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Beyond newsroom diversity: Should who covers what matter?

News vans outside the Cerritos, Calif. home of Nakula Basseley Nakula, an Egyptian immigrant alleged to be the filmmaker behind an anti-Muslim film that recently contributed to violent unrest in several Middle Eastern countries. September 14, 2012
News vans outside the Cerritos, Calif. home of Nakula Basseley Nakula, an Egyptian immigrant alleged to be the filmmaker behind an anti-Muslim film that recently contributed to violent unrest in several Middle Eastern countries. September 14, 2012
Joe Klamar/AFP/Getty Images

A study released last week that analyzed front-page stories related to the election, pieces that appeared in 38 of the nation's more prominent newspapers, concluded that 93 percent of these stories were written by non-Latino white reporters. It's not an altogether surprising statistic, given the well-documented challenges to diversifying newsrooms. But another figure from the study was striking: Non-Latino white journalists also wrote 95 percent of the stories that involved immigration.

Neither of these numbers surprises Dori J. Maynard, president of the Robert C. Maynard Institute for Journalism Education (MIJE), which works with media organizations to promote diversity in hiring and coverage. There has always been an argument, a strong one, that any hardworking reporter should be able to cover any story. But there are stories being missed due to a dearth of diverse perspectives, Maynard argues, not to mention critical nuances tied to culture and background, all of which ultimately make for better journalism.

There's also an issue of diversity within diversity: When people of color are hired to report on immigration, for example, they tend to be Latinos and/or Spanish speakers. And while there's an argument to be made that these reporters represent a majority of immigrants and their descendants in the United States, it also means there are good stories in other communities that are being overlooked, Maynard says. Here is her take.

M-A: The percentage of front-page political stories written by white reporters in this study – 93 percent – seems quite high. Is this representative of the general state of newsroom diversity? Does it tell us something else, perhaps that there is less diversity at a certain level in newsrooms?

Maynard: I think it is a combination. It shows us the state of diversity. We know at this point that print newsrooms are about 88 percent white. So print newsrooms are about 88 percent white, and we don’t have enough people of color to write all those stories. But I also think there could be an argument that the plum assignments, like political reporting, are not going to the journalists of color. You could certain surmise that from the figures.

The difference it makes, I think, is profound. By only having one perspective looking at this race, we know we are missing things. For example, New America Media recently had a story that one in three Asian American voters is undecided. This is an election that everyone says comes down to a ground game, and the undecideds. We’ve had forums and coverage of undecideds, but how many times have you had Asian American voters included in that discussion? Asian American voters can make a difference in three states – guess which three? (Nevada, North Carolina, and Virginia.) So we see that we have one group of people covering the elections, and they are potentially missing stories about other groups of people.

We know about voter suppression in the African American and Latino communities. But there is also fear of voter suppression in the Asian American community and the Native American community. So there is a lot of nuance and issues that we are missing from this election, I think in think in part because we don’t have enough points of view. 

M-A: Perhaps the most interesting statistic, to me at least, was that 95 percent of the immigration-related stories were written by white reporters. What is your reaction to this?

Maynard: We have to talk about who is in the newsroom, so some of that is not going to be surprising. There again, we are going to miss some of the nuance, not because people are trying to do a bad job, but we can’t help but see things that our shaped by our perspective. So we might not be asking the right questions. And we see this in the coverage.

We are not looking at the breadth of who is immigrating into this country. So we focus for the most part on Latino immigrants, and for the most part on people coming from Mexico. We are even missing the story that there is negative migration, that this is not the issue it once was. My father had this quote: "This country cannot be the country we want it to be if its story is only told by one group of citizens. Our goal is to give all Americans front door access to the truth."

Just to give you an example of what you can miss if you don’t have a variety of people covering issues in your newsroom, and if you are not aware you may be missing things: When we worked with one newspaper that had a large immigrant community, we asked the reporters to go out and ask people in the community how they could better be covered. Essentially what they said is: Stop covering us from a middle class point of view. You see two families sharing a house and sharing a car and you keep calling us poor, and we see that we have a house and we have a car, and we are not poor.

You can see the discrepancy between the way people are covered and how they see themselves living their lives. I think it really is important to have diverse perspective in the newsroom about race, class and gender, and the ability among journalists in that room to talk honestly with each other.

M-A: But doesn't the notion that any good reporter can cover any story hold true here? In other words, how important, or not important, is it for reporters covering issues of immigration and race to be people of color?

Maynard: It is important, and it is important for a couple of reasons. All of us bring a little more nuance, a little more understanding from the communities from which we come. Of course, any good reporter should be able to cover any community. But we are seeing that we are not.

We are seeing after content audit after content audit that African Americans are mostly seen in stories about crime, sports, and entertainment. Latinos are seen in episodic coverage of immigration, and as we discussed earlier, Asian Americans and Native Americans rarely appear. It is almost as if they don’t contribute to the daily fabric of our lives.

So clearly, we need to do a better job with this. Having people that bring in these communities can bring in perspectives. The other problem is that because these coverage patterns go so deep, and they are so entrenched, we really need to shake this up and rethink the way we are covering our fellow citizens.

M-A: When news organizations do hire immigration reporters, many of us tend to be Latinos and/or Spanish speakers. It can be argued that this represents the immigrant majority in the U.S. But should this be rethought? 

Maynard: Yes, because there are other people who are coming from other countries. We don’t even touch on immigrants from Africa. People are coming from Asia. And we don’t want any one beat to be monolithic. The best stories come when you have a mix of people in the room who are looking at the news from a variety of angles and bringing in a variety of perspectives.

Institutionally, just like Latinos are covered through the lens of immigration, immigration is covered through the lens of Latinos. We need to widen that lens. Remember that there are a lot more stories out there. When I was living in Boston in the 1980s, the largest percentage of undocumented workers were Irish, but you would not know that. Our job is to give our fellow citizens an accurate picture of the world. It is incumbent upon us to take the steps so we are not giving them a distorted sliver of the world.

There are challenges, but the first challenge is going outside your network. The second challenge is that people are hired for diversity, but then you start working in the newsroom and you are told “That is not really a story.” Also, we never asked white people to accurately and fairly cover white people, and there are issues around that. But we ask people of color, gays and lesbians, and sometimes women, “Can you cover your own community?” and that is another challenge that we face. We are reporters like everybody else. As you said, any reporter can cover any story. We all have race, and we all cover people who look like us.

M-A: What do you recommend that news organizations do? What discussions should be taking place?

Maynard: We have to have a conversation that first does allow that our race, our class, our gender and our geography do shape our perceptions. They shape our perceptions of ourselves, events, and each other.

And we need to be able to have those conversations openly and honestly in newsrooms so that when we are looking at stories, we see them from a variety of perspectives. The Trayvon Martin story was an example. Immigration is an example. This election is one of them.

I think that by making sure that we are having open conversations, then we can make sure our news coverage is reflecting a variety of these perceptions, and not getting locked into one which will not ring true with large segments of the audience.

I mean, sometimes when I look at the coverage of the African American community, I don’t recognize it because it is crime, violence, and black men as predators. When it happens often enough with a publication, they lose credibility with me.

The data on who covers what was compiled by the The 4th Estate, a project of the media analysis company Global News Intelligence. It can be viewed here.