Lack of diversity isn’t just a problem for schools and teachers, but the well-intended education journalists who cover them.
By Tara García Mathewson
Listen up. This is important.
As of this fall, the majority of students in U.S. schools are children of color. They and their parents speak hundreds of different languages. But both the teachers who teach them and the reporters who write about them are predominantly white English speakers.
The issues this gap presents are complex, and often more about a lack of awareness and preference for comfort than outright bias or racism. But we need to grapple with them. Reporters who are well-meaning — caring deeply about schools and kids — are an asset to their communities, but good intentions are not enough. And pity is just another side of racism.
Good intentions are not enough. And pity is just another side of racism.
In the newsroom, at journalism conferences, at public meetings, I’m often one of the only Latina reporters. With white skin and dark blue eyes, though, few people can tell. Sometimes I feel like an undercover person of color. I hear unfiltered comments, racist jokes. When I’m reporting, I hear candid frustrations from people who don’t know I’m “one of them” because I don’t speak English with an accent.
Straddling two cultures has its perks. In a very white professional world, it also has its stresses. In my first year at Chicago’s Daily Herald, my editor drafted me to speak to an angry Spanish-speaking mother who felt her son was unfairly described by a reporter who, like so many, interviewed the police and wrote a story from a single interview. I apologized on behalf of the paper and explained the plan for a correction, my hands shaking as I fielded her rage.
Before the Daily Herald, I spent three months at the Kitsap Sun in Bremerton, Wash., just west of Seattle. I helped tell an award-winning story about Latino immigrants foraging in the woods for the ferns that fill out flower arrangements worldwide. Before I brought the capacity to interview these laborers in Spanish, their story couldn’t be told, and therefore, neither could that of the industry they propped up.
An analysis of evening news programs on ABC, CBS, NBC and CNN from 2008 to 2014 by Federico Subervi, a retired Kent State University professor of journalism, found fewer than 1% of stories were about Latinos, and the stories that did make it on air framed Latinos as people who either had problems or caused problems.
A lack of diversity in most newsrooms contributes to group-think, no matter how good everyone’s intentions may be. A reporter writes something, an editor passes it along to a copy-editor, and he or she approves it for print. If all of these people come from similar backgrounds, they are less likely to notice holes in these stories that can alienate their readers of color and, just as importantly, perpetuate stereotypes among white readers and policymakers.
Middle class, white journalists — the bulk of the people in education journalism — have a different perspective on the world than the black and brown people they are often asked to cover. When newsrooms do not have enough diversity, that perspective dominates coverage. It impacts the questions journalists ask and it impacts the stories journalists ever decide to tell, too often leaving communities of color to exist as anecdotes or statistics. They too rarely get to speak for themselves, much less take a central role in their own stories.
We as a field must address the consequences of the imbalance between the people covering schools and the students in them.
Educated white journalists are more likely to stick to interviews with educated, white administrators or teachers rather than find parent sources to round out their stories. This is partly an issue of time and access. But even when reporters seek out parent and community sources, they are more likely to gravitate to those who look and sound like them, leaving behind one full half of the parent population.
When it comes to expert sources, reporters fail to curate contacts of color, too often turning to black or Latino sources, for example, on stories they believe have a unique connection to either community. But if students of color make up the majority of children in U.S. schools, every education issue is their issue. The future of this nation rests on the success of students of color, and reporters covering schools need to do more than recognize this in the abstract.
Reporters have to work harder to challenge their own instincts. And newsrooms, foundations, and support organizations have to commit to helping them do so.
Let’s embrace a growth mindset for the field. Recruiting more diverse reporters and editors is critical. In the meantime, figuring out how to produce good coverage with the reporters and editors we have right now is possible. Being white does not mean reporters cannot cover communities of color well. It cannot mean that. But it does mean reporters have to work harder to challenge their own instincts. And it means newsrooms, foundations, and support organizations have to commit to helping them do so.
Tara García Mathewson is a Boston-based freelance education writer whose work has appeared in The Huffington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The Hechinger Report, National Catholic Reporter and Education Dive, among others. You can find her at www.taragm.com and @TaraGarciaM on Twitter.