‘The urgency of inclusion in newsrooms’ Journalism amid pandemic and protests

By Tom Michael

The coronavirus pandemic and statewide stay-at-home orders this spring changed work life for many journalists. We had to come up with new ways to reach our sources, to upload to our broadcast channel and websites and to share with our audience. After Memorial Day, the nationwide vigils and protests following the killing of George Floyd further complicated the work of a remote and disparate workforce.

 Newsrooms had to pivot to meet new challenges. How do we safely cover street protests? How do we best cover press conferences? How do we ensure that we’re sharing diverse voices? In what ways has systemic racism affected our coverage and how can we improve?

 Industry groups and media organizations have offered a slew of training opportunities to address these concerns. My industry, public media, has been awash in webinars over the past month. War correspondents have been dusting off old slide decks to share with a new generation of journalists covering protests. Journalists of color have been leading webinars on how to improve diversity in sourcing and staffing.

 A quick review of my work calendar over the past several weeks, and I see training titles such as, “Pandemic Forced Innovation,” “The Imperative Of Inclusion,” “The Mobile Opportunity In Challenging Times,” “Words Matter: The Language Of Unrest,” “Managing Trauma In Your Newsroom” and “Creating An Inclusive Newsroom In The Time Of COVID.”

 The Boise State Public Radio newsroom attended a customized webinar led by Francisco Vara-Orta of IRE, Investigative Reporters & Editors. His name may be familiar because he came to Boise in September to lead a weekend of training for Idaho reporters. The Texas-based journalist created an online presentation for us called “The Urgency Of Inclusion In Newsrooms.”

 Vara-Orta shared historical recommendations made for media back in 1968 by the Kerner Commission Report during the civil rights movement. In dispiriting detail, he recounted the decades that passed before many of these recommendations were implemented. Even to this day, surveys show that more than 75% of those working in U.S. newsrooms are white. For example, despite years of discussion, the NPR newsroom had not moved the needle much in the past decade. In 2017-19, it increased its minority representation of journalists by almost 5 percentage points.

His IRE presentation went on to discuss confirmation bias, white privilege, implicit bias and a recent hot-button issue, objectivity. We had time for discussion afterwards.

 Training offered to Idaho Statesman reporters included a three-hour webinar on how to safely and effectively report on protests. According to Ximena Bustillo, it got into details such as “identification methods and protection strategies, especially for female reporters.” Reporters were taught mitigation strategies for tear gas and rubber bullets, as well as advice on how to present yourself as a reporter and not a protester.

 One of our editors, Kate Concannon, who manages the Mountain West News Bureau, won Editor of the Year, from the PMJA, Public Media Journalists Association. At the virtual awards banquet, she was a keynote speaker along with Maria Hinojosa of the radio program and podcast Latino USA. Both used their acceptance speeches to talk about how the industry needs to diversify – and fast.

 Concannon spoke about the need to break away from the media monoculture, even beyond race and ethnicity. Born in England into a working-class neighborhood in the East Midlands, she described how her natural radio voice wasn’t “posh” enough for the famed BBC. As a young reporter in America, she proudly submitted a broadcast package to them, but was stunned to hear her story when it aired. The BBC had it entirely re-voiced it with a British man whose accent was more suited to the network at the time.

 As the world continues to adapt to this “new normal,” our media organizations don’t just need to keep up with innovations in content delivery or new digital platforms, but to “meet our audience where they live” in many more ways, as well. 

Tom Michael is general manager of Boise State Public Radio, and is a board member of the Idaho Press Club.