Q&A: ONA’s Irving Washington on Vision25

2020 was a year of commitments in journalism. Commitments to doing better. Commitments to anti-racism. Commitments to diversity and inclusion.

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While 2021 will be the year of gauging just how serious many news organizations are about confronting their history of racism, both in their coverage and in their hiring, at least one major collective of organizations aims to “go beyond conversations about diversity and inclusion to work vigorously to build anti-racist organizations that become institutions of belonging.”

The collaborative effort, called Vision25, is run by three organizations at the forefront of pushing journalism to be more collaborative and inclusive: OpenNews, the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education, and the Online News Association.

The Objective talked with Irving Washington, ONA’s Executive Director, about how the collaborative effort is moving forward during the pandemic and why he remains hopeful. The interview is edited for length and clarity.

How did all three organizations, including ONA, set out to define what Vision25 is and what it could be?

We were very intentional about what is that we would like to see, which is why we anchored it around institutions of belonging. We looked at it as: Let’s create a vision of what we want. We know there’s a lot of problems. We definitely want to call them out. Systemic racism. There’s a lot of things that we need to come to heads with, but first, let’s kind of create a shared vision of what we think the future could be.

How have you progressed in putting that stake down? Have you had more conversations? 

The thing about a pandemic is everyone’s really available on Zoom. So we’ve actually used the first phase to have leadership conversations. We firmly believe that a lot of the change needs to come on multiple ends. It needs to come at all levels of the organization. But as many studies have shown you have to have the movement of leadership in this for it people of color and other people committed to this to have support behind it. And so we’re starting with leadership and those have been some very insightful conversations. Everything from people not knowing where to start or saying they don’t know where to start — I like to challenge that notion — people saying they don’t know where to start to groups who have done some really incredible commitment initiatives. 

This will never be a time where you’ll say, “Ooh, good thing we’re done. We achieved diversity. Let’s move on to the next thing.” We’re really looking at this as a spectrum. There are areas where you continually want to kind of move toward, but there really is no finish line. Because even the groups that I’ve been really impressed with the work that they’re doing you know, there are areas there where they needed to work on them.

Laying out the roadmap, what are the next steps, and what do you eventually get to?

The great thing about this is we’re not recreating the wheel. There’s a lot of DEI practitioners. I think journalism is a little guilty of staying insular in our box. So I think we need to get outside of our box you know. Sisi Wei [at OpenNews] talks about people who are experts at building social movements. So what are some of these outside perspectives that we can bring? Both small-scale and large-scale.

There’s a lot of need for leaders to have space, to hear what each other are doing. Because right now I think people are a little timid to talk about what they’re doing on a grand scale, because all it takes is one person not really having the same experience. And so people are a little bit on the edge about that. I think what I’m most surprised about is some of the things that people need are simpler than what I thought going in. For example, what are the best case studies of what are people trying? What are those things that are working from different places and how can we create a central place for where you would go to find that right now?

Right now, I think you have to know somebody. So I think that was probably the most simplest idea of how could you just kind of corral this? The other thing that we heard was people at different levels of organizations need that because they’re going to use that to prompt their leadership, to say, “Hey, look what XYZ newsroom is doing. Why aren’t we doing this?” So I think resources, which seemed very simple at the beginning of this, has turned out to be a need. That’s coming up more and more.

Some news organizations seem to have this tension of saying, “We commit to better serving a more diverse audience,” while at the same time, their financial support and the way that they cover things seems to center coastal middle-class to upper-class white people. I wonder, do you see those places navigating the tension between meeting those folks who are their subscriber base and being honest and representative, and doing coverage where folks that are not those folks can see themselves?

That is the million-dollar question I wish I had a full answer to. I have thoughts. I don’t have answers. I have a lot of things that I think about with that question. Again, I think it does center on institutions of belonging. So if you are a news org, no matter what your model is, whether it’s memberships or subscriptions, there is a fundamental part of journalism as a public good and by that, you also want to do good in the community.

I think a great example is this summer everybody’s audiences might not have been open to hearing about Black Lives Matter. They just, they just still not have been open. And I think that could have been an opportunity for newsrooms to still cover what was happening in Black Lives Matter, even though that’s not reflective of that audience, right? Or bring better yet hire and bring in, even if it’s on a contractual basis, voices into that to better educate your audience. So I think newsrooms can make excuses: Because this is not my audience, diversity in the country or wherever your community is not a part of what I need to cover or do.

I know it’s outlined in the Vision25 statement, going back to the Kerner Commission. And maybe this is a very cynical question, but the problems that we see today are not new, right? This has been a problem throughout journalism’s history. So I wonder, what do you see about this moment that gives a possibility to actually making change and making a big step forward? 

One of the anchor questions we asked with Vision25 was: “Are we being additive to this?” Because there is a lot happening right now and we do have the Kerner Commission Report report and we have several programs that have tried to act out with that. So this is my personal opinion. The reason why I feel more hopeful now is I do feel there is a sense of freedom of expression for journalists of color, even if it’s not matched by action yet.

So many journalists of color were fighting this battle in their newsroom. And it was, it was camouflage of bias or objectivity. All words other than what it was. And now there’s a freedom of expression, I think, not for all journalists, but I think for more journalists to express those things. is. More people are listening, more people are speaking out, and more people appear to be committed to it. I’m hopeful that I’m not naive in that, but I do think that that is a moment for change.

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