Why we’re asking the wrong question when it comes to diversity in media

Seattle Globalist reporter Quipachtli Martinez speaks with OneAmerica Communication Director Charlie McAteer in 2013. (Globalist file photo)
Seattle Globalist reporter Quipachtli Martinez speaks with OneAmerica Communication Director Charlie McAteer in 2013. (Globalist file photo)

Editor’s note: As part of The Seattle Times’ project Under Our Skin, Seattle Globalist News Editor Venice Buhain, who also is president of the Seattle chapter of the Asian American Journalists Association, was invited to write an essay to accompany the project. It’s republished here with permission.

The road to stagnation is paved with good intentions. For decades, we in the media have been wringing our hands over how we can tell the stories of communities of color. Why haven’t we done a better job of covering discussions of race and racism despite all our good intentions and our acknowledgement that a problem exists?

Despite years of navel-gazing, we still struggle to tell stories of people of color fairly. We still are stuck with nearly the same percentage of people of color in newsrooms that we had 10 years ago, according to the American Society of News Editors. This remains true even as the United States becomes increasingly diverse and heads toward a “majority-minority” population.

So, what gives? It’s time for us to recognize the way we ask questions about diversity in media has been flawed. Our questions presuppose that communities of color are separate from the media. And the longer news organizations keep up this stance, the sooner we’ll become irrelevant.

We need to switch that question around. The question we should really be asking is how can we create a fuller picture of who we are as a society?

There isn’t just one answer to this, but what we can do today is take an active role in seeking out voices and communities that aren’t often included in our stories. We need to make more room for people of color as reporters and editors and as the people we seek for perspective on a story.

If we maintain self-perpetuating expectations of who a journalist is or who would make a good interview, making that change will be a heavy lift. And these stereotypes can be so pervasive and habitual, they’re almost invisible.

I didn’t think anything of it the time I approached a man of Asian descent for a “person-on-the-street” feature on holiday gifts, and the well-meaning photographer I was working with innocently asked me, “What if he doesn’t speak English?” Well, we wouldn’t know that until we talked to him. Yes, he spoke English. And the photo was great.

I didn’t think about it the time I interviewed for a job and struggled to answer a question about my lack of internships, volunteerism and international travel. Was I supposed to do all that in college? Take a year off after graduation? My working-class family taught me that college was for studying and summers were for work. I didn’t get that job. No hard feelings; I got other jobs.

But now I have been in positions where it is my responsibility to think about diversity. In my current and past roles as an editor, I have asked myself if my expectations and preferences for who I hire are unintentionally leaving out people who have experiences, qualities and strengths that my newsroom lacks. Am I working hard to find writers and reporters with experiences that I don’t have?

As a reporter, I have to ask myself if I’m relying on the same pool of easy-to-interview sources who are media-savvy and camera-ready. Or if I am consciously trying to find the stories that haven’t been told over and over again, and that have the potential to challenge prevailing assumptions.

And as a longtime member, and now president, of the Seattle chapter of the Asian American Journalists Association, I’ve been honored to help students from diverse backgrounds get scholarships and mentorship that will help get them relevant experience, credentials and encouragement.

The Times’ “Under Our Skin” project scratches the surface of these issues. As a journalist, I think the presentation is fresh and engaging. But we should all recognize that these aren’t new conversations. I wonder if these concepts will get through to those who need to hear them — or will these conversations once again get blocked by defensiveness, denial and the insistence that we all have really good intentions. And I hope it doesn’t lead anyone to conclude that the only thing people of color can talk about — or want to talk about — is race.

Some might ask whether all this talk of race and diversity is necessary. Why can’t we be colorblind when it comes to hiring our journalists and choosing the stories that run in the media?

We don’t need to look far to find an example of why it is important.

Earlier this year, a local Asian American musician wrote an essay about her disappointment in how a Seattle Times headline portrayed her — in a way that could have had a racially negative connotation — and how her concerns were dismissed in an email by an employee who deflected criticism in part by saying that Asian American journalists work at The Times.

While the head of the newsroom apologized immediately, the episode shows why it is so important for everyone in newsrooms — and not just the journalists of color — to consider both the importance and purpose of diversity in journalism. Having people of color on staff isn’t just a move toward political correctness, or a symbol of progress to feel good about.

Rather, diversity is a mindset, the aim to reflect the communities where we live, with their multitude of voices and their ever-evolving and changing forms. The media need to embrace this challenge — or be doomed to irrelevance. If we don’t, the audience will decide for us.

We need to stop the hand-wringing. Only when we take an honest and possibly uncomfortable look at who our work is serving, can we begin to imagine how things could change.