Sourcing Diversity: WHYY and the rocky road to “cultural competency”

Studio microphone | Adobe Stock

As much of the local news industry struggles for survival, public media—and public radio in particular—have occupied an enviable place of comparative stability. Stations do struggle for resources, but compared to their comrades in newspaper, the outlook has been less grim on the whole. Many have pointed to public radio’s membership strategy as a model to consider, and as a way to build loyalty and trust with audiences.There is indeed a great deal to be learned from public radio, but it must be done alongside a significant home truth:[1] Public radio continues to struggle with deeply entrenched issues of race and class. At the national level, it has been estimated that 87% of National Public Radio (NPR) listeners are white.[2] NPR’s audience are 129% more likely to be “top management,” and 380% more likely to have a doctorate degree than the average U.S. population, according to its own public statistics.[3] As of July 2018 In Philadelphia, a city where only 34% of the population is non-Hispanic white,[4] the public media outlet WHYY had a newsroom staff that was 80% white, and none of the regular local on-air radio hosts were people of color.[5] When WHYY conducted an online survey, only 5% of Black respondents expressed any awareness of the radio station (more were familiar with WHYY’s public television station),[6] and almost 80% of their listeners were white.[7]

At the same time, some of the most innovative efforts to systematically challenge habits of journalism that reinforce whiteness are taking place within public radio. At the national level, NPR has taken a number of steps to offer more nuanced coverage of communities of color (though not without some controversy). Our study, however, focuses at the local level, following the efforts of WHYY public radio’s newsroom. Over the past year and a half, I have used a combination of ethnographic observation and interviews[8] to follow WHYY’s effort to increase what they call “cultural competency”—–a term they define as “understanding the nuances of the communities we cover, building relationships that further our knowledge and ability to accurately cover these communities, and recognizing and doing something about our own skewed lenses and how they impact the narratives we present.”[9]

The WHYY team sees this concept as informing their practices of news production (especially sourcing), their engagement with the region’s many diverse communities, and their recruitment, hiring, and retention of staff from a range of backgrounds. The cultural competency initiative began with a series of foundation-supported deliverables including trainings and outreach events, but following the conclusion of the initial grant, it has transitioned into an on-going effort by the vice president for news and civic dialogue and key team members. They have sought to transform the initiative from a project to a process of institutional change.

In what follows, I explore how change is negotiated in the newsroom and in community outreach activities—where it is incorporated into systems, and points of resistance and friction. Through this, I note where these efforts do and do not challenge journalistic and institutional norms that buttress whiteness.

Some of the key lessons learned from observing WHYY’s efforts include:

  • Processes that involve reporters and editors in auditing and tracking the diversity of their sources offer a potential pathway to encouraging reflexivity among participating journalists and increasing the range of voices included in stories.
  • Monitoring the quantity alone of sources of color will not address problematic narratives—or at whom those narratives are directed. In this case, journalists of color said they felt that narratives were often being crafted about communities of color but not for them.
  • To build trust across boundaries of race and class, public radio will need to go beyond covering communities of color with an elite white audience in mind. This requires narrowing the distance not only between these communities and reporters, but also the editors assigning and guiding stories. Such a change will require an adjustment of how public radio stations conceive of their membership.
  • Engagement and community outreach would help public radio accomplish these goals. But outreach initiatives will not have a sustainable impact so long as the people responsible for this work are siloed from core newsroom operations and hold limited power.
  • Foundations supporting journalism should look for ways to support mid-career and senior journalists of color, particularly editors, in legacy newsrooms. These roles play critical roles in shaping editorial direction and mentorship. Because there are fewer journalists of color in these roles, those journalists shoulder a heavy load in supporting new journalists of color.
  • There are limits to what can be achieved so long as organizational structures and the demographics of the workplace remain relatively unchanged. Given that cultures of whiteness have been entrenched since the inception of most newsrooms, changing the culture of institutions requires a long-term investment in implementing cultural competency at all levels of news organizations—not only in the newsroom itself.

 

A seminar on sourcing practices

“To make diversity count, keep a count,” said the consultant leading a cultural competency training for staff at WHYY.[10] The consultant shared examples tracking whose voices get heard on air. As part of the cultural competency project, WHYY had also conducted one of these “source audits.” Adapting the framework used by NPR[11], they noted the backgrounds of interviewees heard during local programs over the course of three randomly constructed weeks over a three-month period. In addition to noting race, gender, and geographic location, they tracked the role the source played in the story with options including: doer/subject, explainer/analyst/expert, reactor/opinion/comment, affected, reporter, and host. They also recorded the themes of the stories and organizational and political affiliation of the person, if known.

