Know Your Own Blind Spots, When Covering Communities
How to find and address common blind spots around equitable news coverage
Most news outlets today analyze metrics to determine if and how they are reaching their audiences. We think in terms of engaged minutes and bounce rates and unique visitors.
But how do we measure how well our coverage reflects the communities we are entrusted with reporting on? How do we check our work for social and cultural tone deafness, for blind spots and holes, especially when it comes to marginalized or vulnerable communities?
Let’s think about this with an example. Many for-profit newspaper operations which offer subscriptions have a “core reader” or “target subscriber” or something similar that they’re trying to reach. Regardless of what this group is called, it boils down to this: Who is the audience base I can hone in on that is most likely to pay for my content? According to a 2017 study by the Media Insight Project on who pays for newspaper subscriptions, the largest subscriber base is white, college educated, and over 65 years old.
This is a newspaper example, but the point extends to media coverage in general. There is a specific type of person who is generally going to support our work and consume it. How well and how frequently do we cover the issues this group is going to care most about versus the issues more relevant to non-subscribers, like people of color, those who didn’t go to college and those too socioeconomically disadvantaged to afford a subscription who still seek news and information?
Who is an Agenda Setter? Who is a Stakeholder?
We as journalists don’t make news happen, but we do have a say in what’s considered newsworthy. We, as reporters and editors and data journalists, are part of production processes, and what readers and listeners ultimately see and hear hinges on our decisions about what to publish and broadcast to them.
Have a say in diversity and inclusion in sourcing, direct interaction with the public.
Determine which story pitches ultimately become assignments that are written and published.
DATA/VISUALS REPORTERS & EDITORS…
Must break down difficult-to-understand data into simpler language and present it with credible data sourcing and without bias.
With this kind of power comes a great responsibility to our audience. We’re responsible for making sure that we’re reporting the news in a way that reflects everyone’s stake in the community.
It’s no secret that many of the communities in this country remain heavily segregated. We live apart and our kids go to segregated schools despite our country being the most diverse it’s ever been. As such, our coverage should be a reflection of every community member’s interests in being informed, not just those that are willing to pay us.
It’s so important that the inclusion of diverse voices is one of nine “trust indicators” journalists and collaborators at the Trust Project identified as the cornerstones of trustworthy reporting. As journalists, we strive to produce work which serves the public interest. Diversity dovetails with this mission and helps differentiate quality journalism from the noise.
So, how do we do this?
Robert Clyve Maynard was a journalist and the former owner of The Oakland (Calif.) Tribune. Co-founder of the Robert C. Maynard Institute for Journalism Education in Oakland, Maynard espoused a journalistic philosophy based on fault lines we should be cognizant of in our reporting and editing decisions:
He said: “The society is split along five faults, and we try in vain to paper them over, fill them in or pretend they aren’t there. These underlying forces, like those in the center of the earth, will thwart us until we come to see our differences as deep but completely natural things, as natural as geologic fault lines.”
Essentially, fault lines are things that separate us that come second nature to us. How do we get past the fault lines in our coverage that divide us from our readers and divide our readers from each other?
“Race is as much a part of our lives as breathing, and its consideration must be integral to our reporting.”- Matt Hyunh, Columbia Journalism Review
As journalists, we’re not immune to the facts of race and racism just because we’re delivering the news. We see it and, unfortunately, experience it in our lives just like the people that we cover. And in our coverage, we have to be sensitive to the fact that our readers and listeners experience it. We have a very unique responsibility to make sure that we reflect and respect these lived experiences.
“Newsrooms are inherently powerful by nature of what we do, no matter our size, and we cannot be ignorant of our privilege.”- 2017 JSK Fellow Heather Bryant, Medium
As journalists, we’ve been called the “enemy of the people,” and we’ve been called elitist. We have a responsibility to not just write about the people who are like us. According to the most recent News Nerd Survey, we as developers and data journalists and designers are a fairly educated bunch. Over half of survey respondents who commented on their education said that they have an undergrad or graduate degree. We want to disseminate information in a way that everyone will be able to understand, not just the people who we think want it, need it, or deserve it most. What we produce must be accessible.
“One of the greatest challenges facing journalists, both men and women, is to resist the culture of casual stereotype in our everyday work.” - Media Diversity Institute
Unfortunately in our culture, it’s somewhat ingrained that one gender group is the lesser. We have to strive to not only achieve equity in how we tell stories and portray men and women, as well as nonbinary and intersex people, but also how we source our stories with diverse perspectives and experts.
“There are no longer common narratives that unite large segments of the population. Facebook and to a lesser extent Twitter have segmented and fractured the media…”- Joel Simon, Columbia Journalism Review
Do we write and disseminate information for people who are just like us? Educated and informed on current issues, increasingly millennial, tech savvy? Though we have a need to reach readers on new platforms through digital interactives, social media, virtual assistants, etc., we also have a need to meet our readers—all of our readers—where they’re at. This includes seniors and those who use assistive devices that may mean that they consume news differently than we’re used to releasing and marketing it.
