As a reporter and editor for general and legal media for more than 20 years, I take my professional responsibilities and the privilege that comes with being able to publish to an audience seriously. Part of that is regular evaluation of ethical approaches to reporting news and publishing stories, sometimes revealing the most intimate and painful details of people’s lives.
In my youth and in my college studies, I considered myself enlightened and embraced the reality that having gender and racially diverse sources in my reporting was an important part of maintaining journalistic integrity. I value diversity.
Appreciating and striving for diversity, however, is different from practicing diversity and making it a priority in daily endeavors.
This is a continuing struggle for journalists. I’ve never been a fan of both-sides journalism. There’s not always two sides. There are are varying perspectives. I have come to expect myself and my teams to do more than strive to find and include diverse subjects and viewpoints.
At first, I would simply share articles about how reporters were finding ways to diversify sources and be inclusive. Lists and directories popped up to make it easier for busy reporters to find sources on deadline.
That wasn’t enough. Nor was talking about the topic with my colleagues. We could all agree that diversity is important. But were we really reaching out to, quoting, and photographing diverse subjects?
The answer was no. The only way I know the answer is I started to count. I audited every issue of the magazine I was editing at the time, the ABA Journal. As the flagship magazine of the American Bar Association, the magazine is guided in part by four pillars of the organization: serve members, improve the profession, eliminate bias and enhance diversity, and advance the rule of law.
As a core value, it was easy to justify the time spent on regular diversity audits. What I found shouldn’t have been surprising. While our reporters and editors thought they were making diversity a priority, the numbers didn’t lie. We weren’t featuring lawyers and legal professionals of color nearly enough. Nor did we have gender parity even though women now outnumber men in law school.
Once confronted with the data, it was less challenging to make diversity a priority going forward. That didn’t make me popular. I’m sure I was pretty annoying. But I know for certain that the extra push improved our stories, photos, and layouts.
As one of my former colleagues said on Twitter, “The path of least resistance isn’t what turns out the best work, anyway.”
I see diversity efforts everywhere and the formula for progress is fairly universal: identify the problem, collect data, begin measuring what you want or need to change, adjust and improve, continue measuring, reassess and repeat.
If reporters and producers are frequently talking to the same people, this can perpetuate a cycle of amplifying white voices while lacking voices from people of color.Wisconsin Public Radio
There are more resources and examples for reporters and editors too. Wisconsin Public Radio recently studied its sourcing and found diversity lacking. While the yearlong study of WPR’s two networks found gender parity, nearly 9 out of 10 sources of stories were white. The reasons are common in the news business. From WPR:
Strict deadlines are potentially a factor in the majority of sources on air being white. When on a deadline to produce a story, reporters and producers might be more likely to quickly reach out to someone they’ve talked to before. And if reporters and producers are frequently talking to the same people, this can perpetuate a cycle of amplifying white voices while lacking voices from people of color.
Indeed, it’s really easy for a busy news team to get to the sources they know will be responsive and fill in any gaps. That helps meet deadlines but doesn’t make for good journalism.
On tight broadcast or 24-hour news cycle deadlines, it’s not as simple as sending an article back for more sourcing or more diverse representation. I could do that with longer magazine lead times.
WPR is working through this by tasking a source librarian to help reporters find new voices. They’re taking many other steps, but I especially appreciate the dedicated staff position and the regular updates on sourcing data to measure progress or lack of progress.
One of my heroes in these efforts is Ed Yong. In 2018, he wrote in The Atlantic about his two-year mission to study and track the gender imbalance in his scientific reporting.
Just four months into his tracking of sources, he reached parity in his coverage, using a simple spreadsheet. Yong estimates it took him an extra 15 minutes per piece, maybe an hour a week.
He added race and LGBTQ to his metrics as well.
One argument against this approach that he and others face is that diversity shouldn’t be the focus, but rather including the most qualified sources should be the goal. While the critique may sound logical, as Yong notes, it falls apart under scrutiny.
“We don’t contact the usual suspects because we’ve made some objective assessment of their worth, but because they were the easiest people to contact,” Yong writes.
The names were known, they showed up on Google searches and they’d been contacted by other journalists. “They had reputations, but they accrued those reputations in a world where women are systematically disadvantaged compared to men,” he adds.
Journalism, as my former colleague Lee Rawles pointed out, isn’t about the path of least resistance. It’s about reporting news and telling stories in accurate, meaningful ways. Part of that process should include sources from varying viewpoints, perspectives, and certainly different races and gender identities.