On diversity, college newsrooms don’t get a pass

I am the first Black woman to lead The Daily Northwestern in 140 years. Before I started at the paper, we didn’t have conversations about the media’s role on campus and in the country — instead, for example, we would have smaller, case-by-case discussions about using the word “racist.” Seeing this need, I pushed my way through building a diversity and inclusion editor position at my newspaper from scratch.

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Simultaneously, it is not lost on me that the majority of my team members who put in the time leading diversity dialogues with me are female, queer, and/or people of color. Many newsrooms hire from college papers around the country, but rarely do I see them emphasize hiring journalists who want to change the industry. Knowledge of data journalism or FOIA-filing can take precedence over a desire to reshape newsroom values in an interview setting. Sometimes, I wonder if it’s worth putting all my energy into this work when editors at prominent legacy newspapers have said again and again that college journalists like me should stay in their lane and take the lead from professionals. 

But professional journalism is having a reckoning of its own. Over the past few weeks, my Twitter timeline has featured journalists from a variety of marginalized identities unloading years’ worth of frustration that they’ve felt within their workplaces. To know this isn’t even the full picture because of non-disclosure agreements and other barriers makes me that much more nervous. I’m proud of those who have been able to speak up and those who have persevered in forced silence.

That same judgement needs to come around in college newsrooms as well. 

Both areas are often majorly white. College publications are starting to release their diversity numbers, which helps add transparency to the homogenous world of college journalism at predominantly white institutions — for example, The Daily Bruin at the University of California Los Angeles put together a fantastic report highlighting their largely white, Asian, and cisgender female staff. While it is impossible to know just how homogenous college dailies across the country are, based on recent events, we can hazard a pretty good guess.

Low pay (for college newsrooms that pay at all) and long hours are just two of the many things that shut out marginalized reporters from joining their college paper. Many students of color also feel isolated in their own newsrooms, shut out by their white peers from decision-making and ascension into editing positions. As the predominantly wealthy, male and white culture remains dominant, marginalized voices are further stifled: When new editors-in-chief hone their ability to handle staff problems, the value of dealing with issues of racism and sexism in the workplace is often not a huge part of the process. So frustrated students leave instead, potentially walking out of journalism forever.

The trickier line of “objective, unbiased reporting” that gets played out in professional newsrooms — where white men are considered the gold standard of neutral reporting — is made even more blurry in a college space. We’re all fellow students who are in the same classes, have similar friends and drink the same bad dining hall coffee. In other words, we have to face the people we can potentially harm on campus the next day, in a way that only small community-focused newsrooms do. 

It’s hard to watch your well-meaning friends make mistakes in their reporting: I know the reporting process inside and out, and I can see the gears turn in their heads as they choose this word or that one. But occasionally, when a finished product houses as many stereotypes or errors in judgement as it does good writing, I can’t help but wonder: “Is this how they see me, too? Am I exempt from their way of thinking?”

Regardless of intent, race or gender-based mistakes in college reporting circulate beyond the larger campus community. They send a message to fellow student reporters as well.

When it comes to the classrooms in top journalism or communications schools, diversity and inclusion are often afterthoughts. Most introductory curricula at such programs focus on “the basics” for their general education courses: multimedia, basic writing, ethics and investigative work, if you’re lucky. In my experience, receiving even adequate teaching about inclusive practices depends on your professor and their background in dealing with issues of diversity. There are classes that deal with marginalized groups and the media’s role in covering them, but barely any are part of the core curriculum needed to graduate.

The onus then falls on the students running college outlets to teach themselves. College daily papers have the reputation of being one stone on the complicated path to working at a legacy publication. As a young reporter, you gather your clips, maybe win an award or two along the way, then move on to a series of grueling but rewarding internships, perhaps dabbling in different areas of news production before finding your first major job. 

However, when you don’t have professors instilling the values of diversity every semester, and your entire newsroom looks and acts the same, your reporting remains stagnant, leading to more potential to harm communities down the road as your audience grows wider. Without the opportunity to critique yourself in a safer college setting, a defensive attitude can further stigmatize marginalized readers and colleagues. Thus, as reporters progress to bigger outlets, self-reflection and criticism grow less important, and the cycle continues — even though there is nothing more stereotypically “college” than challenging the status quo.

When The Daily Northwestern responded to community backlash about our protest coverage, journalists across the country swarmed to argue that we represented the end of objective, good reporting by “bending” to the requests of fellow students who felt unsafe and unheard. Yet this pushback failed to mention how law enforcement, which frequently uses images and reporting about protests, targets activists who can then face fines or arrest. Now that America has erupted in its own set of revolutions, newspapers have been quick to walk back their policies on blurring faces or granting anonymity — but not their editorials or tweets against our attempts at responding to our communities last November.

For many college reporters that report poorly on marginalized communities, the failure to do any self-reflection comes with the paradox that is college newspaper culture: It’s real until it’s just a “low-risk learning environment.” It’s important until you realize only 20 people clicked on your story today. It’s valuable until you receive a measly paycheck for the countless hours you spent balancing five classes and being an editor. 

The lessons we learn — and more importantly, don’t get to learn — while reporting for our small outlets end up shaping our futures, particularly for white, cis, straight, wealthy students who dominate newsrooms in college and beyond. My fellow marginalized reporters have already dealt with systemic discrimination in life and in the field, so while we all certainly have room to grow, that seed for inclusion is usually already planted. In comparison, when talking to my white peers about inclusive reporting, most of the things we discuss are new territory for them. 

Through my work at The Daily Northwestern, I have seen the power of making the conversations about diversity that used to happen in back rooms and over frantic midnight text rants leave the shadows. Now my newsroom openly talks about issues like inclusion in page design or the struggles female journalists of color face frequently, whether it’s during weekly editorial board meetings or just chatting in front of our beloved vending machines. 

This approach can be tailored to any newsroom’s needs. To start, more outlets need to be honest about their lack of diversity on staff, and why that’s a problem. By holding specific recruitment sessions tailored to identities missing from the roster, newsroom leaders can open themselves up to criticism and questions in a productive dialogue. 

While it’s a bit harder to control the demographics of staff from quarter to quarter, whoever currently writes for the paper has the agency to make a change in their own writing and the way they treat others. Starting difficult conversations about the role of student media on campus or about how newsrooms have enacted harm in the past is necessary to move forward. It doesn’t help anyone, especially new staffers, to pretend incidents haven’t occurred in the past. 

After our honest and thoughtful conversations, the quality of our reporting has increased, even as we continue efforts to diversify our newsroom. We are far from perfect: our quarterly source analysis shows a steady but slow rise in representation across the board, though some sections have tackled those divides more head-on than others. There’s always room for growth.

It’s not revolutionary to have a diversity and inclusion editor. The position shouldn’t exist in the first place. Every single person on staff should be trained in inclusive practices that center marginalized voices as well as conflict resolution within the newsroom. And as our Editor-in-Chief, I’m working toward that — but one person can only do so much. 

I do have faith that more college newsrooms will start taking their internal and external complaints seriously. Yet the past month has shown that it’s not enough to just change the style of the word “Black,” for example, without fixing a culture of insensitivity within most big newsrooms. The easy, one-size-fits-all solution many white journalists and editors have been searching for lately doesn’t exist — many years of diversity work at The Daily and other college outlets have shown that. 

But you have to start somewhere.

Marissa Martinez is the Editor-in-Chief of The Daily Northwestern. This piece was edited by Gabe Schneider. Copy editing by Isabelle Yan.

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