“Broadly (sometimes maddeningly so), human geography involves place and space, and the way we interact with them as people in terms of culture, environment, and more.”- Chloe Sjuberg, The Discourse
Are we only covering a certain community or certain type of community in our coverage? Are we creating “news deserts” by failing to cover a certain community or certain type of community? We can’t fall into the “coastal trap” of diminishing the importance of middle and rural America in favor of major urban hubs and the coasts.
Dori Maynard, who led the Maynard Institute following her father’s death—and who herself died in 2015—told the Society of Professional Journalists that the faults “shape our perceptions of ourselves, each other, and events around us” and that they should be learned and relied upon as heavily as the reporter’s age-old questions of who, what, when where, why and how.
She also said that fault lines not only make us who we are but also create “blind spots” that make us unable to “see or make sense of some of the complexities in our communities…”
Committing to a New Normal
Perhaps the hardest part of reflecting our audience is making it a consistent habit rather than a fleeting newsroom initiative. There are several ways that we as journalists can try to permanently ingrain better community engagement and communication into our reporting routine.
Establish a regular date and time to get in touch with a few members of an under-covered community or a community that doesn’t attract a lot of positive coverage on your beat on a regular basis. Set yourself a calendar or Slack reminder to make a phone call or stop by to say hello and find out what’s new in the neighborhood. Is there an event? Is there an issue that is somehow impacting the community that you haven’t seen covered? Ask.
Taking a half hour to check in cultivates a kinship with these people that could lead you to a plethora of helpful, reliable sources down the line, when you’re perhaps in a breaking news situation and every moment counts. Not to mention, you’re actively engaging in community building. You’re not pumping someone for information in a one-sided transaction. You’re making a genuine connection with someone whose community and experiences would normally go unnoticed.
They’ll appreciate that you’re not just parachuting into their community and caring when something is wrong. They’ll appreciate the fact that you care enough about their community and about their neighborhood to say, “What’s happening here? What can I do to cover you not only accurately, but fairly?”
Check in with your colleagues on how you’re dealing with these fault lines. Look at each other’s stories. Say, “You know, you really could have used more diverse sources in this story. You could have contacted this source that I have that may be more reflective of the community.” In that sense, we can be accountable to each other. We don’t have to wait for an editor or whomever is managing us to say, “This could be more balanced. This could be more fair.” We can do that critique of ourselves.
Analyze patterns and trends over time
One way to determine if we’ve been successful in navigating fault lines and reflecting the community in our coverage is to perform a content audit. It doesn’t have to be fancy or complex.
Here are a few no-frills, no-cost methods that you might try to get started:
- CMS tags: If your CMS is tracked by Chartbeat, Parse.ly or Google Analytics, generate a report based on what stories were published over your chosen period of time by tags. If you have tags that correspond to certain groups or neighborhoods as well as topics, this might be a helpful way to see if you have a lot of crime or politics or whatever type of story being covered about a specific group or geographic area too frequently.
- Headline audit: Generate a report from your analytics software of the last X number of headlines or all headlines from a specific time period. If you can, pull the excerpt or summary that accompanies the story in the CMS as well. Was this story positive news or negative news and who was involved? Was it a shooting in a poorer neighborhood? Was it someone making a sizable donation to an art museum in a more affluent area? You have to come up with your own barometer for your community and for your news organization.
- Sources inventory: Log the diversity of sources in X number of stories over a set length of time. Journalist Mollie Bloudoff-Indelicato created Diverse Sources, a searchable database of underrepresented experts in science. Taking the time to figure out if you more often quote one group over another in terms of gender or sexual orientation or whatever may seem trivial. “As long as I’m not biased, and I got in a diverse viewpoint, what does it matter?” Because it matters just as much who is delivering the message as does the message itself. Representation matters.
None of these methods is intended to be scientific or razor precise. They’re intended to give you an overarching sense of what your outlet is publishing, about whom, and to what end.
None of this is easy, but it’s worth it, and it works. After I presented this as a session at SRCCON 2018, I talked to Sarah Schmalbach of the Lenfest Institute who participated in the session. She said:
“I was… struck by the power of Robert Maynard’s quote about the five natural fault lines, and his urging to not ignore or “paper over” our differences. So often conversations about diversity, inclusion and bias can hit brick walls because it’s difficult to parse out each fault line with clarity so that clear solutions can be discussed or executed. But the five fault lines that you laid out—race, class, gender, generation and geography—felt like a lifeline to us, and the beginning of a map for having productive conversations about what can be done to stoke self-awareness and improvements in newsrooms.”
Dana Amihere is data editor at KPCC, an NPR member station in Southern California. She’s a designer, developer and data journalist who has previously worked for The Dallas Morning News, The Baltimore Sun, and Pew Research Center.