Skip to primary content

Blog

Maynard: Diversity Is about Survival

Key IM Interview Quote: In the 1960s when newspapers first began hiring journalists of color it was because they could not get to one of the biggest stories facing the country, the Black Power Movement, without black reporters. Today, we have so many other options for getting our news that if an organization does not accurately reflect my world I can go elsewhere.–Dori Maynard

Dori J. Maynard, as president and chief executive officer of the Robert C. Maynard Institute for Journalism Education, is following in her father’s footsteps in trying to help journalists understand how their coverage is influenced by the fault lines of race, class, gender, generation and geography. We’ll try to find out how well journalists have been hearing and responding to that message in the more than 25 years since the Institute was started.

Leonard Witt: Hi Dori, I initially contacted you after the San Francisco Chronicle did an informal photo count of women and minorities on their section fronts and had what their ombudsman called an “eye opening” experience. In most categories woman and people of color came in a distinct second to white males. As a woman of color and as someone who has been fighting this battle for years, what was your reaction? Was it “eye-opening”?
Maynard: It was not “eye opening” for me. As a women of color who reads many newspapers I could have predicted what they would find. It did, however, illustrate the importance of content audits. They really do provide a reality check.

Witt: So how does a content audit work?
Maynard: A content audit allows you to look at the diversity of the sources in your news coverage. We advise people to look at the locally

produced stories and images. Going story by story you determine the race, class, gender and generation of each source. We have software that will crunch the numbers in real time so by the end of the audit you have a snapshot of your coverage.

Witt: Which papers are using the software and what are they learning?
Maynard: We tend not to name the papers without permission. What I can tell is that very often what happens in the end is the same thing that happened at the Chronicle. News organizations find that they are not nearly as reflective of the community as they thought they were. At that point, you can begin to identify the gaps and put together a game plan to address those gaps. A few other common findings include the fact that older people are often heard and not seen. Younger people are often seen and not heard. A little generational bias going on.

Witt: Your Institute has been at this for more than 25 years. Has there been any progress?
Maynard: Sure there has been progress. Our graduates are publishers, editors and managing editors across the country. Contrary to the myth that people of color won’t go to small towns, they are in places like Salem, Oregon, Fort Collins, Colorado, and Monterrey, California.

Now, having said that, I must also add that clearly we have not made enough progress, particularly in light of how quickly our country is changing. It is no longer a matter of doing the right thing, not that it ever was. Now, just as when the diversity movement started, it is about survival. Back in the 1960s when newspapers first began hiring journalists of color it was because they could not get to one of the biggest stories facing the country, the Black Power Movement, without black reporters. Today, we have so many other options for getting our news that if an organization does not accurately reflect my world I can go elsewhere.

Witt: Let’s go back to the fault lines. When you read papers or watch broadcasts, what frustrates you the most and why?
Maynard: I am always frustrated when I discover I don’t exist. Or when I discover that I am a murder suspect.

Witt: Tell me more about that.
Maynard: I’ll never forget the first time I discovered I was a murder suspect. I was driving to work one day and the newscaster said the police were looking for a black women in her 30s. I almost turned myself in. It is that narrow representation of entire communities that I find so frustrating.

Witt: So do how do you expand that representation?
Maynard: Journalists have to learn to get outside of the comfort zone. You know, we live in such segregated communities that we don’t bring a broad understanding of the complexities of our communities to the work place. So, we need to get out of the office and go into those very neighborhoods that we might otherwise avoid. We need to go to the churches, the barbershop, the schools and start to get to know people as people and not as stats.

Witt: Public journalists have been saying that for years. So have you. The response from the journalists is a brush off: That’s just good journalism. So why aren’t they practicing it?
Maynard: Because we’re asking people to go outside of their comfort zone. Because there are not enough editors and publishers who demand to see their communities accurately reflected. Because, I am sorry to say, there are not enough editors and publishers who realize that their communities are not accurately reflected.

Witt: If you can see it, why can’t they?
Maynard: Because it’s my world. Now, ask me about another group and I might have a whole lot of blind spots. In fact, I take media executives on tours of Oakland to help them get past the myths they may have about Oakland. The other day I was in a neighboring city that has a reputation much like Oakland. I’ve lived in the Bay Area for 10 years now and never really paid anymore attention to this city except for what I read in the paper. Imagine my amazement when I actually went there and found a lovely community. It was a great aha moment that gave me much more insight into how easy it is to miss other’s worlds, even when your job revolves around making sure that does not happen.

