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How are You Going to Meet the Moment: A Call for Journalistic Action

June 26, 2020

Edited from the opening keynote presentation at INN at Home on June 16, 2020

Like the nation, journalism is really at an inflection point. And it’s important to point out that the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rashard Brooks in Atlanta over the weekend, and the seemingly endless list of Black men and women and people of color, has continued to lay bare the deep racism and white supremacy and health and wealth disparities of our nation. This at a time when many newsrooms themselves are in crisis. Some of this crisis is financial. But there are two other crises of our own making, that we face as a profession: A deep distrust and the systemic lack of equity and inclusion.

As you can see, so much of the issues going on are around diversity and things happening in newsrooms. And I would argue to say that, at this moment, the soul of American journalism is at stake, particularly for legacy institutions. As a profession, we must reconcile that we are part of the very system protesters across the nation and world are pushing back against. I’m speaking of the larger we, as there are certainly sectors of news that run counter to the oppressive systems that people of color and Indigenous folks have to navigate. But we have to ask ourselves — and I’m borrowing from Dr. Glenda Wrenn here, who’s a physician and not a journalist. She talked about people needing to ask themselves: Are they going to be sustainers, creators, deniers, facilitators or dismantlers of systemic racism?

At the very least, news organizations have been sustainers and facilitators as we have run police mug shots full of Black and brown faces, knowing they drive page views; we have co-created with police departments, giving their reports and quotes more weight than we would the account of a woman from the community. We have disproportionately cast Black and brown folks as criminals, victims derelicts, entertainers or athletes for decades, helping to shape the perception that Black men, in particular, are dangerous. Other communities were simply ignored — their erasure, silent in the cities’ facilitation of racism and white supremacy.

So how will we meet this moment? How can we push forward and show the value of inclusive newsrooms that work in service of a craft to which we have all dedicated our lives?

The Maynard Institute has been fighting to make America newsrooms reflect the diversity of the nation since nine journalists of diverse backgrounds started this organization in the wake of the Kerner Commission Report that called out news outlets as complicit in their inability to effectively articulate the true stories behind the unrest of the Civil Rights era because mainstream news organizations lacked diversity. Ironically, if you read the report today, you would wonder if any progress has been made. So much is still yet to be done.

And we are navigating another kind of civil rights movement in this country that centers around health and wealth and state-sanctioned violence against people of color. The framing of our challenge within journalism has been rooted in diversity, equity and inclusion, quite frankly, terms that don’t really get at the real problem. And we at the institute have had our own awakening. And I don’t mean to imply that people working in news outlets themselves are racist, some may be, but I’m speaking more of the generational, ambient racism that permeates these institutions, and can be seen in how we approach coverage and hiring and retention.

But it goes beyond who’s in the building. For instance, how many Black police chiefs have been at the helm of departments that commit violence against communities of color? How many editors of color have been unable to affect the kind of sweeping change that reflects the dismantling of institutionalized racism and news organizations? One’s presence is not enough to make this kind of foundational change.

For folks who think of themselves as woke, good white people who would never utter a disparaging word about or toward a person of color, you too are complicit. If you aren’t actively working to dismantle systemic racism, you are a sustainer in its continuation and its effects. People of color need to heal. White people need to work to actively dismantle. That means our news organizations have to approach their work with this mission in mind.

And there is a movement in the streets right now. And there needs to be a movement in our newsrooms. Tracie Powell mentioned in the last session, she wondered: Is that going to happen? Is that true? Is this a moment? Will this be lasting change? I’m hopeful as I look around the nation and see journalists of color and their allies pushing back and calling for change — but how did we get here?

There’s a passage: “Bad policing, a flawed justice system, unscrupulous consumer credit practices, poor or inadequate housing, high unemployment, voter suppression and other culturally embedded forms of racial discrimination, all converged to propel violent upheaval on the streets of African American neighborhoods in American cities, north and south, east and west. And as Black unrest grows, inadequately trained police officers and National Guard troops enter the affected neighborhoods often worsening the violence,” wrote Alice George of the Smithsonian Magazine, in a look back at what led to the unrest in 1967. That sounds eerily familiar to today. In March of 1968, the Kerner Report revealed that it was white racism, and not black anger, that “turned the key that unlocked urban American turmoil.” And we are in turmoil now.

The framework the Maynard Institute teaches, the fault lines, reveals how we all see the world through the prism of race, class, gender, generation and geography and sexual orientation. How we align across these social fault lines impacts how we see the world. It’s why two people can look at the same thing and come away with very different perceptions about what they just saw.

