How does media get past their binders full of minorities?

I graduated from journalism school in 2001, right around when “New Media” became a thing to take in j-schools across the country. We learned how to use basic HTML! We wrote stories … for the WEB! The Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University — sorry, the The Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications at Northwestern University —  is, and was, one of the best places to get a journalism education in the country.

But in my time there, from 1997-2001, we never talked about media diversity. We studied the history of journalism. We studied the ethics of journalism. We earned — or at least I earned — my fair share of Medill Fs. Our profs, mostly seasoned Chicago veterans with dozens of awards under their belts, hosted mock press conferences for us, posing as cops, politicians and celebrities. If you were into advocacy, you could join the Innocence Project with David Protess. If you were into writing, you could take literary journalism with visiting guests Scott Anderson and Lillian Ross (the luminaries my senior year). Medill was basically the world’s very best trade school for budding newspaper, magazine, and TV professionals, at least, for those who were willing to cough up $100,000 for four years of plumbing – er, journalism, school. (Not sure, but the price tag might be part of the problem. Just thinking out loud here.)

Yet the only reference to diversity that stands out in my head was from freshman year, when a discussion turned towards minority reporters and anchors on local television news. These were the days of Connie Chung and Linda Yu, mind you. My professor, a woman, said Asian women play well on TV because “people are still drawn to the exotic.” Asian men, meanwhile, don’t have much of a career on local TV because they’re “still seen as suspicious.”

Diversity education!

And we certainly never discussed diversity when it came to our sources. Sure, we were taught how to get “man on the street” interviews, and to make our reporting as balanced as possible, but we never explicitly discussed the importance of getting a variety of racial, ethnic, or gendered perspectives on an issue. As a young journalist, even as a woman of color, I didn’t really think about it that much either. My first few jobs were for trade publications, covering commercial real estate and then fashion. Unless the story was specifically about diversity in real estate, or on “urban” fashion — oh, the days of Sean John and Ecko! — my sources were real estate people and fashion people. Those were white people, and in the C-suite, mostly men.

My perspective, once I started working for a national consumer magazine, changed significantly. (I’m also not that young anymore, but let’s save that for later.) I chafed when my editor, a white woman, “forced” me to start seeking out more women to include in my stories. My righteous little twenty-something self screamed: You can’t force the story! These are the best sources I found! And then I looked at my magazine spreads and realized that, uh, I was writing stories packed exclusively with white men.

Sure, if you need CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, the likelihood that your sources are only white men is high. But if you are doing a story on costs of health insurance for small business owners in Massachusetts (remember when Mitt Romney made universal health care a thing in Massachusetts? I do!), you can probably ALSO find a small business owner who is a woman, and whose thoughts on health insurance may be different than her male counterparts. Or if you’re doing a story on H1-B visas, you can probably find an Asian or Latino or immigrant business owner who hires Asian and Latino foreign workers in addition to a non-immigrant business owner who does.

I mean, I could have found them. I should have done better. But I am way older and wiser now, and I know there are about a bajillion journalistic reasons for “forcing” diversity in sourcing. (Some of them are here. Go here.)

But apparently “intentionally” seeking diversity is still a sore subject among journalists, many of whom are my fellow proud Medillians. A few weeks ago on the Medill alumni listserv, an incredibly valuable tool to which I owe a million leads, a chain erupted when a woman wrote seeking advice on how to best conduct a “real people” (magazine code: not professional pundits or paid leaders in their field) search of diverse, “non-white” sources for a story.

A handful of journalists wrote back with tactical advice: canvas informal ethnic associations, build a “random real people” file annotated with ethnicity and social background, use Twitter as a resource for building diverse source lists, work with organizations that focus on diversity and then look for subject-matter experts.

All of the journalists with substantive advice for the original poster were women of color.

These weren’t the only responses, of course. Jeff Yoders, in Chicago, responded to the original post with: “I cannot believe magazines still do this. What are the “real” non-white people needed for?”

When I followed up with him, he noted that “Every story calls for different sources itself. No one should be checking a box for a source that says “woman,” or “African-American” or ESPECIALLY “non-white.” … Quotas such as asking for sources that are “non-white” do nothing but dumb down and homogenize the beautiful ethnic rainbow that is our Great American Melting Pot.”

Christian Burkin, a former print reporter, responded to the original post with: “I usually start with a catalog — Sears, J.C. Penney, etc. — pick people who look agreeable, suit my demographic needs, and then I put in an order.”

When I followed up with him, he clarified: “I want to make clear I support diversity in subject, workplace, etc., whole heartedly. And I think it’s actually undermined by the sort of approach I skewered in my email. Too little, too late, too narrow and too … weak? … If one was really informed about the subject, truly prepared, you would already be sourced. The late, last-minute diversity reach, too, just looks like a half-hearted attempt to fill a requirement you didn’t believe in enough to do right in the first place. Or if you were doing it right, you wouldn’t have to make the special effort.”

Ed Finkel, a 20-year news veteran, responded to the original post with: “I would suggest Benetton except I’m not sure their people have ever been confirmed as real. ;)

When I followed up with him, he noted: “The idea of sourcing stories in a way that (in Bill Clinton’s words) looks like America is a worthy goal and one of several lenses I use when mapping out my reporting on a given subject, although I can’t say I’ve ever gone looking for resources in the systematic way the person who general that thread seemed to be doing. I can see where it could be useful, so long as it doesn’t devolve into a “binders full of minorities” afterthought.”

Binder full of minorities. That struck a chord. Before getting their responses, I was ready to write off these guys as white men who can’t see that intentional diversity sourcing is necessary in the very real non-white world that often ignores the voices of women, minorities, and low-income people. But I was being an asshole, not a journalist. I don’t necessarily agree with them, but I can see their point of view. Ed, in particular, makes sense to me.

But some responses resonated more. One journalist and woman of color wrote: “It is okay to tell people you need a diverse viewpoint: you don’t get if you don’t ask. Contrary to popular opinion, we are not in a post racial/post class society, so this [diversity] outreach is indeed a righteous effort.

Righteous. Indeed.

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2 Comments

  1. Posted December 7, 2012 at 9:56 pm | Permalink

    I’m afraid that — entirely in good faith and with my haste to answer at least partially to blame — my position has been misstated. It is not even remotely this: “But apparently “intentionally” seeking diversity is still a sore subject among journalists [...]” I simply don’t believe that your J-school listserv is the place to source stories. The original message didn’t ask for tips or methods for how to accomplish representatively diverse sourcing; it asked for SPECIFIC resources, and cited Help a Reporter Out as an example. I find the use of “resources” like HARO to be downright laughable, and even worse in this context.

  2. Posted December 8, 2012 at 7:56 pm | Permalink

    The portions of my response that were removed make this quite clear:

    The listserv request just reflects, I think, a suspect practice in journalism – the idea that a handful of interviews unearths any kind of reliable consensus, opinion group, perspective, trend, etc. As I wrote earlier, if one was really informed about the subject, truly prepared, you would already be sourced. And fishing in a journalism listserv is just comedy. The late, last-minute diversity reach, too, just looks like a half-hearted attempt to fill a requirement you didn’t believe in enough to do right in the first place. or if you were doing it right, you wouldn’t have to make the special effort.”

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