Promises made in 2020 created headwinds, but not nearly enough of the transformative change we need to see on TV screens, in newspapers, on airwaves and in the rooms where decision-making happens.
Many newsrooms provided an attentive ear to complaints about their lack of diversity and inequitable coverage in the summer of 2020, when protesters filled the nation's streets and demanded accountability after George Floyd’s killing by a Minneapolis police officer. The systemic racism excavated that summer fueled unrest that toppled Confederate statues, prompted a new round of conversations about police reform and forced some newsrooms to apologize or have uncomfortable conversations.
The bottom line is this: The coverage you provide and the communities you prioritize reflect how you truly embrace diversity.
A handful of media and nonmedia organizations pledged to do better after that summer of unrest. We talked about more solutions journalism and less harmful journalism, especially in Black and brown communities. But the pandemic and the unrest showed us the importance of talking to others — including their lived experience in the conversation — and many journalists said they understood the assignment: Be more mindful in our approach when we enter communities where people might not look like us.
Black journalists still had to condemn some national coverage after the shooting in Buffalo for being insensitive and detached from the community — journalism that felt more like it was covered like a sport than a tragedy. Then everyone left.
The city of Jackson needed national media attention for its water crisis long before this year.
Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba has been trying to tell the nation about his city’s decrepit infrastructure since he took office in 2017. The real story — that the water crisis is and has been a mess — has primarily been told by local media. National media never really prioritized this coverage even though Jackson boasts about 150,000 residents — of which 82% are Black and 17% white. For too long, the citizens of Jackson have been relegated to a life of boil water orders, walking long distances with jugs or catching rainwater in buckets for everyday use.
Newsroom leaders didn’t initially see this as a coverage priority, and it’s hard to make sense of that if not for systemic racism. I know, no one wants to think there's racism in newsrooms. The priorities are set by people who should have the ability to empathize with a community. But what happens when everyone sitting around the table is disconnected from the community?
Jackson deserves the type of watchdog reporting that holds people and institutions accountable and is a springboard for change. It deserves the dedication of resources and commitment to ongoing coverage we have seen with the Muller Report, COVID-19, the January 6 insurrection or, more recently, all things Mar-a-Lago or Queen Elizabeth. It’s not that those things don’t need to be covered, but we need to make room for other lenses, which was among the promises from 2020. But we’re still watching how news organizations continue failing at this.
At this point in my career, I’m working to build a truly diverse newsroom — to do the thing that some people said they could not do — because we realize the importance and the value of having a newsroom that reflects its community.
You should have a newsroom that you can tap into for all stories.
This is my lived experience. My experience after helping lead AP’s Race and Ethnicity team and building the Race & Equality team at CNN. After sitting around the table, discussing strategy for some of our lifetime's biggest, most consequential stories.
I’m more than 20 years into my career, and I suspect that — Lord willing — I’m halfway through. I look at giants like Robert C. Maynard, a champion of diversity who once said, “Newsrooms have a responsibility to cure the legacy of racism.”
Maynard died in 1993. His daughter, Dori, took over, and I met her when I went through a program at the Maynard Institute. She carried the baton for her father until she died in 2015.
True diversity isn’t just a conversation; it’s action. It’s also about giving the journalists the resources needed to do this work and making that work an actual priority. That is also part of the commitment. It’s hard to make a cake without flour.
Earlier this summer, Pew Research Center released a survey of nearly 12,000 journalists that suggested newsroom diversity remains a work in progress. That same study revealed that fewer than half of those journalists say their organization makes issues of diversity and inclusion a significant priority.
It’s a demand for accountability that comes as some newsroom leaders have decided they won’t be forthcoming with information about diversity, so it is hard to get a healthy picture of the landscape.
News organizations have undergone journalistic autopsies that end with apologies or making editorial calls that are objectively racist and deeply harmful.
The age-old discussions about who gets to decide coverage, who can participate in newsgathering, and what stories get allocated resources have hovered over my two-decade career.
For the first time in my career, I attended all of the conferences for marginalized communities. I didn’t attend one — the Black and Hispanic convention.
But I went as far as Italy this year, talking to journalists, and I heard similar messages at every conference. It has given me a greater perspective after a career that has lasted two decades. The messaging from the conferences for Asian American journalists, Native American /Indigenous journalists and LGBTQ journalists was the same: Representation matters, and there’s not enough of it.
You want to see decision-makers who look like you. That's why I’m here. I see Black men in leadership, and I see myself. You want someone to respect you for all of you, your successes and failures. The things you went through — everything you endured; it’s part of your lens. It makes your lived experience so valuable for any newsroom willing to listen. The other part is that you inspire someone who looks just like you.
We want to be seen, heard and respected.
Many of us thought in 2020 that this was the opportunity to balance coverage — giving more voice to those typically left out of the conversation and editorial decisions.
When will we get serious? When will we start being honest — truly honest or, in our own words, accountable?
Delano Massey is an award-winning journalist with about 20 years of experience as a reporter, editor, producer, professor and manager in print, broadcast and digital media. He is managing editor of Axios Local and has worked at CNN, The Associated Press, News 5 Cleveland, WKYT and the Lexington-Herald Leader.
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