State of the Planet

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Journalism Needs More Diverse Voices

A sign on a building in Albany, New York that reads, "You'll like the Times Union"
Like many newspapers, the Albany Times Union in New York has been reducing staff as one way to combat the loss of advertising revenue. Photo: Dale Willman


U.S. journalism is in crisis.

Newspapers have lost half of their newsroom employees since 2008. While employment at digital news outlets has increased during that same time, overall newsroom employment in print, digital and broadcast is still down by almost 25 percent — a loss of some 25,000 jobs. Newspaper circulation, meanwhile, has declined to its lowest level since 1940, the first year such records were kept. But the loss in newspaper advertising has been even greater; Since 2008, revenues have dropped 62 percent.

So, when people talk about the crisis now facing the journalism industry, these are the problems they usually mean. But according to the authors of a new book on journalism, there is a bigger crisis underway – one that is threatening the very soul of the industry. And they say it’s time for a reckoning.

That was the topic of a recent webinar discussion as part of the Resilience Media Project, which is a part of the larger Initiative on Communication and Sustainability at the Earth Institute of Columbia University.

Journalism, wrote communication theorist James Carey, is a special kind of cultural conversation. But Mary Lynn Young, a professor at the University of British Columbia, says much of that conversation is absent, because too many voices, from too many cultures, are not being heard — Indigenous, Black, gay voices and others are all missing. “What’s happened to the people who have actually been underserved, misrepresented, mis-served?” she says. “You know, where did that conversation go and who’s been controlling that conversation in what we consider modern journalism?”

Young, along with Candis Callison, authored the new book, “Reckoning: Journalism’s Limits and Possibilities.”

So, who is controlling that conversation? Callison says the answer is simple: “There is a persistent whiteness in newsrooms right now.” In fact, despite years of effort at increasing employment of underrepresented minorities in the media, their participation in broadcasting and newspapers remains well below their levels in the general population. And that means, she says, that the world view used to decide what stories are covered is unnecessarily narrow. The richness of life in the non-white population is often missed, simply because it’s not visible to news gatekeepers, who are overwhelmingly white.

A protester raising her middle fingers during a Black Lives Matters rally in Buffalo New York
Protesters at a Black Lives Matters rally in Buffalo, New York Photo: Dale Willman

I was thinking about this recently while on a trip to Buffalo. I was taking photos of a Black Lives Matter protest. After I had been there for some time, a cameraman showed up from a local TV station. Standing near him was a security guard, presumably hired by the station. Moments after the cameraman started filming, someone in the crowd shouted, “He has a gun! The f#@*!ing security guy has a gun!” The crowd started yelling and moving slowly toward them, so they retreated to their car and drove away.

Curious about the news station, I visited their website. They show photos of 24 on-air staff members. At most, four are people of color. Both the photographer at the protest and his security guard were white. And this made me wonder: How well can that station represent the nuances involved in coverage of the Black Lives Matter movement, or inner city housing issues, or more, when their staff does not come close to representing many of the population’s residents who are not white?

This lack of representation results in several problems. Those groups not reflected in a news organization’s employee list don’t have a seat at the table when news decisions are being made, so their stories are often not recognized and reported. Also, when underserved populations don’t see people who look like them reporting the news, they are more likely to discount those news outlets.

A photo of a billboard in New York protesting coverage by the New York Times of Middle East issues
In 2018, The New York Times was the subject of a media campaign over its coverage of issues in the Middle East  Photo: Dale Willman

Many newspapers and broadcast outlets are trying to change this, hiring people of color into entry-level positions. But diversity and visibility are not enough. Workplaces also need to foster inclusion, so that all employees’ ideas are valued, and so that people of color get a chance to hold gatekeeping roles that decide what is covered, and in what way.

Donovan Quintero is a Navajo journalist living on a reservation in Arizona. He offers coverage of his community that he says is passionate and sympathetic, because those values are important to his culture. “I come from here. I come from the Navajo Nation. My roots are here. The one thing I understand as a journalist is that I need to be here. I need to be here at home and do my best to try to cover all the issues that affect us.”

None of this of course means that only Blacks can tell stories from their community, or whites from theirs. But Callison says that journalists need to be more aware of the stories they tell, and how they go about telling them, particularly when the story involves a culture that is not theirs. “I think thinking about who your audience is does actually impact what kinds of story stories you tell and how you tell the stories that are in front of you.”

