Reliable Sources highlights the importance of newsroom diversity in the context of race coverage

NY Times’ Nikole Hannah-Jones and CNN’s Tanzina Vega explain why “diversity has to also be at the top” in newsrooms

From the August 20 edition of CNN's Reliable Sources:

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BRIAN STELTER (HOST): I wanted to start, Nikole, with the Vice video because it was so raw and shocking. We thought we had seen everything from Charlottesville, but then we saw that Vice documentary. Is it ever harmful, you think, to be giving these racists a platform like that or is it helpful in the case, something like Vice?

NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: It's an interesting question. I think that it is important for us to see what is actually happening, what's out there, and that ignoring it allows us to pretend that there hasn't always been large numbers of people who believe in the things that were exposed in that video.

STELTER: That there's a lot of denialism you think going on until you see it in that kind of footage?

HANNAH-JONES: Absolutely. I think that, while I work in print, print can be very powerful, but to actually see people, to hear them in their own words, to see kind of how sinister it all was, I think that there's nothing like that, particularly for people like myself and Tanzina, who have been working for years to say that this undercurrent of racism has never gone away, there's no way that you can deny it when you see something like the Vice documentary.

STELTER: But when you see it -- and Tanzina, you used to work at the Times, now you're here at CNN. You've spoken a lot about media diversity and how it's exhausting to have the same conversations over and over again about diversity in newsrooms without seeing measureable change. Was this week an example of that to you, that all of a sudden there were conversations all over TV about race when they're not usually happening?

TANZINA VEGA: Absolutely. And I think to the point that Nikole was making earlier, ignoring this type of hate and ignoring this type of bigotry isn't something that people of color and marginalized communities have the luxury to do. Even the morning of Charlottesville, I think we were seeing people saying, “Let's just ignore this, these are hate-filled people.” When you're the victim or when you're the intended target of groups like that, it's not something that you can just say, you know what, I'm not going to pay any mind to that. So, I think, as individuals we don't have the luxury to do that and as journalists we shouldn't either. And I think what we're seeing is that race is often treated as something that’s a trend. It's something where you see journalists and newsrooms and editors saying, “Oh my God, we’ve got a Nazi rally, we've got Black Lives Matter, we've got to jump on this now,” when it's not a trend. Race is something that people live every day and we have to treat it as a part of a fabric of our society.

STELTER: So, Nikole, if newsrooms were appropriately diverse, if there were proportional numbers of minorities working in television and print newsrooms, would that be the case? Would it be treated like a trend?

HANNAH-JONES: Well, maybe, maybe not --

STELTER: I suspect race would be covered more fully if there were more newsrooms led by black women, for example, like Lydia Polgreen at the Huffington Post.

HANNAH-JONES: So that's a different question, right? So you have the issue of staffing and do staff represent the demographics of the country? And absolutely they do not. And if you have a more diverse staff, you have greater potential that these stories will be covered. But we also know, working in newsrooms where often you have journalists of color who are pushing these stories and are not allowed to tell them. So what's also important is that the leadership --

STELTER: What do you mean not allowed to tell them? Because the top bosses in the newsrooms don't want to hear it? What do you mean? 

HANNAH-JONES: Right. Often it's that this is a niche story, that this is a story that only affects small numbers of Americans or even a disbelief that there actually is a story. You think about, all of the sudden, the reporting that you saw on police violence. Well, journalists of color who’ve lived in black and brown communities have long known that police violence was an issue. But oftentimes you're not able to tell those stories because white editors don't think that these are actual stories. So I think diversity has to also be at the top. Who's running the newsrooms, who are actually approving stories, and then where are those stories being placed, either on television or in the newspaper.

VEGA: And there's also the question of the assumption of bias, right? I think a lot of times when I get interviewed about what I cover -- and I'm sure Nikole, you deal with this too -- it's like, “Can you be objective covering race as a woman of color?” And the question here is not -- this is journalism that we do -- right? -- but we also have standards for what in this country we consider right or wrong. And I think the society of professional journalists might have released some guidance this week on that. It's OK to call out discrimination. That's part of what we do as journalists, right? So this idea that if we're calling out racism that makes us biased, and it makes our reporting even less valid, I think that's something that newsroom managers really have to pay attention to.


HANNAH-JONES: The notion that the only people who experience race in this country are people of color and who report through the lens of race are people of color is, of course, absurd. White Americans experience race as well and their reporting, what they choose to cover or not to cover is heavily influenced by how they have experienced race in this country.


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