I discussed this last year, as Fran (Scarlett) mentioned, during the luncheon session last year at INN Days in Houston. Fault lines influence our biases, and it’s why affinity bias, why people who are most like us, are held in higher regard. This is why that has led to another form of bias performance bias, which manifests itself in our news organizations. The shortcomings of people who align with your affinity bias aren’t viewed as deficiencies; they’re viewed as potential. Those who don’t align with our biases are viewed as inexperienced and unqualified for having the same deficiencies. We talked about unconscious bias in our newsroom trainings and how people’s conditioning shapes perception and causes reactions without us even thinking about it.

These biases affect us all. They are mutable, but they are most likely to emerge under four key conditions: A lack of information, existing stress from competing tasks, time pressure and an existing lack of diversity. Does that sound like any place all of you work? When we look at our news organizations today, particularly those legacy institutions, we see places that have been and continue to be inhospitable to people of color. Years of neglect, years of erosion and microaggressions have made many of these rooms toxic and unhealthy.

You likely have heard about the rumblings that are going on in newsrooms across the country right now. People are fed up. They are fed up with fake standards of objectivity that would imply a person of color can’t cover a George Floyd protest, because they might be biased. Objectivity is the greatest lie perpetuated in journalism. And it is time to forever throw off the illusion that objectivity ever existed. It never did and it never will. Focus on fairness, accuracy, balance — and understanding balance isn’t always equal time or inches. In fact, balance may well be about rebalancing.

Journalist Michelle Garcia talked about this notion of gaze, the gaze in which journalism is produced — whose gaze is legitimate, who gets to frame the gaze whose gaze is credible? The gaze of mainstream American journalism has been shaped by the vision of institutional racism and white supremacy — and it is time for that gaze to go. Like Sauron’s eye from Lord of the Rings, it needs to be snuffed out.

In the nonprofit space, while the issues may not be the same, there is still a woeful lack of diversity and inclusion. We have talked about faultlines, biases and microaggressions and how diversity is trust in all of our trainings, and yet something felt, even for us, as though it was missing. We began to realize it was time for us to have our own awakening.

You see the fault lines, it’s a tool, a useful framework for understanding people’s perception. And I think when Bob Maynard came up with it, his intent really was to be able to insert this into the stream of journalistic thinking and workflow. But downstream, from the dam that holds the deep waters of systemic racism and white supremacy in the institutions, our founders were seeking to integrate. The fault lines framework was a means to an end in many ways, and over the recent weeks, we as an institution have come to our own awakening that we can no longer walk through the rushing shallow waters of just a framework to help people understand their perceptions. We understand that, to achieve the goals of the Kerner Commission, we must instead go into the deep and join those pushing for systemic change in their newsrooms, and on the streets of this country and the world.

So who are we going to be? Are we going to be sustainers, creators, deniers, facilitators or dismantlers of systemic racism? If an organization, which is dedicated to fighting for newsrooms that reflect the diversity of the nation can have our own awakening, why can’t you? If young journalists who represent the future of our profession are having an awakening, why can’t you?

The days of tweaking around the edges and coming up with some milquetoast diversity plan, they’re over. We have an opportunity to repair the damage we’ve caused to diverse members of our community through inaccurate portrayals, erasure and commoditization. At a time when news outlets are pivoting, moving away from ad-based revenue models to subscriber models, we have an opportunity.

But don’t think you can roll up with a bouquet of flowers and assume that this is going to fix the decades of shoddy coverage or no coverage at all. We need to understand, as Sarah Lomax-Reese said yesterday during our Knight Foundation webinar, that in many communities, there is a deficit of trust. We were never trusted at all. Think about it. How long does it take to repair betrayal? It takes years. But it only takes an instant, one headline, to destroy what you have built. Especially when you’re not given the benefit of the doubt, because you never earned it.

News organizations need to ask themselves why this even matters? Because if you can’t answer that question, then whatever strategy you come up with, it won’t work. Once you have answered this question for yourself, and I’m not always confident folks even know how to answer this question for themselves, we suggest that you take a page out of the book of community organizing. News outlets need to adopt organizing principles, community co-creation and listening, much like the folks who are launching the new Oaklandside did, when coming up with the topics to cover my city. It was an exercise in humility. And value — valuing the people they were going to serve and not viewing them through display case journalism.

Our friends at Free Press, they do a wonderful job of showing how journalists can apply organizing principles and conduct community mapping exercises to better understand their neighborhoods and the people in the constituencies within them. We suggest the creation of an organizing-editing position — someone steeped in journalism and community organizing, but who can connect and engage and respond and galvanize around the activism journalists engage in. And yes, we are activists. We just don’t want to admit it, because we think we’re objective.

