R&B Newsroom April 2020

The empty Red & Black newsroom in April 2020 as students remained at home following UGA shifting to online instruction. 

As racial injustices and police violence against Black people provoked national protests and conversations this summer, our publication confronted an obvious truth: We have a diversity problem at The Red & Black.

There are three Black people in The Red & Black’s newsroom this summer — only one of whom is on payroll. There are no Black people on the news, sports, photo or design desks. This summer is my sixth semester at The Red & Black — the editorial boards, the student editors and managers at the helm of the newsroom, of the previous five semesters have been entirely white.

If we are releasing a special print issue about the Black Lives Matter protests, we have to examine our role in the systemic issues first. Committing to inclusive coverage requires committing to an inclusive newsroom. Where does the solution begin?

The conversation about diversity and race did not start with the protests. Because Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) held a personal stake in stories about race, they have usually been the ones to cover these communities. However, as this summer has demonstrated, issues of identity are ubiquitous across all articles and all newsrooms.

This semester was a long-awaited wake-up call for everyone — for the white people who previously hadn’t given much thought to diversity in the newsroom, for the few BIPOCs whose concerns about inclusion have been realized and validated.

We did not act on protest coverage until it reached our backyard — a flaw we were rightfully called out for in a guest column. Our decision to capitalize Black was announced three days after the AP Stylebook revised its policy and after other national publications already implemented the change.

Our delayed responses, gaps in coverage and, at times, insensitive mistakes on covering basic issues have affected our relationships with marginalized communities. Though conversations were happening behind the scenes in the last two years that I’ve been at The Red & Black, most of which were initiated by BIPOC, we have a long way to go as a publication.

Work in progress

I am learning as much as the next person — from Twitter threads detailing horror stories about microaggressions and blatant racism in the industry to tangible initiatives facilitated by student, local and national publications.

Because I grew up in a majority-minority community, addressing the lack of diversity in college is new to me as well. The first time I was an “only” was walking into one of my classes on the first day of school at the University of Georgia. The second time was walking into my first Red & Black news meeting. Since then I’ve lost track, but in the newsroom, I found myself increasingly aware as I rose through the ranks on the editorial staff.

The racial reckoning in the U.S. is also making me acutely aware of my privileges growing up in the suburbs of metro-Atlanta. Asian Americans continue to reap the outcomes of the racial justice movements of Black people. I owe my future to the upheaval in the media industry right now, which has been provoked by a movement where Black people are fighting for their lives.

Over the last few weeks, I have been talking to past and present Black editors and writers on our staff about their experiences at The Red & Black. I spoke with current board member and former editor Jamar Laster, who said he was the only Black person in The Red & Black’s newsroom in the early 2000s.

Nearly 20 years later, the lack of diversity remains nearly the same. Opinion Assistant Melissa Wright discussed the pressures of being one of the only Black people in the newsroom amid this summer’s protests. This pressure stemmed from having a personal stake in the news while ensuring sensitive and complete coverage in our publication.

127 years in the making

The first step in our 127-year long struggle with diversity begins with transparency about the problem. Before we move forward, we need to ask: Why did it take us so long? What are the systems and practices in place that have implicitly and explicitly isolated people of marginalized identities from our newsroom?

The next step is an active effort across the entirety of The Red & Black to shift the culture around diversity. BIPOC need to receive recognition for the disproportionate efforts they are putting into these initiatives to make themselves feel more welcomed. The majority-white newsroom has to acknowledge the ubiquity of race and identity across all beats and editorial decisions.

Then, we can talk about tangible efforts — intentional recruitment to diversify our editorial staff, establishing a diversity and inclusion task force to address these initiatives in the newsroom and incorporating diversity training into the curriculum. But without recognizing the issue and shifting the culture, we cannot expect BIPOC and people of other marginalized identities to join a newspaper that does not make intentional efforts to welcome them.

Diversity does not stop there — gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomics, religion and more are all identities that news organizations have an obligation to include in their coverage and in their own ranks.

As journalists, we pride ourselves on transparency. We issue corrections for every misspelled name and misstated date. The newsgathering staff is expected to uphold a standard of objectivity, to separate their views from their work.

Putting a front between the news and the newsroom hinders us from internally examining our own contributions to these systemic issues that we are covering. Over the 127 years of The Red & Black, we have not been invincible to these issues in our country. Our publication is a product of a staff unrepresentative of the communities we cover, and we need to do better.

The Red & Black has a two-part mission: to inform the communities we cover and to train the next generation of journalists. Without diverse voices on our staff, we fail in both missions. We fail to inform the marginalized communities underrepresented on our staff, and we fail to train underrepresented identities in the next generation of journalists.

Every semester at The Red & Black, there is a turnover in editorial. Initiatives may lose momentum with the new set of leaders, and commitments to continuing change may be lost. My time at The Red & Black will end in the next few semesters. Gabriela Miranda and Anila Yoganathan, my friends and colleagues who have driven many of the initiatives and conversations this summer, will graduate in the next year. The few BIPOC on editorial rotate out within a few years, leaving us right where we began.

But these initiatives are not about us anymore. This is about integrating a narrative of inclusion and acceptance into our culture and practices. For students already underrepresented by the media, The Red & Black needs to challenge that narrative, and so far, it hasn’t.

This summer has been as much of a wake-up call in our newsroom as it has been nationwide. Every story in this issue — every choice in wording, and every intention in sourcing — has been a product of these long-overdue conversations.

Amid COVID-19 and the nationwide protests, we are emerging into a new reality as a community and as a publication — beyond this special issue, this summer and this year.

We’re listening, and we’re learning.

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