How can newsrooms better report on, and collaborate with, communities of color—and radically improve decades of poor coverage?
These are the questions that animate the work of Dr. Letrell Crittenden, director of inclusion and audience growth at the American Press Institute. He has spearheaded the launch of the API Inclusion Index, to assess and improve newsrooms’ coverage of communities of color.
Focused on five news organizations in Pittsburgh, the scheme partners with the Pittsburgh Black Media Federation to analyze coverage of communities of color—identifying failures and strengths of reporting—and develop strategies to transform years of neglect.
Crittenden was previously a fellow at the Tow Center, where he studied Pittsburgh’s media ecosystem and its problem with covering race and retaining reporters of color. Now, at API, he’s working to build a better, fairer media landscape in the city.
Recently, I spoke to Crittenden about the project’s aims, what motivates him and the cost of newsrooms not acting.
The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
JB: To kick off, can you talk about your journey to the American Press Institute?
LC: I’ve been the director of inclusion and audience growth since September 2021. My goal—first as a journalist, then transitioning into the academy, and now at API—has been to ensure newsrooms provide better, more comprehensive and fairer coverage of communities of color, particularly African American communities. That’s why I got into journalism. And it’s also why I left journalism.
At my last newsroom job, as a police and courts reporter in upstate New York, a Black pastor came up to me one day and said, to paraphrase, “You’re racist.” At first I was like, what do you mean, I’m the only Black person in the newsroom. But he was critiquing my coverage. And he was right. Because my work was perpetuating stereotypes about African Americans on a regular basis, for instance some of the only coverage of communities of color was covering crime. That interaction became a foundational moment in my career—making me realize it’s not enough for me to be African American in a newsroom. Systemic issues like training, mentorship and community engagement and trust-building all contribute to poor and unfair coverage.
JB: Can you outline for readers your current project with API, the Inclusion Index?
LC: Journalism really needs better ways to evaluate issues related to diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging. As a Tow Center fellow, I called for the creation of a rubric, to look at five different areas of concern. What’s the diversity of your newsroom? How inclusive is your newsroom—do people of color feel they can thrive, produce their best work, belong? What is your representation—how do you cover communities of color, are you stereotyping, what sourcing is being used? What type of trust do communities of color have for your product—is it something they rely on or engage with? What type of engagement work does your newsroom have?
The API rubric adds to that and judges newsrooms on a scale of one to five. We take a look at each of these areas, and others, and then we put out a grade based on our index, and then offer recommendations.
JB: Your project partnered with five news organizations in Pittsburgh to analyze their coverage of communities of color. I wondered how receptive the editors and reporters you spoke to were. Were they enthusiastic or did you encounter resistance?
LC: Excellent question. There were newsrooms that were much more reluctant to do this work individually. But that’s why a cohort process is beneficial. After we analyze each newsroom, we do a write up for the entire ecosystem, in this case Pittsburgh.
Once these newsrooms started to hear each other’s challenges and successes, it really invigorated them to take the process seriously. Newsrooms saw not only their deficits, but that change was achievable. We ran a community listening session with the newsrooms. Then we worked with consultants to develop a plan of action, a strategy, where each newsroom came up with three achievable policies within the next six to twelve months. I was very pleased to see they were dedicated to devoting the time and resources to making changes in their engagement with communities of color.
JB: A tenet of your research is that diversity is severely lacking in newsrooms, but even when there is diversity it’s not the end of the conversation—there’s still a lack of inclusivity, lack of mentorship, lack of empowerment on editorial decisions for journalists of color. How do these subtler elements impact coverage?
LC: Firstly, in terms of why you need more diversity. If you take a look at the unfortunate situation that happened recently with the police in Memphis [in which five Black police officers have been charged with murder after Tyre Nichols died three days after being severely beaten], diversity does not necessarily result in the type of transformation that is necessary to better connect and work with communities of color. If all you’re really doing is bringing people of color into a flawed institution, forcing them to abide by its norms, you are not impacting change. It’s like, if you have a salad that tastes bad, and your solution is just to throw some croutons on top. In reality, you’re not going to transform that bad dish into a good one by changing one thing. It’s the same with newsrooms.
JB: Is that how you felt personally as a Black reporter in the newsroom?
