Why So Little Diversity Training For Education Journalists?

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By Tara García Mathewson

The United States Census Bureau estimates almost 40 percent of people in the United States are nonwhite or Latino. More than half of all US students are children of color.

In response to these changing demographics, schools are sending teachers to workshops about culturally inclusive classrooms and curricula and demanding teachers get special credentials to serve students who don’t speak English.

These kinds of initiatives are routinely covered by education reporters, some of whom criticize the efforts as insufficient.  And yet, very few education journalists – the vast majority of whom are white, college-educated women – are provided high-quality, ongoing diversity training or awareness programs that might help improve their own coverage.

The result is too often narrow reporting that ignores certain perspectives, contributes to stereotypes, and alienates a growing portion of prospective readers.

Excuses about lack of time or money are not good enough. And outlets don’t have to build up diversity training efforts from scratch. Organizations stand ready to support this work as soon as interest shifts from being mostly talk to action.

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Newsroom diversity remains a major issue in journalism.

The American Society of News Editors’ latest diversity survey found minority journalists comprised 17 percent of the workforce across 737 responding organizations.  Among education journalists, the Education Writers Association’s 2016 “State of the Ed Beat” report says a slightly higher 22 percent are nonwhite.

The lack of diversity training and support for journalists – and its consequences – is apparent to many close observers.

Venise Wagner, an associate professor in the Department of Journalism at San Francisco State University and co-author of the forthcoming book “Reporting Inequality: Tools and Methods for Covering Race and Ethnicity” says one glaring result from inadequate diversity training in education journalism frequently shows up in coverage of gaps – in academic achievement, graduation rates, discipline rates, etc.

“Often stories about minorities in education are about the gap,” Wagner said via email. “But few stories go beyond simply stating that there is a gap. To go beyond that reporting, the journalist needs to go deep into root causes.”

Writing that black students perform significantly worse than their white peers on standardized tests but failing to describe the factors that contribute to such a result does a disservice to readers, in general, as well as to the black community being described.

Journalists shape the public consciousness. Story after story describing low performance by black and brown students as though it occurs in a vacuum can perpetuate mistaken beliefs within the general population about the actual capacity of people of color. That’s bad for individuals and the nation as a whole.

Related Story: “Feel-Good” Philly School Story Highlights Concerns About Racial Blind Spots

Training programs can be enormously helpful in making journalists aware of racial blind spots and reporting pitfalls.

Theresa Harrington, a reporter for EdSource, attended a “Fault Lines” training several years ago through the Bay Area News Group that was facilitated by Martin Reynolds, who was an editor at the time.

Harrington remembers considering, among other things, real examples of Bay Area headlines that were insensitive or otherwise inappropriate but nonetheless made it into print. “It raised people’s awareness of things to consider,” Harrington said.

But few education journalists seem to be getting the kinds of diversity training and support that they might need.

EdSource hasn’t hosted any trainings like it since Harrington joined the staff. (Senior Editor Denise Zapata said via email that EdSource doesn’t have a coordinated effort to provide this type of professional development and she doesn’t know of any other news organizations that do.)

At Chalkbeat, editors there say that most of their attention on the issue has gone to diversifying a growing staff rather than offering formal trainings to increase capacity.

Education Week didn’t respond to comments about its history of diversity trainings – or lack thereof.

Fellowship programs like the Equity Reporting Project, the Reveal Investigative Fellowship, and the Hardship Reporting Project often include training along these lines but only reach a small number of reporters each year.

Indeed, a commitment to this type of training is exceedingly rare in traditional newsrooms.

In Charlotte, North Carolina, Race Matters for Juvenile Justice hosts widely respected Dismantling Racism workshops that the school district and police department have both attended. While reporters from The Charlotte Observer have lobbied to send journalists, the publisher is the only one to make time for the two-day workshop.

Ann Doss Helms, The Observer’s education reporter, said both her editor and the publisher have been supportive of the training in theory, but in practice, they haven’t been willing to invest the time and money to send journalists.  “Diversity is something we all agree is important, but not as important as staying in business,” Doss Helms said.

But many industries now consider increasing diversity a critical business strategy – not just for moral reasons but for their bottom lines. In journalism, better coverage because of greater diversity – and understanding of it – means connecting to more readers and increasing a subscriber base.

The Maynard Institute’s “Fault Lines” training can be tailored to local needs and availability. The five original fault lines identified by the Maynard Institute are race, class, gender, generation and geography. Now on staff at the Maynard Institute, Reynolds said workshops can be broadened to include even more areas of difference, including ability, sexuality or religion.

Related Story: Education Journalism’s Diversity Challenge

Exposure to these ideas is important. If nothing else, it can at least make very clear that people have blind spots and spur more humility in reporting.

“We all fall into these traps of coming at things from our perspective,” Reynolds said. “Fault Lines can help broaden that perspective.”

Developing this awareness “doesn’t have to be expensive or take huge chunks of time,” said Maynard Institute Executive Director Evelyn Hsu. “Some newsrooms have found lunchtime sessions to be effective.”

The Education Writers Association (EWA), too, is increasing its focus on this issue while arguably getting a slow start. Intended to help support and improve the quality of education journalism, EWA has offered various sessions on race and/or culture at each of the last three national seminars, though many of them have focused on diversity as a coverage topic rather than on building reporters’ skills addressing their own racial blind spots.*

A new EWA task force on diversity and inclusion has been convened, in part, to help ensure diverse perspectives and training opportunities are incorporated into this year’s programming. The task force held its first meeting earlier this month.

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Anyone can be trained to recognize some of their racial blind spots and develop the reflexes to address them. And black and brown reporters shouldn’t get a pass. They, too, have plenty to learn about how class, sexuality, ability, geography, and age may impact a story or the root causes of what we see in schools.

That’s the point, though. It takes training. And so far, schools seem to be doing a better job investing in this work than the news organizations that cover them and the support organizations designed to help improve education journalism.

*This sentence has been edited to describe EWA’s programming more clearly.

Tara García Mathewson is a Boston-based freelance education writer and 2017 EWA Reporting Fellow 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.

Previous columns: Education Journalism’s Diversity ChallengeDo The WorkCareful About That Dual Language Coverage!New Documentary Asks Basic Questions About School Reform

ALEXANDER RUSSO (@alexanderrusso) is editor of The Grade.

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