This is an important element here because it talks specifically about the need to think about function and moving towards an actual step to envision what you are trying to do. So it’s a “from-to” exercise that Fran alluded to, around the Table Stakes work that we’re doing, working on performance-driven change. What I want to show you here is how you can begin to envision looking at where you are, and ultimately where you want to get to.

Perhaps you’re a news outlet that lacks diversity and inclusion at top levels of the organization. But you want to become a news outlet that reflects the diversity of the community and is equitable and inclusive. Maybe you are now a news outlet that is not trusted by large swaths of the community but you want to become a news app that has built relationships and trust within diverse with diverse audiences. Going from a news outlet that has deep divisions between journalists of color and management, to a news outlet that has a staff of diverse journalists who believe their life experiences are valued and rewarded by the organization. A news outlet that continues to struggle with revenue to a news outlet that has tethered audience growth in digital subscriptions to serving diverse audiences. And if you notice, I’m being explicit about saying audiences, not underserved communities. A news outlet that says it values DEI to a news outlet with a clear plan to diversify and empower its staff and understand how doing so helps contributes to sustainability.

This exercise is about envisioning the world you wish to see. It’s about acknowledging where you are at this moment, and thinking explicitly about where you need to get to. It’s about getting real with where you are with your employees, your coverage, your community, and framing the place you want to get to and why. And from there, you would take those to’s, from this “from-to,” and create strategies and specific tactics to get where you need to go.

Structural change is incremental, and it requires discipline and dedication to get there. But perhaps, more importantly, it requires a reason. What is it that I have been trying to get at during this conversation and why does it matter? And I can’t answer that for you. I know why it matters to me — it’s life or death. It’s life or death for my son, who I worry about every day because he’s been cast in the media as dangerous. It’s life or death for Black mothers I know, who have reconciled the fact that from the day their sons were born, they might not make it.

I don’t know why it matters to you. It matters to me because I live Black every day. And I love living Black, by the way. I don’t get a day off from being Black, not that I would want one. White folks don’t have to think about what it means to be white, except perhaps right now, at this moment, after seeing the life pressed out of George Floyd.

Maybe you are. I’m not objective. I never was and I never will be. And in the eyes of some, like the inept leadership at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, that might disqualify me from covering the story related to being Black in this struggle. And how ridiculous does that sound? By that logic, white folks shouldn’t be able to cover anything. How outrageous is that?

I’m not here to assuage concerns and to make folks feel better about where we stand at this moment in our nation’s history. The fact of the matter is the eyes of our journalistic ancestors are upon us. The time has come to begin the long journey of healing and repairing our nation — and our craft.

Philanthropic institutions that fund journalism organizations have their own reconciling to do as well. Foundations that ignore their own role in sustaining systemic racism through the grants they award, and what they let slide, are sustainers and facilitators. Organizations led by people of color win less grant money and are trusted less to make decisions about how to spend those funds than groups with white leaders. This according to a May 7, 2020 article that appeared in the Chronicle of Philanthropy. Less money, more restrictions — it sounds structural to me. There is a reckoning that needs to happen within these halls and these institutions. But where will the outrage come from?

There’s a massive power imbalance at play because the very institutions that are being discriminated against are the very institutions that need the support from foundations. You could argue that it’s almost like organizational sharecropping. I say this at some peril to myself in my organization, a small nonprofit that relies on the support of philanthropic institutions that may frown on being called out as sustainers of institutional racism. But you know what, Black people are being killed. Brown people are being slain. Indigenous and trans folks are being murdered. Our Asian brothers and sisters are being targeted. Protesters are putting their lives on the line in the streets to make this case. Journalists and newsrooms are putting their careers on the line to call for change. And I’ll be damned if I won’t rest my reputation and the legacy of our founders on the doorstep of history to support them. It’s what Dorie Maynard would do. It’s what her father Bob Maynard would do before.

Journalism can play — and it must play — a vital role at this time, and in the coverage of this movement for justice, and equity. Like America’s ideals, our ideals are magnificent but are rarely applied equitably. Hold truth to power, give voice to the voiceless. If your mother says she loves you check it out. Well, maybe not that one.

So let’s take this opportunity to be real. To reconcile our complicity and redesign a journalism ecosystem and philanthropic community that embodies the best in all of us, for all of us. On behalf of my Co-Executive Director Evelyn Hsu in the mighty Maynard Institute team, I thank you for the time. And I’m looking forward to engaging in questions and a dialogue. Thank you.

This was the opening speech from INN at Home, our virtual conference celebrating public service and nonprofit journalism. Read and watch our closing speech from Julie Sandorf, President of the Revson Foundation, proposing why funders in a variety of fields should consider supporting journalism.

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