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The limitations of our 97% white newsroom

5 Nov

It’s not an exaggeration or a figure of speech. It’s the actual percentage. Our newsroom at the New Haven Register is 97 percent white. We do not look like the city that we cover (New Haven is 37 percent white).

We are a worse newspaper because of it.

I’m not talking about extreme examples – like this racist manipulation of a news story at a Chicago TV station.

But lack of diversity in our newsroom affects us in ways that we don’t realize.

It has come up over the past few days as we’ve sought public input on changing our online story comment system at the Register. At a public forum Thursday night, a reader was incredulous that we have allowed viciously racist comments to appear on our website and have yet to fix the problem after several years of awareness.

In a blog post about that forum, I suggested that the system would have been changed a long time ago if we’d been listening like we did on Thursday night. (In-person conversations and asking the community for advice has a different impact on decisions than fielding angry phone calls or emails, which there were plenty of over the past few years.) And I said that the system would have changed long before now if the New Haven Register newsroom were not 97 percent white.

Well, the fact is that New Haven’s newsroom staff – pretty much unanimously – has been horrified and upset by racist and other offensive story comments for a long time. Former Editor Jack Kramer pushed several times for a change similar to the one we’re about to make.

If you read my post as saying that nothing was done because the newsroom is 97 percent white and didn’t care enough to make it happen, you’d be pretty upset after fighting for two years to do just that.

What I’m saying is that there was a newsroom full of people who understood and wanted to do the right thing, and it still didn’t happen. My argument is that if there were more newsroom employees of color, especially in leadership positions, the arguments for changing it (a sharper, more urgent message, perhaps) would have overcome whatever company bureaucracy, failure to agree on a plan for implementation or other sticking point that was holding things up.

Since taking over as head of New Haven Register parent Journal Register Company in February 2010, John Paton has lamented the lack of diversity both in our newsrooms and in the absence of women and people of color in key leadership positions in the parent company. He has pledged to make this a priority.

To be blunt, if the company allowed a forum for racist comments and stereotypes for years (regardless of who or how many people pushed to end it, it wasn’t fixed), and you agree with me that more diversity in the newsroom and in company leadership would have meant a different result, then how else is lack of diversity affecting us? What is our news coverage missing? How is it warped by the world view shaped by the homogenous racial experience of our reporters and editors?

It’s an inconvenient time to raise this topic. Newsrooms aren’t hiring, and the New Haven Register is no exception.

But if we’re serious about “community engagement” and building a relationship of trust with the audience, it’s the elephant in the room. Diversity has to be high on our agenda over the next year. I don’t have a plan for getting to where we need to be, but I’m committed to asking the newsroom, the audience and those who are doing it right for help in creating one.

Community engagement can reveal big gap in newsroom, audience perceptions

4 Nov

We invited the public to an open forum about online story comments at the New Haven Public Library last night, and we came away with some powerful arguments for community engagement and transparency.

The turnout was small – four people in attendance with more watching video on our website and participating in a live chat – but the feedback was powerful.

Yvonne Manning-Jones of Hamden said that racist comments on the New Haven Register’s website have changed how she views the community. She wonders if the waiter serving her at a local restaurant, or the co-worker who sits next to her, could be one of these people anonymously saying these things. Do they look at the color of her skin and assume she is on welfare, or a criminal?

Marianne Carolla makes a point to Regional Editor Matt DeRienzo during a public forum on the Register's online comments policy held at the New Free Public Library Thursday evening.

Manning-Jones has been so outraged by the nature of comments on the site – and how long the newspaper has allowed them to continue – that she has started copying examples and pasting them to her Facebook page, asking her friends whether they should be supporting any business that provides a platform for this with their advertising or home delivery subscription.

Of course, editors and reporters have cringed over the nature of story comments like this for a long time. But hearing how it is viewed by and affects Manning-Jones brings home a sense of urgency that wasn’t there. Which raises the question: How long ago would the system have been changed if we had been out there listening all along? And how quickly would it have been addressed if the top leadership and ranks of the newsroom were not 97 percent white? (And yes, that is the actual ethnic breakdown of newsroom staff at the New Haven Register, which serves a city whose population is only 37 percent white.)

Absent a dialogue between editors and the audience about it, a perception has developed that the New Haven Register at the very least didn’t care enough about the racist comments to do something about it, and at worst actually endorsed them. If that’s not the case, Manning-Jones asked, why are they present on the Register’s website and not on the online news site the New Haven Independent?

We spent a lot of time at last night’s meeting talking about the ideal of story comments being a constructive public forum that improves and supplements our journalism and helps the community sort through important public policy issues.

So another wake-up call came when West Haven resident Marianne Carolla spoke.

She take on story comments wasn’t about offensive things being posted, or about the Register going too far in “censoring” readers.

Carolla spoke about a forum that a New Haven Register reporter covered where a public official made statements, and then a group of citizens spoke at length with an opposing viewpoint. The story that was published contained only the public official’s side of the conversation, she said, even though the reporter interviewed citizens present and heard their testimony.

Carolla said she did not use our online story comments to weigh in on the topic that day because she felt the “deck was stacked” against her. Rather than the open invitation that the newsroom perceives story comments to be, this reader’s perception of bias in our reporting and editing conjured a door that was slammed shut.

Was that reporter biased? Did they screw up the coverage of that event? Maybe, or maybe the citizen testimony she was referring to was not central to the topic the reporter was there to cover. Or maybe the reporter had half an hour to write the story before deadline.

Meeting Carolla reinforced my belief in the “Fact Check” box we have placed at the bottom of every story, and our recent launch of a blog that handles corrections more transparently and explains how we’ve handled Fact Check reports. We can build trust the more we invite them into the process and the more we show readers “how the sausage is made” by being transparent about our reporting and editing process. That could include opening our story meetings to the public, like we do at The Register Citizen Newsroom Cafe, or by sharing the list of stories we’re working on each day.

Most of the errors made in journalism are sins of omission. Missing context, the “more to the story.” Readers who know there’s more to the story can see bias or incompetence in those omissions when the fact is that reporters and editors don’t know about or have access to all the potential sources and angles of a topic. Opening the process and engaging with the community can both improve that journalism and build trust.

CLICK HERE for video of last night’s forum.

UPDATE: New Haven Register Managing Editor Mark Brackenbury makes an important point in the comments below. I write about missing context being the most common error we make in our reporting, and this post is missing a key piece of context about the New Haven Register’s story comment system.

For a long time – several years, actually – newsroom staff have felt strongly that the story comment system needed to change, for exactly the reasons spelled out by Yvonne Manning-Jones and more. Former New Haven Register Editor Jack Kramer pushed for this change, more than once, but it was either held up or blocked elsewhere in the structure of the company. Or they couldn’t agree on a plan to implement the change. Or something.

Understandably, some newsroom employees read my blog post as saying that the system wasn’t changed because they are white and didn’t care enough about racist comments to make the change. I’d be upset at that suggestion, too, if I had been fighting to get it changed for two years.

I was not intending to say that the 97 percent white newsroom didn’t want the racist story comments dealt with – they clearly did, from the top editor on down. I was saying that the absence of more people of color on the staff and in the leadership of the newsroom failed to provide the impetus to get it done. Impetus that would have overcome company structure and decision-making process.

Lack of newsroom diversity affects what we do in ways that we don’t realize. It’s a topic that deserves a lot more attention, and I’ll publish a separate post devoted to this topic soon.

UPDATE #2: I wrote a separate post about the question of newsroom diversity. It’s here.