Media companies won’t get race right until they see it in their newsrooms

July 28, 2020

School of Communications Zoom Meeting

American newsrooms won’t get stories about race right until they see diversity as a moral imperative and a competitive advantage — and hire that way, a panel of journalists noted Monday at Quinnipiac University.

After George Floyd’s death in May and thousands of racial injustice protests across the United States, coverage of race-related stories by predominately white newsrooms has sparked renewed criticism of the industry.

Five panelists discussed this structural failure during a webinar titled, “Race, and Racism, in the Media,” sponsored by the School of Communications.

“In my 26 years in this business, I haven’t really seen the kinds of conversations we’re having in the newsroom now around race and coverage of race,” said Philana Patterson, a managing editor at USA Today.

“That said, I have concerns … about the way it’s been carried out,” she added. “One of the things I’m very concerned about is the idea of getting newsrooms to be more diverse as a numbers game: ‘Let’s check off this many of this. And this many of that.’ And I see it happening.”

Patterson is not alone.

“It’s unfortunate that in the year 2020, we are still having discussions ad nauseum, and even as we discuss these issues, we see minimal progress being made,” said moderator Michael Lyle MS ‘08, an adjunct professor in the School of Communications as well as a radio broadcaster.

For years, diversity in American newsrooms has been populated by tokenism and quotas.

“People of color and women get brought into professional situations where our opinions are not valued because we’re not part of the dominant culture that runs that newsroom,” said Kevin Reed, a former senior editor at ESPN.

It’s the same dominant culture that has bent the historical narrative for 400 years.

“American history needs to include the history of all people and stop being exclusionary about who’s written about and who’s talked about,” Reed said. “So when you’re a journalist … you enter your workplace or your profession with the foundational knowledge of what the country actually is and not a sanitized version.”

Ultimately, the interpretation becomes a battle of calculated perception versus ugly reality.

“The numbers regarding race and the media are startling,” said Chris Roush, dean of the School of Communications.

According to the Pew Research Center, 58% of Blacks and 55% of Hispanics say the news media misunderstands them. At the same time, data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that 88 percent of public relations professionals are white.

Sandy Gonzalez-Wilson, a former journalist at Bloomberg Television and the New York Post, has watched too many newsrooms hire an extra Hispanic reporter or an extra Black reporter to placate communities of color during a crisis.

The newsroom managers believe if they hire someone who looks like the protesters, the reporter will get “The Quote” because of melanin, not moxie.

“I want people to be hired because they’re professional, because they’re outstanding writers and researchers,” Gonzalez-Wilson stressed.

Maggie Leung, the vice president of content for NerdWallet, remembers covering the Rodney King beating by Los Angeles police officers in 1991. She sees the same racial tensions and the same monochromatic newsrooms today.

“I got my start in traditional news. One of the earliest things that happened was the Rodney King beating and the subsequent trial of police in LA who were responsible for beating him,” Leung said. “A colleague and I were talking about it recently, how it just feels like it’s a rewind of that history, that nothing has progressed significantly since then.”

Allen Mask, the chief of staff at Sonos, believes today’s newsrooms must be more thoughtful in their hiring as well as their coverage of events such as Floyd’s death and the Black Lives Matter movement.

“One thing we can change is the role we play in each one of those moments,” Mask said. “It’s also a good chance to step back and think through how we bring more of ourselves to these environments. How can we contribute in a way we haven’t before?”

Watch the full conversation

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