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Journalists discuss how to cover diversity during challenging times

Hot-button issues such as immigration, police shootings, and voter ID laws have helped divide and polarize the nation. Covering such divisive topics has also created challenges for journalists.

To learn how journalists can best cover these issues, the College of Media hosted a panel discussion, “Diversity Matters: Ensuring Multiple Voices Count in the Media Narrative,” on October 3. The panel included print and broadcast journalists from diverse backgrounds who shared their experiences and offered advice about how to report on sensitive issues in an era of growing intolerance and fear.

Panelists included Malena Cunningham Anderson of NBC TV; Neal Justin of the Minneapolis Star Tribune; Sudeep Reddy of POLITICO; and Mizell Stewart III, of USA Today. College of Media assistant professor Alison Bass moderated the discussion.

Several panelists spoke about the media industry’s shortcomings. Justin suggested that the lack of coverage of diversity issues stems from a lack of diversity in newsrooms.  

“We have not done as good of a job representing America as we need to, and that has hurt us with this credibility topic that’s going on more and more today when people say there’s a bias in journalism, that we’re fake news or that we’re not representing the country,” said Justin. “We’re an easy target for it because our newsrooms, quite honestly, do not reflect America.”

Justin said that another issue is that diversity has been defined too narrowly.

“I’m not just talking about color,” said Justin. “I used to think of diversity as 90% a color issue, but I don’t think that anymore. It’s a religious issue, a sexual orientation issue and it’s an economic issue.” 

Other panelists suggested that social media algorithms exacerbate these problems by allowing only like-minded sentiments into our newsfeeds. But Reddy said consumers share some of the responsibility.

“I don’t necessarily have the time to have a three-hour conversation every time I discover a blind spot,” said Reddy. “But we do have the ability, through our devices, to go and find voices and people from different backgrounds that have perspectives fundamentally different from our own and spend some time understanding them.”

Anderson focused on how future journalists can be better equipped to cover these issues.  She suggested that students use their own diverse backgrounds to ensure they’re being heard.

“I always tell students to be curious. I also tell them not to be afraid of being unique,” stated Anderson. “Many times, I’ve been the only African American in the newsroom. But did I shrink in the corner? No. Use it to your advantage, and let them know you’re there.”

To wrap up the discussion, Bass asked panelists what can done to ensure a multitude of viewpoints are being represented across all media platforms. Stewart said increasing diversity in the leadership ranks will help make diversity coverage a priority.

“Back in the 80s, there was no one of color in the industry with a job like mine,” said Stewart. “It’s important to have diverse people with significant responsibility within a news organization to not only have influence on hiring but on shaping the overall progression of the organization.”