Diverse Sources Needed — Regardless of the Topic

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Stories about race aren’t the only ones that should quote people of color

By Tara García Mathewson

When education reporter Lillian Mongeau wrote a story for The Hechinger Report last month headlined “How to hire more black principals,” she quoted a black principal, a black teacher, a black student and a black CEO, along with a Latina professor and one white man.

When journalist Moriah Balingit wrote about the racial hiring bias in a Northern Virginia district for The Washington Post, she turned repeatedly to sources of color.

Reporters who write stories that are explicitly about race generally know they need to think about source diversity, specifically when it comes to the racial composition of the people they quote. Thanks, in part, to social media, the response is quick and fierce if white people are given exclusive rights to shape a conversation about people of color.

But the majority of stories are not explicitly about race. They are about policies, problems, new initiatives, successful programs, and other topics on which race or ethnicity is incidental.

Still, though, diversity of sources matters.

Latino parents and teachers care about more than bilingual education and immigration. Black parents and teachers care about more than the consequences of school segregation and neighborhood violence. And scholars of color conduct research on far more topics than just race.

But reporters across the field routinely pigeonhole these potential sources, leaving them out of the many stories about other issues.

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Once pointed out, the problem is obvious. And yet it’s still frustratingly common.

Dylan Peers McCoy’s recent piece for Chalkbeat and The Atlantic about how Indiana holds private schools accountable quotes what appears to be a stable of white men who lead schools, boards and associations.

Anya Kamenetz’s article for NPR about Florida’s voucher program and students with special needs is similarly packed with white sources.

And on, and on, and on.

[See this March column featuring the NYT’s Erica Green on source diversity.]

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Reporters need to think about source diversity when they write every story. But too often they don’t.

Kamenetz declined to comment for this column, and Peers McCoy did not respond to a request. But a review of articles that aren’t specifically about race by almost any outlet on any day will reveal narratives that seem to be chock-full of white sources.

“We’re geared to cover that bureaucracy because it’s central, it’s convenient, it provides ready sourcing… We are slaves to the structure.” – University of Texas journalism professor George Sylvie

There are three main reasons for this trend, the first of which comes down to ease of access.

George Sylvie, an associate professor in the journalism school at the University of Texas at Austin, said professional standards tend to send reporters to “official” sources. As long as qualified people of color are locked out of opportunities for hiring or advancement, inadvertently or not, the ranks of official sources will continue to be dominated by white people.

While fewer than half of U.S. students are white, the vast majority of their teachers and an even larger portion of their administrators are. These are the people education journalists talk to for most of their day-to-day stories, which Sylvie says tend to be about the “corporations that run schools,” rather than education itself.

“We’re geared to cover that bureaucracy because it’s central, it’s convenient, it provides ready sourcing,” Sylvie said. “We are slaves to the structure.”

Time, of course, is another impediment. It can take longer to pay attention to source diversity, to cultivate a diverse network, and to ensure that diversity is reflected in published pieces.

And implicit biases form a third barrier.

It seems obvious to seek out black sources to comment on harsh discipline policies that disproportionately impact black students. Why doesn’t it seem just as obvious to contact a black source to talk about the opportunity afforded by a new STEM program in a local high school?

[See this previous column for ideas about how to diversify your networks and source lists.]

It’s not easy

I get it. Reporters are looking for the best quotes, they often need to find people who will get back to them on deadline, and they consider competing elements of diversity when crafting a story, like gender.

And it may not be as bad as it seems. There are times when a story seems to be devoid of diverse voices even though a reporter actually did the extra legwork attempting to be inclusive.

I get it. Reporters are looking for the best quotes, they often need to find people who will get back to them on deadline, and they consider competing elements of diversity when crafting a story, like gender.

Stuart Miller’s piece for The Hechinger Report and The Atlantic about multiage classrooms fits the bill.

Miller said by phone that he took on an assignment to explore the model at the Francis W. Parker Charter Essential School, about 40 miles northwest of Boston.

Miller is from Brooklyn, and besides being surrounded by diversity his whole life, Miller said his work as a freelancer pushes him to tell stories others aren’t telling, which often means an angle about race. He was a little shocked by the very white, suburban demographic at Parker — so he expanded the story.

Miller found the Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School in the Bronx, which combines ninth and 10th graders, and he opted for a second school visit to round out his reporting.

“I sought that out as kind of a balance for the story,” Miller said, adding that it turned out to be really important, specifically in terms of grappling with the replicability of a program otherwise featured in a homogenous, small-town school.

In the end, Miller’s attempts to bring people of color to the forefront of the story were foiled. A Latina teacher he interviewed at Fannie Lou Hamer got pulled away for a meeting, and he didn’t get very good quotes from her in the time they had. The parents of one student he planned to feature ended up pulling their permission at the last minute. All of the administrators he spoke with in both schools were white. Same for the researchers he called to add context.

Still the piece does reflect Miller’s attention to diversity, and, while some readers might not have noticed if he had profiled a predominantly white school and left it at that, his inclusion of Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School changed the story. Even if it meant doing a little more work.

“It’s incumbent on the reporter,” Miller said. “I don’t think you can make every story perfectly balanced … but I think you can just try to make sure that other voices … are being heard in a way that ensures the story is really being told to the fullest.”

We all lose

When reporters leave source diversity to stories explicitly about race, that often means asking people of color to comment solely on achievement gaps, injustices, or some type of dysfunction in their communities. Besides the fact that people of color have much more to add to local and national conversations, this contributes to skewed coverage.

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 Latinos made it into barely eight-tenths of one percent of evening news programs. And overwhelmingly, the stories that did make it on air framed Latinos as people who either had problems or caused problems.

That means viewers get a splintered picture of the Latino community, absent the success stories or individual contributions.

“They get the stereotypes but not the big picture,” Subervi said by phone. At the same time, Latinos are forced to overcome misrepresentations about their culture in their daily lives. For children, this can be particularly detrimental.

“They are in the midst of struggling to value who and what they are, to get recognition for who and what they are,” Subervi said.

Increasing the variety of sources represented in our stories certainly won’t solve all of journalism’s diversity problems, as this 2016 Current article notes, but it will go a long way toward improving overall coverage.

Journalists shape people’s worldviews. Good journalism accurately reflects communities, it incorporates a diverse range of sources and it tells stories that move beyond stereotypes. The best education journalists talk to parents and students, they go beyond administrators and find teachers, they seek out sources through churches or community organizations. They choose to cover diverse schools and districts, where it’s not actually all that hard to find sources of color.

And this isn’t just about doing the right thing. As the nation gets ever more diverse, keeping readers, listeners and viewers will increasingly depend on including people of color in every story, not just the ones that deal with race.

Tara García Mathewson is a Boston-based 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 by García Mathewson:

Education Journalism’s Diversity Challenge
Do The Work
Why So Little Diversity Training For Education Journalists?
Careful About That Dual-Language Coverage!

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

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