LC: Yes. A couple years ago, research from Carla Murphy looked at journalists of color who left the industry and why. I am one of the leavers, I left back in 2003. I was the only African American in my newsroom. I did not receive mentorship, and I was repeatedly doing stories that I felt were harmful to communities of color. I would make my concerns known, yet no changes were made.
JB: Can you give an example of the type of stories you’re talking about?
LC: I was once asked to do a story about a young African American man who had been murdered just hours previously. And the newsroom insisted that I talked to the family. But the family did not want to talk yet. Throughout the course of the day, I was asked to go back to that home of that grieving family two other times to “get a quote”. I was committing harm to that family. I was being forced to violate this family’s grieving process. It exacerbated the lack of trust in the media. And for what? A quote in a story. Even today, I still think about this. I was being harmed, too. That was the worst day of my life as a journalist and I never want anybody else to ever have to deal with that.
It’s one of the major reasons that I’m committed to this work, because it’s essential that we really rethink how we approach such sensitive stories. For me, it represented the mentality newsrooms take dealing with communities of color, following a formula that doesn’t take into account the harm that you’re causing to communities. These types of processes need to be eliminated, for the sake of building trust and real connections with marginalized communities.
JB: When you left journalism and became an academic, you did research at the Tow Center on how Pittsburgh newsrooms lacked diversity and inclusion. You encountered some resistance from white journalists, who raised the idea it takes “reporting grit” to excel in the newsroom. How does a concept like that inherently foster a white perspective?
LC: In terms of “grit,” journalists of color are basically told to toughen up and deal with whatever challenges they face. Whether it’s covering terrible stories, not having their voice heard, not receiving mentorship, not receiving a decent wage. And the idea is, well, this is just what people have to go through. The onus is on the journalist to adapt to the newsroom and adhere to its social norms. This is why people of color leave newsrooms. And I think, since the pandemic, more reporters are saying no to that. They’re not going to accept a toxic work environment. But the effect further reduces the amount of diversity inside of newsrooms, reduces the amount of connection to communities of color, and perpetuates harm.
JB: What are some of the recommendations you’ve suggested for newsrooms to start rectifying that harm?
LC: In Pittsburgh, one recommendation was creating local pipelines of talent. People of color want to live in areas where they can thrive. Despite its ‘livable’ reputation, one study put Pittsburgh as one of the worst places for people of color, women especially, to live in the nation. Black reporters are leaving the city, and recruitment has been short-term. People who have roots within a community are far more likely to stay—which helps engagement, trust and knowledge of a community. So for newsrooms: can you start hiring, not even from local diverse colleges, but starting even in high schools to cultivate talent from that particular region, to address this staff turnover gap?
Another recommendation was collaboration with the community. We ran community listening sessions in Pittsburgh, with the five newsrooms, so local people could get a sense of how the entire news ecosystem was trying to change, and could help steer fairer coverage. A further recommendation was building infrastructures to allow your newsrooms to thrive. Burnout, low pay, lack of mentorship, a lack of connection to colleagues—these were significant issues in our research. So editors really need to take stock of how they’re integrating people of color into their newsroom. Training, mentorship and tailored support are all needed. What made the Pittsburgh project so important was that it was an ecosystem-wide analysis. We didn’t just look at one newsroom in the city, we looked at five. We identified how they as a collective could work together for better coverage.
Finally, we stressed collaboration across newsrooms. Reporters often say they don’t have time for engagement. But collaboration with things like community listening, community advisory groups and other training can help save time and improve trust within communities on a grand scale. That’s what happened in Pittsburgh with this project.
JB: Finally, what’s next for the API Inclusion Index?
LC: We’re evaluating the program internally, doing things to tweak it and make it even better. And this is not a one-and-done program, we’ll be following the newsrooms we’ve worked with already to see how we can assist them going forward, starting with more listening work. we’re also looking for other news ecosystems to work with—like Pittsburgh—which brings greater chance of transforming not only the individual newsrooms, but how the entire ecosystem evolves in its relationship with communities of color. So we’re on the lookout for that.Jem Bartholomew is a Reporting Fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism. Jem’s work has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, Guardian, Economist, TIME, New York Magazine and others. In 2019, he was awarded Best Newcomer in the State Street press awards.