Even in crisis — especially in crisis — we need equity

Some groups have been excluded from the most powerful halls of U.S. news media for as long as U.S. news media have existed. The structures and institutions we rely on for news were designed, like many U.S. institutions, to grant power to a select few.

Here is one example: We recently saw the 50th anniversary of the Kerner Commission Report on Civil Disorder come and go. The 1968 report found the news media shockingly negligent in its inclusion of African Americans, and a major factor in why society was increasingly divided. It concluded, “The painful process of readjustment that is required of the American news media must begin now.”

Fast-forward 50 years and diversity among news media staff and leadership is still inadequate. And news media leaders’ commitment to “readjustment” is questionable: The American Society of News Editors survey of diversity in newsrooms had a historically low rate of participation in its data collection, despite an elegant and impassioned call by lead researcher Meredith D. Clark, University of Virginia assistant professor, for leaders to “hold themselves to the same accountability standards we expect from other influential sectors.”

And yet, through these decades, marginalized people and communities have continued to build incredible organizations of immense value to the U.S. media landscape. Scholars and historians recall that history to remind us that, yes, we have been here all along. (See Joshunda Sanders’ “How Racism and Sexism Killed Traditional Media” and Lewis Raven Wallace’s “The View from Somewhere” for just two of many examples.)

This is a portion of a new guide I wrote for the Center for Cooperative Media. I wrote this guide before the pandemic, before I could even dream of the pandemic taking on a global scale.

And now, as it becomes imperative for news organizations to provide critical information, the burden placed on journalists and organizations that are trusted by the most affected people — in the US, too often those who are marginalized in the news media industry — is huge. These underrepresented journalists will be called upon to collaborate, to participate and to help beyond their compensation and capital investments. And, if history tells us anything, they are also likely to be disproportionately affected by furloughs, layoffs and pay cuts.

Though this guide was written before the pandemic, my hope is that it is helpful to keep us grounded, to keep us powerful while we are in crisis. It draws upon the brilliance and deep experiences of those who agreed to speak with me — often with candor and trust — as well as colleagues along the way, too many to name. You might agree with what I’ve written, or disagree. It is not an argument or a prescription.

But if this guide helps you to step up and continue to prioritize equity, in whatever way you think is best, then it will have succeeded.

See the guide as a PDF here, and see two other guides, written by the inestimable Heather Bryant, here.