How journalists of color walk the line in newsrooms

Donald Trump refuses to answer a question from Univision's Jorge Ramos at a 2015 press conference in Iowa

Before the news ever gets to you, dear reader, we journalists sit in rooms and talk about what’s important for you to know. Then news directors and editors get together and decide what’ll make the cut. 

As you may expect, what comes out of that process depends a lot on who was involved in it.

In this episode, and in this segment of PRI’s The World, I look at the “diverse” journalists in those decision-making rooms, and the pressures they faced over the last year as the matters of inclusion, political correctness, and facts themselves became divisive presidential campaign issues. PBS Newshour’s Hari Sreenivasan, Latino USA’s Maria Hinojosa, NPR’s Keith Woods, and WGBH’s Callie Crossley talked about the increasing fear of being perceived as biased.

“There will be people who see people of color, women, gays and lesbians, anybody who falls into the universe of folks who have had reason to advocate for themselves … there will be people who see them as advocates automatically before you open your mouth,” says Woods, a VP of diversity. “So to a certain extent I say, let’s not concern ourselves with eradicating that perception, because you can’t.”

But ignoring what your editors and audience think is tough (and potentially problematic). Reporters protect themselves, in a way, through journalism itself — by relying on sources to say things, retaining a detached stance, and thereby maintaining a comfortable distance from the audience.

“As journalists we never want to be part of the story,” Hinojosa says. Yet “as journalists of color, we are part of the story.”

And being part of the story is confusing. I started reporting this episode a year ago, after I released the first episode of Otherhood, because I was surprised at the reaction from some other journalists. They asked if I worried that talking about my own immigrant background on the podcast would make people think I'm too biased to cover immigration. That really bothered me.  I couldn’t talk about my family background without being accused of bias, while other people could?

Those squishy questions about bias and reporters of color help contribute to an environment that many diverse reporters chose not to be a part of; US media organizations are notoriously bad at retaining reporters of color. In radio newsrooms, for example, 9 percent of newsroom staff are minorities, according a survey this summer by the Radio Television Digital News Directors Association. Seven percent of news directors are minorities. Consequently, by and large, reporters of color advocate for stories to white editors. That can set up some uncomfortable dynamics.

“Every day, somebody’s trying to make a choice about what’s going to go on the air, online, these are decisions. So one of the bigger issues has been who are the decision makers?” Callie Crossley, host of Under the Radar and a friend of mine, asks in this episode. She was a producer for ABC and for the landmark documentary series "Eyes on the Prize." 

“How do you have that conversation in a newsroom where 9 times out of 10, people refuse to accept your lived experience because it’s not ‘universal?’ If they say that’s not what’s happening, that’s not the ‘universal experience,’ so what are you talking about? You’re outside of the box.”

The topic of journalists of color within mainstream media is too big and confusing to be fully explained in one episode or one segment. All I want you to know, for now, is that being a diverse person within these organizations means walking a fine line. It can be stressful and frustrating. But we who stay do so for the opportunity to be in those rooms where the decisions are made, and to tell our colleagues that the people they don’t know about, and maybe can’t relate to, matter. 

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