Knowing who your audience is, and representing the diversity of that audience is critical, say the authors. And unlike in the past, audiences are beginning to demand that journalists pay attention to them, according to Callison. “I think we’re really talking about a transformative push to journalism that’s coming from audiences. It’s coming from people who haven’t been served.”

Be sure to watch the full conversation, and go through the resources below.

This program was produced in partnership with the Society of Environmental Journalists. Rico Moore, Freelance Journalist and Researcher, and Bernardo H. Motta, Assistant professor at Roger Williams University, offered the initial plan for this webinar and contributed greatly to its production

One of the priorities of the Earth Institute’s new Initiative on Communication and Sustainability is improving the interface between journalists, scientific expertise and vulnerable communities. This is the latest webinar in a series I’m developing on covering factors that either boost or impede community and ecological resilience in the face of the landscape of hazards in this era of rapid change. More videos can be found on the Resilience Media Project page.



Global Press Journal Style Guide

Diversity Media Style Guide

Diversity Style Guide from the Center for Integration and Improvement of Journalism at San Francisco State University and the Society of Professional Journalists

Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ) diversity resources

SEJ’s Diverse Perspectives page — particularly strong on fellowships and grant opportunities

Society of Professional Journalists Diversity Toolbox

SEJ’s Guide to Diversity in Environmental Reporting

SEJ Stands With Journalists of Color Speaking Out About Systemic Racism

Reporting in Indigenous Communities by Duncan McCue

Utah Diné Bikeyah media orientation guide:

Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women resource guide

Native American Journalist Association reporting guides

National Association of Hispanic Journalists’  Cultural Competence Handbook

Democracy Fund’s Local News Lab

Community Journalism Resources

Journal-isms newsletter

Climate Justice Reporting Guide, Climate Change Now, June 9, 2020.

Op-ed by Candis Callison and Mary Lynn Young in The Toronto Star “It’s time for a new approach to journalism

Media Indigena two-part interview with Mary Lynn Young and Candis Callison

Episode 214  Episode 215

CBC Radio interview about the book: Objectivity is ‘the view from nowhere’ and potentially harmful


Who tells the story of the present? Candis Callison on redefining journalism in Canada” Interview in The Narwhal

Waubgeshig Rice’s “Letter to a Young Indigenous Journalist

Pacinthe Mattar’s “Objectivity Is a Privilege Afforded to White Journalists

Faces of Power, The New York Times

Two older books:

Covering the Community: A Diversity Handbook for Media 

The Conversation of Journalism: Communication, Community and News

Questions for Journalists

These are questions you can ask yourself to help you expand your coverage of diverse issues

How would your newsroom, publication, or news company benefit from increased diversity?

What is the demographic makeup of my newsroom?

What are the benefits of a diverse news staff, and freelance list?

In what ways can my newsroom hire more BIPOC journalists?

When you cover a marginalized community, what do your sources look like – not just the ‘person on the street’ interviews, but the experts you choose? Do they look like you, or do they look like the community you are reporting on?

Do you track the diversity of your news sources? If not, why not? What are the impediments, and can they be overcome?

Are you developing a database of diverse sources you can use when a news story breaks and you don’t have time to be reflective in your choices of sources?

How often do you cover marginalized communities? What do your stories typically look like – are they mostly crime and poverty, or do they tell a more complete story of their lives?

Do you track your overall story topics? If so, do you measure how many stories are about crime, and how many about community, daily life and solutions to problems? What is the balance of these story topics when talking about a wealthy area versus a marginalized community?

Who do you hope to serve when covering any story affecting a marginalized community – the marginalized community, or a ‘broader’ public?

How do you see that generic public? Do they look like you? Do they share the same experiences as the community being covered? If not, how can you help them understand that community better?

How do you deliver your content? Are the platforms accessible to everyone, including the group you might be covering? Remember, many people still do not have a computer, or access to high speed internet

Do you also use your news reach to sponsor community conversations? This is a great way to reach people who are not regular media consumers, and it’s an important way to bring people together. It also allows them to fully engage with a news story

Why is it important to situate stories involving systemic racism, settler colonialism, and gender discrimination in their historical contexts? How might this affect the long term trajectories of these inequities?

Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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