In the spring of 2015, after more than six years as a producer and reporter, I left my public radio job in Detroit. I was leaving a steady gig with great benefits to jump into the inconsistent world of freelancing. I was terrified. The weight of being the only journalist of color in my newsroom had left me feeling emotionally and physically exhausted.
As a reporter I loved going into ethnic neighborhoods and finding a good story. There were dozens of them, and I hated that I couldn’t write about all of them. As a result, I racked up sources in the Indian, Mexican, and Arab communities. And when my colleagues needed a source from one of those communities, they’d ask me.
I didn’t think anything of it at first; in fact, I was proud that I had a long list of people I could usually refer. And once, right before I was about to take some much-needed time off, my then general manager asked me to create a list of contacts from the Arab community and send them to the rest of the staff before I left.
Reporters of color leaving newsrooms is dangerous, not because there is one less person of color but because of a loss in how we cover represen- tative democracy
It wasn’t until I began freelancing that I felt this residual anger that I couldn’t shake. I felt used in a way. I helped colleagues with sources, translated information to or from Spanish, and opened pathways to communities that felt left out of the world of public radio. Why was I the only one making lists of sources?
I wanted to know if my experience was mine alone or did others also feel like they were doing more than their fair share of jobs that had no job description. So I posed the question to journalists of color across the U.S. through a closed FB group. The response was overwhelming, and it was enough for me to want to write about it.
Many of the journalists commented on the site, and I spoke directly with many more who told me of their experiences. Bettina Chang was one of them.
As executive digital editor of a magazine, Chang expresses the strain she felt working as an unofficial recruiter for editorial: “I remember being asked ridiculously specific questions, like, ‘Hey, do you know a Black female writer over 60 years old who can write a long-form feature?’”
Chang wanted to have diverse bylines for the magazine and often acquiesced and found what they were looking for. She also felt resentful that other editors weren’t cultivating a pool of diverse writers.
The pressure went beyond just recruiting. “It was also weighing in on black and Latino issues like it was my job and much more often related to things that are really traumatic, like gun violence and immigration issues, that may or may not touch them personally,” Chang says.
Like me, Chang left legacy media. After years of working at magazines, she got tired of feeling like a concierge for other reporters who needed sources. She knew there was a better way to operate, so she and three colleagues set out to create their ideal newsroom.
City Bureau was established in 2015 with a core value of “bringing journalists and community members together to produce equitable media coverage and hold powerful forces to account.” For Chang, co-founder and editorial director, that meant that instead of one or maybe two people in newsrooms cultivating sources in Black or immigrant communities, all reporters had to.
Journalists at City Bureau spend weeks working on a story. They’re sent out into communities to forge new relationships and to strengthen connections with people who are already actively involved in their neighborhoods. “When reporters come into the newsroom, they know that their job is to understand the entire context of the story they’re pursuing,” Chang says. “If that means sitting in on 10 community meetings and not producing a single story out of it, then that’s what it entails.”
Chang and her colleagues don’t believe that a reporter needs to live in a community to tell a story, but they should be deeply familiar with the circumstances of the people who live there. The goal, she says, is the process, not necessarily the product. This method allows journalists to go in and understand the history of the neighborhood; it will enable reporters to get to know who the power brokers are and better understand police and community relations.
“Let’s just put it this way, if you have never gone into a community in order to give to it rather than extract from it, then you shouldn’t be writing stories about it,” Chang says.
During my years in public radio, I would often call my mentor, John Rudolph, executive producer of Feet in 2 Worlds, to get advice on how to navigate all-white newsrooms. Rudolph realized long ago that there is a lack of value placed on cultural competency. Editors, he says, still don’t acknowledge that speaking a second language, being able to navigate in, and intimately understand, immigrant communities is a serious skill set. “News organizations have for decades talked about the importance of diversity but haven’t figured out how to make it work,” Rudolph says.
Feet in 2 Worlds is an award-winning training program for immigrant reporters based in New York. Every year about four fellows are chosen to be in the program (I was a fellow in 2008), where they are paired with a mentor and together they develop strong pitches, elevate the mentees’ radio skills, and create a space that allows the fellows to make mistakes without being judged.
Dozens of journalists have gone through the program since its inception, with great success. But Rudolph says that having four or so fellows a year is not enough: “A mentorship system at media outlets needs to be set up for [immigrant] reporters to help them integrate into newsrooms, which are by nature adversarial environments. There needs to be structures in place to support people who have historically been left out of these spaces.”
The mission of Feet In 2 Worlds is something I genuinely believe in, so in mid-2017 I began working with the organization to take the training program beyond NYC and into other media markets. This Fall, FI2W, along with WDET will open its first bureau in Detroit. Four seasoned immigrant journalists will mentor four journalists of color—and by doing so, help create a pool of journalists competent in print and radio for the Detroit media market.
For most of the last century media outlets have operated under a one-size-fits-all model that was created by white men. The profession has evolved some, but newsroom culture hasn’t. Fighting to tell stories about communities of color is a legacy of the old model.
Take Barb Anguiano, a reporter in the Midwest. Her frustration stemmed from being steered away from reporting on Latino issues. “The Latino population is where you’re telling me you don’t have enough listeners, the only way you’re going to get those listeners is with representation,” Anguiano says. “Who the hell do you think understands this community better than a daughter of immigrants?”
She felt her ideas were regularly shot down, and that left her questioning why she moved to public radio to begin with. Now, instead of the wanting to climb the ladder, Anguiano is thinking of leaving the newsroom. “I don’t feel like I’m being used to my full potential; I feel like I have something really important to offer and it’s going to get beaten out of me,” Anguiano says. “I’m wondering if freelancing and getting a full-time job at Walgreens might be the way to go.”
Almost all of the journalists I spoke with had either left a legacy media outlet or were planning an exit. Reporters of color leaving newsrooms is dangerous, not because there is one less person of color but because of a loss in how we cover representative democracy.
“I’ve watched it happen, where you’ll bring in a journalist of color and in the first few weeks of them being on staff, they are pitching really new ideas, interesting ideas,” says Celeste Headlee, guest host for NPR and author of “Heard Mentality.” “But to everyone else who has been educated the same way, with the same priorities and the same ideas about what sounds right and what’s important, the ideas of the new journalist sound silly and ridiculous, and sometimes they’re mocked.”
The greatest peril when journalists like Anguiano leave newsrooms, says Headlee, is groupthink—hiring people who have been educated in the same way, who come from the same social background, and automatically begin to reinforce the same ideas and the same stories.
As a radio host, Headlee has worked for National Public Radio and at several highly regarded local and national public media outlets. As the former host of “On Second Thought” on Georgia Public Radio, she wanted to influence how her show was put together. She set out to create an environment that was the opposite of groupthink. She wanted a space where producers were encouraged to disagree, debate, and push new ideas forward.
One of those ideas was to cover funk and hip-hop in the same way the Atlanta Symphony was covered—as high art. “We were the first public radio show to include an entire segment on Gucci Mane,” Headlee says.
Headlee adds that it may not seem like a big deal but if it changes the way people behave toward young African Americans playing loud hip-hop, and they begin to hear it as just a different kind of music because they heard it on public radio, then the idea was worth it.
“Human beings do our best work when we are surrounded by cognitive diversity, but in an attempt to reach a consensus, which is basically everyone getting along, we are killing our most creative and innovative thinking,” Headlee says. “The push for diversity isn’t just about being nice; this isn’t a moral and ethical issue. The real reason why you need diversity is because diversity makes everybody better.”