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Finding diverse sources isn’t always easy — but it isn’t optional

By Tara García Mathewson

Reporter Kyle Spencer often finds herself in rooms interviewing people who don’t look like her or share her background. A white education reporter covering issues of equity, she routinely speaks with parents who are Asian, black or Latino. She doesn’t get the benefit of an immediate cultural connection that can help build trust. Sometimes she thinks that holds her back.

In fact, seeing reporters of color produce nuanced pieces that reveal their deep understanding of complex, race-based issues can make Spencer doubt her role in a field that increasingly hinges on the experiences of nonwhite families — even though she is published in The New York Times, The Hechinger Report and other major outlets

“There are moments I’m like ‘Why am I even doing this?’” she admits.

But Spencer is among those white education reporters who proves one does not have to be a part of a racial or ethnic community to cover it well — which is important, since the vast majority of education journalists are white and just more than half of the K-12 student population is not.

What’s Spencer’s reporting secret? Humility, mainly. She recognizes her own blind spots and acknowledges them explicitly with her sources — all the while highlighting her commitment to understanding their lives.

“If I feel like my whiteness is getting in the way, I’ll remind them and I’ll remind myself — and I’ll say this out loud — ‘I cannot know what this experience is for you, but I can listen,’” Spencer says.

This simple, frank admission highlights Spencer’s commitment to understanding her source’s reality. And beyond the commitment, it shows she knows there is work to be done, something that can go a long way toward gaining a source’s trust across racial or ethnic lines.

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Of course, having these conversations depends on actually getting in a room or on the phone with sources of color in the first place. Some reporters still don’t always do that.

Earlier this school year, education reporter Kristen Graham was singled out by NYT Magazine reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones and others for her piece that ran in the Philadelphia Inquirer that focused on a white family and didn’t include interviews with black parents or educators.

Just a couple of weeks ago, The Grade editor Alexander Russo, who routinely takes other reporters to task for being racially tone-deaf in their writing, was called out by Atlantic contributor Melinda Anderson for publishing a post-election column without citing a single person of color.

Jamaal Abdul-Alim, a senior staff writer for Diverse: Issues in Higher Education, says he reached out to a number of experts about the higher education platform of then-presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump and heard back from black and Latino representatives late or past his deadline.

A similar complaint by NPR Ed reporter Anya Kamenetz created a mini-controversy in 2014 after she complained on Twitter that diverse sources don’t get back to her on deadline.

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While Abdul-Alim tries to make sure the sources he features in his stories are diverse, he says he doesn’t care about a person’s color when he’s on deadline. “I call people who are likely to call me back or email me back,” he said.

Reporters aren’t always on deadline, though. That’s when they can develop a more diverse source network.

Oftentimes, a lack of source diversity comes from a gap in awareness. Reporters don’t know where to find sources of color.

There are resources out there that can help. The Education Writers Association hosted a panel at its 2016 National Seminar to help reporters think about cultural sensitivity. Its source search tool allows journalists to filter results by diversity and demographics. Latino experts can also be found through the National Latino Education Network. The Society of Professional Journalists’ Rainbow Diversity Sourcebook allows reporters to search by topic and minority voice. NAACP and LULAC (League of United Latin American Citizens) chapters can offer connections to local leaders. The same is true for community centers in immigrant enclaves and ethnic churches.

Students of color are now the majority in U.S. schools. Every education trend or challenge impacts them. That means voices from their communities should make it into education stories of all kinds.

If you don’t know the leaders for the various racial and ethnic groups in your community, you’re behind. If you can’t name any national-level education experts of color, it’s time to do some research. And if you only call on these people for stories that explicitly deal with race or ethnicity, you’re doing it wrong.

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Yes, this takes work. Journalists of color often have an easier time covering communities they are culturally a part of. People generally trust people who look like them. As a Spanish-speaking Latina reporter, I get the luxury of an immediate connection with Spanish-speaking sources, particularly those from the Caribbean or Central America, where I have personal connections.

But journalists put in the hard work required to produce better stories all the time. They show up to talk to people in person who don’t return their calls. They pore through data to identify hidden cases of fraud. They do more research than they could ever fit into their published articles.

Now reporters need to turn that work ethic toward sourcing.

Education reporting in 2016 means telling the stories of people of color. Prioritizing source diversity might make reporting take longer and it could require uncomfortable conversations — but the effort should no longer be considered optional.

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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.

Previous columns: Education Journalism’s Diversity Challenge

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

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