impartial investigation done,” Balles said.

When the videos are released, newsrooms must make decisions about how to share the video with the public.

Decisions about how to use the McDonald video varied from showing it in full, to not showing the shooting at the end, to showing only snippets.

When making a decision about releasing videos to the public,  Tompkins said news organizations should remember that videos that are part of the public record aren’t automatically newsworthy. And if they are newsworthy, there are a few important things to consider.

“It’s very important not to show it as ‘fight highlights’ but to put context on it,” Tompkins said.  “We have an obligation to the people involved to put some kind of understanding on it, especially when it’s graphic.”

He thinks body camera footage is a matter of public importance.

“Body camera video ought to be public records unless there’s an overwhelming reason not to allow it to be public – just in the same way that 911 calls are public and should be,” Tompkins said.

“It is interesting, isn’t it, that the video gets withheld when it fails to exonerate the officer but when it does show that the officer acted righteously the video seems to come forward pretty quick,” he said.

Braunginn said the release of violent and disturbing incidents differs when it involves black people versus white people.  When a white male commits a mass shooting, he said, CNN would give a trigger warning and only air the footage every 30 minutes.

“With Walter Scott they showed it on repeat over and over again – you couldn’t get away from it.  And they’re going to do it again with [Laquan McDonald] over and over again,” Braunginn said.

In South Carolina, Scott was gunned down by a police officer while running away from him.  Police dashboard footage captured Scott running from his car after the officer pulled him over for a broken tail light.

A bystander captured video of the events that ensued once the officer caught up to Scott.  The officer argued there was a struggle for his weapon, causing him to feel threatened and fire at Scott eight times while he ran away.

Braunginn said the news media and audiences need to examine their double standard for airing and watching violent videos.

“When it came to that white shooting, we have to think of the victim and be careful and respectful,” he said.  “But it’s part of not seeing black Americans as human – it’s desensitizing.”