Against the Riptide

Rather than simply criticize a report's omissions, two journalists plan to create their own complementary version

On September 9, three fellows at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center and Nieman Journalism Lab published Riptide, an “oral history of the epic collision between journalism and digital technology, from 1980 to the present.” In crafting that history, the three authors interviewed 61 media movers and shakers from the past three decades. Of those 61, five were (white) women, two were men of color, and zero were women of color.

To the many people who spent the next few days skewering the report’s omissions and offering up innovative women and people of color that were excluded, Riptide doesn’t come close to telling the whole story of how journalism and tech innovated and intertwined. So a couple of those critics decided to conduct their own complementary study.

Jeanne Brooks, the digital director of the Online News Association, and Sabrina Hersi Issa, a media entrepreneur and Roosevelt Institute Pipeline fellow, are searching for funding to create a report that includes a full, diverse spectrum of change-makers in digital journalism. They hope to compile and launch it next year.

“Everyone was asking me who should be on the list,” Brooks said. “But it takes a lot of work and it takes time out of your day just to do that research. And I’ve been pushing back to say, these men got their research supported… I don’t want to do this work for free.”

Brooks added that getting the journalism world at large engaged in addressing diversity is a struggle—in her three years with ONA, she said, association panels and speeches addressing the issue have been sparsely attended. By way of example, Brooks mentioned ONA’s 2011 conference, where one of the keynotes was about … the history of women and people of color in digital journalism. The speech was well-attended, she said. But for the following work session, on meaningfully integrating diversity into newsrooms, “there was no more than 10 people in this giant ballroom.”

Beyond gender and ethnic diversity, Brooks said that she and Hersi Issa plan to focus their study on influential players who were overlooked because their contributions to news production and consumption “fall outside of the mainstream definition of journalism,” she said—early blogs like Feministing, for instance, addressed and analyzed issues getting little attention elsewhere.

Finally, though noting that Riptide has a beautiful design and navigation, Brooks said that she wants her project to be accessible to populations outside the wonky journalism community that appeared to be the intended audience for Riptide. “I would strive to identify solutions that would share that information in places where communities are,” she said. “Maybe that looks like a public art project, or maybe that looks more like designing a mobile app.”

Whatever it looks like, and however the duo funds it, a fuller oral history of digital media would be a solid strike against an ever-present myth that the mansplainers’ perspective is everyone’s reality and experience.

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Kira Goldenberg was an associate editor at CJR from 2012-2015. Follow her on Twitter at @kiragoldenberg. Tags: ,