My View: Newsrooms must reflect folks they cover
Imagine you land your dream job, just out of college. As you nervously navigate those awkward first few days of work, getting to know your colleagues, you find a memo addressed to your new boss, mistakenly left on a copy machine, questioning your qualifications for the job. It's not your résumé or references at issue, but your gender and race.
That's how I started my tenure at The Chicago Reporter.
My first response was anger.
How ironic, I thought, to be hired by an esteemed magazine focused on race relations only to be the victim of reverse racism and sexism.
In hindsight, I've realized that the memo was not only appropriate, but necessary.
The Reporter staff in the mid-1980s was small: four full-time reporters and an editor. The journalist I was replacing was an African-American woman.
My hiring came just seven years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Allan Bakke, a white man twice denied admission to the California Medical School at Davis, had to be admitted — in part because the school had set aside several spots for minority applicants who scored much lower than Bakke in admission criteria.
Many critics of affirmative action cheered the decision, saying it showed the unfairness of "reverse discrimination."
It's true the court rejected the university's use of strict quotas, but it also upheld the core idea of affirmative action: that race can be considered as long as it is not the sole criteria.
I have no idea what, if any, response my boss made to the memo as, at the time, I never told anyone that I'd seen it. But I can imagine a spirited discussion about the need for diversity on a staff that covered race relations.
My hiring left the staff with just one woman and one African-American reporter in a city that was half female and 40 percent black. (The fifth staff member was Latino, making the staff slightly "overrepresented" in that demographic category).
On the other hand, I was the only reporter on staff to have grown up in Chicago's suburbs, an area of increased interest to the publication. That perspective proved useful during my six years on staff, as Chicago's minority population spread outside the city limits.
Over the past three decades, debates about newsroom diversity have continued. In her guest column for the Portland Tribune, writer Angela Uherbelau notes the underrepresentation of women, and particularly women of color, on the commentary pages of U.S. newspapers.
While Uherbelau praises me for reaching out to her, she's too kind. She's one of just three women of color whose bylines have appeared on these pages over the past 12 months. And, our record is no better when you flip to the news pages.
Why should a journalists' race, gender or sexual orientation matter? Because having a newsroom that reflects the communities you cover makes for better journalism.
As a white reporter, I've won awards for my coverage of African-American issues in Chicago and Portland. But there are many examples of sources opening up to reporters who could empathize better with their life experience. It's not an accident that the biggest "Me too" stories have been broken by female reporters.
But there's an even more compelling reason for newsrooms to practice affirmative action.
The practice of journalism has always been subjective, and there is no place more obvious than in the decisions about what we cover — and how we cover them.
Some news stories are generated by official events: meetings, protests, natural disasters.
But many of the best stories come from sources — people we either seek out or people who naturally circulate in our daily routines. Many of our best education stories, for example, come from reporters with school-age kids.
When newsrooms lack reporters of color, reporters with disabilities, reporters who know what it's like to grow up using food stamps, they are missing people whose life experiences generate different ideas and who view events through a different filter.
Uherbelau argues that we can't expect diverse voices to magically find their way to our opinion pages. We need to take affirmative action.
The same is true for our news pages. Our company recently has taken some initial steps to do that.
Some may argue that making a special effort to recruit specific categories of people is unfair, that merit alone should dictate bylines.
Standing at the copy machine at The Chicago Reporter, I certainly thought so.
But now I share Uherbelau's view: A news organization that lacks diversity is missing important stories. Our readers deserve a variety of perspectives, shaped by a variety of experiences. We can do better.