Diversity Spotlight

Recognizing microaggression in the newsroom

Confronting lack of diversity in newsrooms across the nation begins with acknowledging what happens behind the scenes


Diversity isn't just about numbers. It’s about real people. It’s ongoing, messy and requires candid and sometimes uncomfortable conversations. Moreover, too often, the formal responsibility of diversifying newsrooms rests solely on the shoulders of Human Resources, when it should instead be a priority for everyone in the news organization, including those with “editor” in their job title.

In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, new names and faces began parachuting in and out of newsrooms, championing diversity training initiatives. Rather than join this cavalcade of diversity tourists, I hope to accomplish long-term, meaningful change with the founding of The Diversity Pledge Institute.

Helping newsrooms identify, hire and thrive with diverse candidates has been a passion of mine for decades. The experiences I’ll share here are a small sample of what journalists of color have — and continue to — experience at newsrooms all across the country. Unfortunately, these stories are routinely shared amongst our “whisper networks,” the private social media groups most employers would cringe to read. Still, it's essential to know about them, to talk about them, no matter how uncomfortable the conversation may be.

Here are just a few examples of situations that colleagues or I have endured:

Being Labeled: Subordinates refer to you as “the Black boss” behind your back, or other disparaging names, while referring to everyone else by their actual names. But, of course, no one tells you about it.

Diminished Opportunity: There's an unwritten policy that featuring Black journalists in prominent A1 stories is a no-no in some newsrooms. Often, senior management meetings will bring this to light, but it's essential to pay attention to spot the pattern.

Victim or Victimized: In cases where others are bullying journalists of color in the workplace and a colleague reports the abuse, it’s not uncommon for the investigation or attention to focus on the colleague who reported the incident. In contrast, the victim seems of no interest.

Feeling Alone: I advise journalists of color to learn to be self-sufficient, especially regarding technology. I've observed that requests for technical help from supervisors aren’t always met with a helpful response.

Brace for the N-Word: The “N-word” is alive and well, and you may hear it in a newsroom. You may also observe that reporters will argue to use the term in a story, quote someone who used it, or inappropriately bring it up in a staff meeting. It gets a pass as long as no one complains.

These microaggressions are just some of what diverse employees face every day.

Think it’s not happening on your watch? You're probably mistaken. Newsroom leaders can no longer stand idly by and allow their newsrooms — and their credibility as leaders — to suffer.

My advice is to act now. First, review or establish a company policy for diversity. Second, proactively engage diverse employees and create a safe space to report inappropriate or inequitable treatment. Most importantly, be willing to step up as a role model for the support and inclusion of diverse employees. Culture change starts from the top, and what you do and don’t do makes a difference — especially now, when everyone is watching.

Larry Graham is the founder and executive director of The Diversity Pledge Institute. Email him at: larry.graham@diversitypledgeinc.com.


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