When newsroom inclusion stops at hiring ‘diversely,’ reporters shoulder the burden of credibility

Rebuilding trust with communities is a collective action problem.

In fall 2019, Harvard freshman Sofia Andrade covered an event about an artist and undocumented rights activist for The Crimson as part of her tryout to become a staff writer. As she walked around the event looking for people to interview, no one wanted to talk to her.

“As soon as I said I’m with The Crimson, they were like, ‘Oh, sorry. We are not talking to y’all.’”

It was a tense time at the paper. Several Latinx student groups had started a boycott after the paper had requested a comment from Immigrations and Customs Enforcement for an article about a student rally to abolish that organization. Andrade found herself in an uncomfortable position. She wanted to write for the student paper’s culture desk, but the community she was most interested in serving — her fellow Latinx students — distrusted the publication.

“It was when I would have been joining these affinity spaces on campus like the primarily Latinx orgs, I just feel like I couldn’t really take up as much room in those spaces or really join them as much because I was trying to join this organization that had harmed them in some way,” she said.

This is an unfortunate rite-of-passage for most young journalists, especially those who come from underrepresented backgrounds. The baggage of flawed or irresponsible coverage from historically white journalistic institutions often harms journalists’ credibility with communities they cover, making it harder for them to do their jobs.

When I started thinking about this piece, I asked if anyone wanted to talk to me. My inbox was flooded with messages of people saying they would love to talk to me — off the record. This is a pressing issue that not many people feel safe talking publicly about, especially at a time when social media policies are especially punitive to people from marginalized backgrounds when they talk openly about their experiences.

Reporter Steph Solis was willing to speak to me on the record. She’s a digital editor for the Boston Business Journal, but from 2017 to 2019 she was an immigration reporter for the Asbury Park Press in New Jersey.

She inherited the beat from a great reporter who had developed trust with the community, but she often found herself at odds with the paper’s history of racist characterizations.

“Basically it involved a process of not only speaking to sources and trying to understand their concerns and be delicate about that, but also having to be frankly wary of what the editorial or the op-eds side is putting out, especially in that case where you have immigrants of varying levels of status, sometimes targeted because of a newspaper article,” Solis said.

Her newsroom’s culture also affected the kinds of stories she was able to publish. She reported a story for her organization’s sister paper on immigrants with temporary protected status and how their work permits weren’t being renewed properly. After it was published, she asked her editor why it hadn’t gotten as much play online given its local focus. “And my editor’s response was that needs to actually start with talking about how much TPS holders contribute to the economy and bringing it back to the ‘average reader’ in let’s say Jackson, New Jersey — which is to say the average white, upper middle class reader in that part of the state.”

This is what happens when DEI efforts only go as far as hiring “diversely.” When newsroom policies and priorities don’t shift along with the workforce, there might be more reporters of color in the room, but they’re also left to bear the brunt of the newsroom’s poor reputation. And those journalists, who are often “the only” or “one of few” of their background in the newsroom, carry the burden of repairing those relationships, too.

Carly Murphy, a journalist and educator with a background reporting on power and communities of color, said that the mistrust between communities and newsrooms is a systemic issue and individual reporters can only do so much to repair it.

“The individual reporter doesn’t have that much power and I’m not going to lie to the individual reporter and tell them that they do. They don’t. That’s what I learned about my experience. I don’t have the power to change this s*** on my own,” she said. “It’s a collective action problem. This is something that outlets, plural, and the industry must come together to fix.”

Murphy said one thing reporters can do is take a step back and think about the realistic limits of the power they have in newsrooms. “And that can hurt but it can also be quite revelatory,” she said. “And for me it has been quite freeing because then once you can see the power map clearly, then you can more accurately assess where is your power? How can you use it most effectively?”

It’s been two years since The Crimson’s boycott. Andrade is the paper’s arts chair now, working alongside Raquel Coronell Uribe — The Crimson’s first-ever Latinx president — and other newsroom leaders to rethink what it means to write with and for the community.

“A lot of what the people that are now in leadership positions ran on was addressing the boycott and fixing our diversity and sensitive reporting and anti-racist writing guidelines,” she said. “So it’s just been like a specter looming over the organization for the past three years.”

I asked Andrade whether she managed to persuade any Latinx students to talk to her during the boycott back in 2019. She gently redirected my question. It’s not about trying to get people to cross a picket line or to trust any one reporter, she said.

“It’s been trying to make the actual space that we’re running more welcoming to people who otherwise felt like they wouldn’t be welcome or respected,” she said. “I think what this experience has done more than anything is forced me to look a little bit more closely at what type of journalism I want to do and what relationship I want to have to the people I’m writing about and to the stories I’m telling.”

This article originally appeared in The Cohort, Poynter’s newsletter that centers conversations about gender in media. Subscribe here.

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