Digital Publishing

Spotlight PA Creates Database Filled with Experts of Color

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In the wake of the murder of George Floyd, a loud and long-overdue reckoning with institutional racism has been happening in newsrooms across the country.

At the Philadelphia Inquirer, where I work, about 40 reporters and columnists called out from work back in June after the newspaper ran a tone-deaf headline on a column about local buildings that were damaged during looting that followed peaceful protests. The “Buildings Matter, Too” incident was the latest slight towards journalists of color in our newsroom, and led to the departure of our former executive editor.

Obviously, that’s just one example. Journalists at the Minneapolis Star-Tribune released a document of diversity solutions that included the call for an annual newsroom diversity report and the creation of a racially diverse management group. Nieman Lab collected a nearly-endless list of complaints about racism and discrimination made by journalists across the industry during the summer. New York Times opinion editor James Bennet was forced out after an internal outcry over a column written by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) that called for the use of troops in American cities in response to protests of racial justice.

Both the Pew Research Center and the Knight Foundation have conducted several studies about newsroom diversity over the years, and have come to the same, obvious conclusion: news organizations in America lack diversity, and readers say it hurts our coverage.

The easy solution for the first part of the problem would be for news organizations to hire more journalists of color. But at a time when most newsrooms are struggling even more thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, it’s probably unrealistic to expect your organization to go on a hiring spree. That shouldn’t prevent editors reading this to promote journalists of color into more prominent newsroom positions and work towards diversifying your staff when the opportunities arise.

So for now, I just want to focus on the second part—how to make our coverage better representative of our readers.

In 2019, an internal NPR analysis revealed that sources on its weekday newsmagazine shows were 83 percent white and 67 percent male. In an attempt to diversify, the public media system created a tool called Source of the Week, a curated database featuring a wide array of experts from groups long underrepresented in most news stories. The database is searchable and accessible for free at sources.npr.org.

NPR’s database is great, but wouldn’t it be even more helpful to have a similar tool filled with sources in your local coverage area?

Chris Baxter, the editor-in-chief of Spotlight PA (which partners with news organizations across Pennsylvania, including the Inquirer), decided to take NPR’s approach and make it local—a state-based database of sources from underrepresented groups from across the commonwealth.

“To put it bluntly, our goal is to eliminate the excuse that I think we’ve all heard in the past, or maybe even been guilty of saying, that ‘I don’t know how to find an expert of color on that subject,’” Baxter said.

The database, which as of this writing was still being built with hopes of launching by the end of November, was tweaked to include experts on topics more important to Pennsylvanians. Baxter said they also including topics they think deserve more statewide coverage, such as gender and sexuality.

When it’s complete, the database will be accessible to any Pennsylvania journalist for free. Baxter plans on using Spotlight PA’s relationship with newsrooms across Pennsylvania (53 and counting) to promote the database to other journalists, and hope to encourage newsrooms in other states to duplicate their approach.

“If that means me personally appealing to other newsrooms and editors that I know to really encourage them to do it, I'll go out and do that,” Baxter said. “Once ours is done and up and running, I intend to take up the mantle and put in the legwork to get other editors on the horn and just say, ‘Look, if we can do it, you all can do it.’”

Tamara Dunn, a freelance journalist who is building the database for Spotlight PA, said she is casting a wide net when it comes to nailing down potential sources. Some come from recommendations made by fellow journalists, while others have been suggested or nominated by the sources themselves. Experts can even nominate themselves as potential sources, and are added to the list after Dunn vets them and confirms they’d be useful to reporters.

Dunn is also making sure the expertise itself is diverse. For example, instead of having just one or two doctors, the list will feature a wide array of specialists, from an expert in cancer research to a wellness expert that can address issues in minority communities. She’s also worked hard to pull in sources from across the state, and not just rely on experts who live in large cities like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

“With this database, we’re saying there’s a lot of people that are experts in these fields that are willing to talk to the press and give them quotes,” Dunn said. “Quite often, we only go to the same sources because we know where to go to get a good quote. But here’s 125 people that are willing to give you good quotes for your story.”

The hope is the source database will be a living, breathing tool that continues to get better over time as more and more journalists turn to it as a tool to help diversify their own reporting. Baxter said in turn, the effort could help newsrooms rebuild trust with communities that have been long overlooked, and potentially uncover stories that otherwise would have gone unreported.

“I think it's a small but really important contribution…I have yet to hear a good reason as to why not to do it,” Baxter said. “It’s not the whole problem, it’s still small, but that would be a really meaningful step forward.”

Rob Tornoe is a cartoonist and columnist for Editor and Publisher, where he writes about trends in digital media. He is also a digital editor and writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Reach him at robtornoe@gmail.com.

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