Sitting with Journalism’s Diversity Problem

By Dustin Volz

Volz - Dustin - Image of diversityA silent journalist is as about as useful as a blind surgeon. And so I talk and write about people and events and ideas, all the while worrying that all of it is beyond my depth. I worry not because of an insufficiency of factual knowledge. My inability to empathize with the struggles and perspectives of others-—to recognize and appropriately calibrate for my distance-—is what paralyzes me.

My job as a journalist is to report, but I know nothing about what it’s like to walk down the street and fear for my safety, or go to bed hungry, or feel like the cops are targeting me because of my skin color. I’m part of the mainstream media. And most journalists look exactly like me.

Let me explain why that is a problem. Earlier this summer I wrote a short web piece about Edward Snowden, a subject I visit frequently on my beat. The story seemed unlike the dozens of other Snowden posts I’ve authored: The fugitive leaker exposes some dirty laundry about the National Security Agency, generally prompting a great deal of outrage and handwringing from privacy and civil-liberties advocates.

This time, Snowden revealed that NSA agents routinely passed around nude photos of people intercepted through the agency’s vast data collection programs. The story I wrote was straightforward enough, but when it came time to choose a photo I asked a nearby colleague-—a white male-—if he had any ideas. “Let’s find a photo of a guy looking at some barely dressed girl on a computer,” he earnestly offered.

The suggestion seemed problematic. Still, he sent me a variety of options. A couple tamer ones appeared appropriate for our political news site. I decided to take the idea to my editor—-another white male.

He quickly balked before asking to see one of the options. After brief deliberation, the editor green lit the photo choice. Moments later, my story was on the web, headlined by a giant photo of women in suggestive lingerie striking a provocative pose.

Job well done, I thought. And it wasn’t even lunchtime yet.

Then the hammer fell. Hard.

A more senior editor sent me and my editor an email almost immediately. Her request was direct.

“The photo on the Snowden story. Change it. Now.”

I rushed to fix my error of judgment, kicking myself for not having the sense that panicked hindsight had brought me. The female editor called us into her office moments later to hand down a firm admonishment that included this decree: “Any photo of anyone in any state of undress needs to get cleared by me first. Got it?”

We mumbled apologies and sheepishly nodded. I left grateful that my editor took the brunt of the blame and that the senior editor kept the lashing short.

I was even more grateful to have a female boss around who quickly saved us all from embarrassment. Nobody else—-that is, the white males in the room—-brought up the ethics of such a photo. But she did.

***

Newsrooms are going to continue to look a lot like me, if current trends are an indication. A bum rush of startups in early 2014-—Vox, First Look Media and FiveThirtyEight—-endured ridicule for assembling staffs that are overwhelmingly male and white. As Emily Bell posited bluntly in The Guardian, “Journalism startups aren’t a revolution if they’re filled with all these white men.”

These lacerations aren’t without provocation. When Vox editor-in-chief Ezra Klein audaciously claims to be reinventing the way we understand the news and the world around us—-and only begins discussing issues of diversity in media after a horde of commentators descend, criticism is inevitable.

Klein isn’t atypical. The tendency by publishers and editors to consider diversity as an afterthought rather than a guiding principle reaffirms a historic phenomenon that political-science professor Colin Flint has succinctly summarized: “Whiteness goes unremarked by its possessors.”

With rare exception, that is the case in most newsrooms, despite the best efforts of groups like Media Matters and the National Association of Black Journalists. According to a recent survey from the American Society of News Editors, the percentage of women in newsrooms has flatlined over the last decade, never surpassing 38 percent. Minorities are about 12 percent.

It’s not as if women and minorities don’t want to work in media. For years, journalism schools have been predominately female, but those graduating classes often do not translate to placement in newsrooms. One reason for this is networking, according to Shani Hilton, Buzzfeed’s deputy editor-in-chief.

“The network —- on both ends of the equation —- is the problem. The journos of color and women aren’t networking with white dudes doing the hiring because it isn’t in their DNA,” Hilton wrote in March. Meanwhile, young white men are often the ones “given a shot” in lieu of minority or female journalists “because they project a competence and confidence that the white guys doing the hiring saw in themselves when they first got started.”

Whatever the reason, the dangers of monochromatic publications are not difficult to parse out. As the late journalist Robert Maynard, the first black owner of a large newspaper, the Oakland Tribune, said in 1993: “This country cannot be the country we want it to be if its story is told by only one group of citizens.”

A controversy that arose regarding the popular sports blog Grantland earlier this year is instructive. A piece penned by Caleb Hannan posthumously outed its subject, who committed suicide during Hannan’s reporting, as transgender. The revelation was packaged into the narrative as a sort of fourth-quarter plot twist. Hannan—by most accounts a talented and well-intentioned reporter-—and his editors all failed to empathize with a transgender subject because they admittedly had little to understanding of a minority community long stigmatized by mainstream media.

“We made one massive mistake,” Grantland editor-in chief Bill Simmons admitted in a lengthy apology he wrote on the site. “Someone familiar with the transgender community should have read Caleb’s final draft. This never occurred to us. Nobody ever brought it up.”

***

Is it possible to bridge the empathy gap, to step outside of yourself and see things from another perspective?

Ta-Nehisi Coates, a senior writer at The Atlantic, recently offered some guidance. This summer he punctuated the daily noise of fleeting, unsubstantial stenography with his “Case for Reparations” cover story, a massive, 15,000-word essay that lays out in intricate and thoroughly reported detail the enduring legacies of racism in America that have systematically deprived blacks of financial liberation.

Coates’ life as a black male deeply informs his writing. And those experiences—-growing up in West Baltimore and having thugs smash a trash can over his head when he was a kid-—are not something that most journalists will ever be able to relate to.

But identity-based struggle alone is not enough to grant Coates carte blanche authority to discuss racism. To assume otherwise belittles the seriousness with which he has approached his craft.

Coates spent two years on his reparations essay, a piece that is the culmination of years of writing, reading, thinking and conversing about race in America. He’s dedicated much of his professional life to meditating on difficult topics like redlining in Chicago–a place he isn’t from–the legacy of Jim Crow and, yes, reparations.

“Just being black was not enough to write about reparations,” Coates told me and a group of Atlantic Media fellows in April. “I’ve sat with it.”

What Coates is prescribing is nothing new. It is, at its core, what journalism is about, and what an audience might expect of any journalist: a thoughtful, well-informed approach to an earnestly reported story.

As Coates stated plainly, “Do your job. Go out and report. And read.”

Doing the job well helps, but it’s a lot easier to be empathetic with a diverse newsroom than it is in one where everyone is white and male. Fixing newsroom diversity is hard work, and it won’t happen overnight. But without it, journalists, even the most concerned, self-conscious among them, are going to continue to make mistakes.

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