Around the world, media organisations are reckoning with systemic racism by diversifying editorial staff to better reflect the communities they serve, and by being frank with their audiences about their history and the challenge they face. As organisations like the BBC look at targets and direct action, the Los Angeles Time put itself publicly in the editorial eye by treating their journey as a story worth reporting. At the IPI 2020 virtual world congress, four journalists came together to talk about how that’s working.
In the face of the difficulties brought about by the pandemic, “it has been an extraordinary year for journalism,” Khadija Patel, Vice Chair of the International Press Institute (IPI) and Co-founder of The Daily Vox, told IPI.
“For many of us this is the story of our lifetime. But as great as the story is in itself, it has also thrown open a lot of scrutiny on the nature of journalism.” According to Patel, this is an opportunity for newsrooms to embrace a long overdue transformation.
“I saw other black journalists fade away in the newsroom”
Recalling her experience as a black journalist in South Africa Patel said: “I felt like my voice wasn’t being heard and that I was expected to conform to a particular narrative… It wasn’t just my experience, I saw other black journalists fade away in the newsroom, they grew disillusioned with journalism itself.”
It was only after an interaction with young journalism students in a Johannesburg university that Patel felt propelled to take action, launching her own publication aimed at developing a new generation of young black journalists. Although South Africa has been dealing with questions of identity and race for decades, “we still don’t have this issue sorted out,” said Patel, admitting that bigger efforts are needed to secure change.
“When we founded the National Association of Black Journalists 40 years ago, we didn’t really know that during this time in 2020 these issues would be hitting us in the face to the extent they are now”. Washington Post columnist Joe Davidson said, noting the tension in U.S newsrooms in light of this year’s movement for racial equality. Davidson acknowledged progress has been made: “Many of us first generation black journalists are in many mainstream newsrooms. But the problems are still very much with us,” he concluded, referring to the recent arrest of CNN correspondent Omar Jimenez on air in Minneapolis, while a white CNN correspondent nearby was able to continue working.
— Jim Roberts (@nycjim) May 29, 2020
Even for the LA Times, which has one of more diverse newsrooms in the country, the spotlight on racial equality this year forced a moment of reflection. “Some folks here felt that with 38% POC (on staff), we were one of the most diverse newsrooms,” said Scott Kraft, Managing Editor of the Los Angeles Times. “But this is a state, a county and city that is much more diverse.”
The LA Times treated their readers to a series titled ‘Our Reckoning with Racism’, in which The Times committed to examine its past. “It’s a 3,000 word apology to our community for our institution’s racist past. We’ve heard each day from staffers who have been here a while talking about their experiences of racism in the newsroom.” In a first-person piece published in the LA Times, journalist Clint C Wilson II chronicles how systemic racism in the industry impacted his journalism, revealing that as a graduate in the late 1960’s, the Times did not want to hire a reporter of color because they “already had one”.
A Black reporter recalls racism in the newsroom and finally gets his day of reckoning.
“It was time to revisit that history and strip it of its power” https://t.co/m8WkKLGwiQ
— Los Angeles Times (@latimes) September 28, 2020
Transparency and a critical perspective on management and leadership can help create the conditions for improved diversity. After LA Times editors were pushed out due to ethical lapses and other oversights earlier this year, Kraft assigned two reporters to observe the turmoil in the newsroom as well as the leadership’s flaws, in a report that drew praise and appreciation for the company’s transparency. “We hope it gains us credibility with our readers,” said Kraft.
Despite financial constraints, Kraft is adamant to improve diversity and inclusivity in the newsroom and reach audiences the paper failed to attract in the past. “Everybody in journalism understands that a diverse staff makes for better journalism,” he said, “so people will be held accountable. We want to make sure people of color are interviewed for every open position, and we need to go out and look for them if they don’t apply”.
“When we founded the NABJ 40 years ago, we didn’t really know that […] in 2020 these issues would be hitting us in the face to the extent they are now”
Waking up to its own lack of diversity, the BBC is making new commitments. “If we are to remain viable and trusted to all audiences we need to reflect all those audiences inside the BBC as well,” Sarah Ward-Lilley, Managing Editor of News and Current Affairs at the BBC, told IPI. “We have a target described 50-20-12: 50% gender balanced, 20% ethnic staff and 12% disabled staff.”
But as Davidson pointed out, setting targets is no guarantee. “A few decades ago, an organization called ASNE (American Society of News Editors) set a goal of reaching parity in the newsroom by 2020. They never reached that goal.” Actions speak louder than words, and according to Davidson news organizations should do more than just say they “should do better, but actually put it in print”.
There is an added challenge to the transformation newsrooms are trying to complete. “We’re going into ‘phase two’ of covering the story and living with the pandemic,” said Ward-Lilley, “we’re having to close some posts and jobs, and we’re going through a redundancy program”. Ward-Lilley admitted working remotely under such circumstances negatively impacts staffers’ mental health. To support teams and colleagues, “we ran mental health resilience drop in sessions.” But according to Ward-Lilley, remote work also has its benefits.
“The future of journalism is solid”
“Holding editorial meetings on zoom leveled the playing field in terms of people’s contribution,” she said “and because we are doing things remotely now, the choice of interviewees and experts we’re having on air is actually broader.” Said Ward-Lilley. This, as Davidson pointed out, “proves that journalism can adapt.”
Despite the apparent decline in the industry over the last few years and the existential questions it raises among the journalistic community, “people have been predicting the end of journalism for a long time. But newspapers are there and journalists are still working,” continued Davidson “the future of journalism is solid.”
“Whatever the device is, it can’t replace the basics of good journalism,” he said. “We have to hold the powerful accountable, go into communities and talk to people who aren’t powerful, we must do that no matter the status of our reporting tools.”
This conversation was part of the International Press Institute’s World Congress. The panel of “The Journalistic Reset” included Scott Kraft, Joe Davidson, Sarah Ward-Lilley and moderated by Khadija Patel.