Last year, I wrote a feature story for The Hechinger Report about the obstacles students of color face when trying to get into graduate school. I interviewed Black, Asian and Latino students, professors and education experts. When I wrote about the prevalence of skin cancer in Black and Latinos, I used real people and expert sources of color.
Since those stories were about race, it was a given that race was a factor in choosing the people I featured and quoted. There was no credible way to construct a story about people of color using all white voices. That said, most times I write about things like politics, government, healthcare, technology, business and education that may touch on but are not explicitly about race. That’s where things can get tricky because diversity of sources should still be a priority no matter what the subject matter.
Phoebe Zerwick, journalism professor at Wake Forest University says we need to stress that this is both a business and a journalism imperative. “If your coverage does not reflect the diversity of your community, you are failing your organization as a business, the people you serve and failing as a journalist,” says Zerwick.
In its truest form, diversity also satisfies a key journalistic imperative. Reporting that benefits everyone, not only those who wield a particular power, class or authority, also fuels democracy.
A growing number of news organizations conduct periodic audits to see if the published content uses diverse sources. But the examination shouldn’t be limited to the numbers. Does the coverage skew a certain way so a particular group and a particular topic are always linked? For example, are Latinos only covered in immigration, bilingual education and farm labor stories? How often do you use female business or medical experts if gender is irrelevant to the topic.
Based on the results of the pre-training survey I conducted last month, most journalists understand that diversity goes beyond race and ethnicity and includes everything from sexual orientation to geography to socioeconomics and religion. They also view source diversity as part and parcel of good journalism. Reporting that does not reflect the community lacks accuracy because it only tells half the story.
There is little disagreement that increasing diversity in the newsroom brings more and different discussions that lead to increased diversity in news coverage. But diversifying a newsroom can take years. In the meantime, if we make a concerted effort, we can better reflect variety in our reporting regardless of our own personal identification or life experiences.
Just asserting that diversity is the right thing to do hasn’t moved the needle very much when it comes to more inclusive reporting. In an industry faced with many other problems, source diversity is too often viewed as a luxury that can be set aside when time or money is tight. But this is not a “would be nice.”
Journalistic diversity is a good, more profitable business model. In order to expand readership and remain relevant, news organizations should feature diversity in all its forms is necessary to stay relevant and reach new and changing audiences. Readers pay attention to the content that speaks to or serves their identity. If you rely on the same people or resources, chances are you’re missing out on important stories that just haven’t percolated up yet. Few things in journalism are worse than missing a scoop that was right under your nose.
When you locate that expert who is responsive, knowledgeable and quotablete, don’t relegate him or her to being your Black expert. Chances are they can be a valuable, go-to resource on any number of topics. If you’ll let them.