Witt: I want to go back to something you mentioned earlier about people finding other sources of news. Mainstream news organizations are losing readers and viewers. In the 2000 census 75 percent of the US population identified themselves as being white, 25 percent as people of color. Ethnic news outlets, unlike mainstream media, are expanding their audiences. What does it all mean to you and to the work being done at the Institute?
Maynard: It means a few things. First of all, it gives us pause when we use terms such as the mainstream media. As you point out, ethnic media is growing. Traditional media is shrinking. Are we about to see traditional media become just another niche for a shrinking audience? If so, we cannot continue to refer to it as mainstream.

It also means that we have to make sure our programs include participants from the ethnic media. Lastly, it gives us a greater sense of urgency when we go to traditional media.

Witt: Might you someday, like some of the readers, abandon “Mainstream Media” and just concentrate on ethnic media?
Maynard: That’s doubtful. Remember, we’re all about inclusion.

Witt: Speaking of inclusion, in one of your columns about Jayson Blair you wrote: “we in media still don’t know how to talk about race. As a result, it is often impossible for us to see beyond our own racial point of view.” How can you have inclusion when we can’t even get folks in newsrooms to speak straight to each other?
Maynard: That’s absolutely right. Last year we spent some time talking to people about diversity, training and the conversation around diversity. What we found is that everybody is frustrated with the conversation so it simply isn’t happening. As a result, what diversity we do have is not reflected in either the coverage or the business practices. Part of the problem goes back to the fact that we live in such segregated communities that we don’t bring cross cultural communication skills to the workplace.

Witt: So how do we fix it?
Maynard: What we have found is that the Fault Lines framework gives people a vocabulary that takes some of the charge out of those conversations because we remind people that it is natural to see thing from your own fault line point of view. So, instead of saying, “What do you mean you don’t see my point?” people have learned to say, “I think we have a fault line here,” which gives the other person a chance to think about it without getting defensive.

Witt: So you have a good mechanism to start the conversation, are news organizations willing to have the discussion?
Maynard: You know, it’s an ongoing educational process for all of us. When we started this 30 years ago the thought was that diversity in the news organization would result in diversity in the content and business operations. Now we are learning that that is not enough and you have to have to learn how to talk across the fault lines. As that becomes apparent more and more news organizations are willing to begin those conversations.

Witt: I think when people at newspapers like the Washington Post, New York Times, and LA Times read this kind of discussion, they imagine you are talking about the smaller less sophisticated news outlets? How correct would they be in that assumption? What percentage of papers are doing a really good job of covering all communities well?
Maynard: I would have to say that a very small percentage of papers are doing a really good job. However, I would also say that more and more are trying to do a good job. I also think it would be misleading to assume that the larger the paper the better the job. There are very small papers that have a much better handle on what is going on in the communities they serve.

Witt: We have covered lots of interesting materail. One last series of question: Give us a quick peak into the future. First what worries you?
Maynard: What worries me is that traditional media will not learn to diversify its ranks quickly enough and that the ethnic media will not expand to fill the void. As a result we will be left without a place to have our much needed national dialogue.

Witt: What inspires you?
Maynard: What inspires me is that there are more and more media outlets both in print and on the web. So I believe that there are enough committed journalists who understand not just the value, but the necessity of diverse viewpoints, that we will have a vibrant media that is reflective of all of our realities.

Witt: I promised that would be the last question, but I have to ask another. Wouldn’t it be a good idea, if newspapers and broadcast outlets don’t do their own content audits, that an audience member or two do it for them?
Maynard: No, actually I think there is a real value to having members of the organization do the audit. It is often too easy to discount the work of others. What often happens when members of the news organization do it is that they begin to see a pattern as they do the work. By the end, they already know what they are going to see.

Witt: But are they going to do it themselves?
Maynard: It seems more and more organizations are opting to audits, in part because they may think they do a better job than is actually the case. On the other hand, if a news organization refuses to do an audit, an audience-generated audit can at least open the conversation.

Witt: Thanks for a great interview. I learned a lot.
Maynard: Thank you. I enjoyed the conversation.

To read more Leonard Witt IM Interviews go here.

Comments are closed.

Sidelines

PJNet.org