The team organizing the cultural competency project strategized how to best share the results with WHYY reporters and editors. Overall, the results were not particularly flattering: 80% of the sources logged were non-Hispanic white. White voices were especially over-represented in categories like expert, where 78% were white. Concerned that staff would react defensively, the results were contextualized as part of a larger training with a consultant who shared how NPR and other stations had been grappling with findings that similarly overrepresented white sources.

Staff members sat in rows of chairs facing a powerpoint display, sipping coffee as they waited for the mandatory training to begin. Once underway, the trainer explained how various programs at NPR had responded to their results where white voices were similarly overrepresented. Many of the NPR teams had undertaken “experiments” aimed at adjusting their habits to include more sources of color and women. The trainer shared the example of one of these experiments, which sought to guide journalists to build lists of sources by calling people they already talked to and asking, “who do you know and respect on this topic who is also a woman or a person of color?” The trainer explained the importance of investing time into building these contacts when not under deadline pressure to call a familiar source. Some WHYY staffers expressed concern that explicitly asking people to refer them to sources of color required them to talk about race in ways that made them uncomfortable. Several were concerned that they would make people feel tokenized. The trainer gave suggestions for how to explain that they were contacting people because of the prospective source’s qualifications but also so the journalists could include a fuller representation in their programming. The group also discussed how a number of NPR shows and stations went beyond these initial experiments to keep an ongoing tally to monitor their sources.

Several WHYY staffers perceived problems in trying to include a more diverse pool of voices on air. One person said for their topical beat, “every professor in the region is a white guy.” Another added, “even when we find someone [who is not white and male] we tend to rely too much on them.” The trainer led a discussion about how some fields posed unusual challenges—how politics tended to be even more white and male than a field such as religion or medicine. The group then discussed how they could benefit from considering expertise that didn’t come from academia or think tanks, places that tended to be disproportionately white and male. As the trainer explained, sourcing choices that at first glance seemed objective were not. “You may think you haven’t made a racial or gender decision by talking to a professor,” he said, “but you have.”

The trainer encouraged the group to consider showing the diversity of the community rather than attempting to be directly proportional. One staff member, who was white, asked how they could represent communities of color if they were looking at a phenomenon, such as the concerns of cyclists, where the majority of people involved were white.The trainer, who was Black, responded, “My experience of Philadelphia is not the data. It’s my world. My world is Blacker than yours might be.” For example, he said, “If you want to see a Native American in the news you better not look at them by demographics. You’re going to have to overrepresent them in the coverage.”

The training also included discussions of sample stories that addressed racist attitudes and behaviors toward people of color using different approaches. The trainer attempted to highlight the importance of asking questions, like “what do you mean,” when sources make problematic statements about people of color, or identifying that a source was white when relevant. However, several staff members, all white, took the conversation in a different direction by focusing on their concern that the reporter in one of the examples would be perceived to be biased because she drew attention to the problematic and inaccurate statements of white conservatives in the story.

One person said, “this is why people don’t trust us.” Another complained that stories about bigotry spotlighted the fringe as if to say, “look at these people. Look how terrible they are.” The staff in the workshop focused on trust exclusively among white conservatives, rather than trust among communities of color. And this was not the only instance where concerns over perceived political bias were raised. One staffer raised concerns that efforts to cover progressive perspectives and to include “the ostracized” may have the effect of alienating “the majority.” And even the head of the station expressed concern that the station was perceived as sounding “too politically liberal.” Again, during this particular training, the focus of the module was intended to be on addressing racism and bigotry directed against people of color. But by shifting the focus of the conversation to the political sensitivities of potential conservative white listeners, the participants in effect re-centered whiteness.

After the training, the trainer explained that the conversation went differently than it usually had with the unexpected focus on trust and political ideology. But he said the conversation revealed a lot of areas that would benefit from follow up: “I thought the questions and the observations in both of these sessions were themselves revealing challenges in everything from the kind of framing of the people who are doing the storytelling, to the kind of larger understandings of difference.” He noted that one  reporter had asked a question about choosing who to talk to, saying, “‘I can go back to the Black guy on the bus, or I can talk to the well-educated…’ You know, it’s when people don’t hear that sort of parsing of humans that happened in that sentence.” The trainer explained that when he did a longer week-long seminar, he would have spent time just talking about that one sentence, and the problematic assumptions the reporter had made in it, but that wasn’t possible in a half-day session.

Following this initial training, the managers of the cultural competency initiative convened all programming staff and assigned each work unit to set goals for making their sourcing better reflect the community, and to come up with an experiment to meet their goals. The experiments the teams generated varied. Most of the proposals spoke of increasing the diversity of voices featured on air. Half of the projects talked about “diverse” people and perspectives rather than denoting specific goals in terms of race or ethnicity. “Diverse people” was often used as a stand in for any non-white person, in a way that unintentionally re-centered whiteness. Some projects outlined more granular actions for particular roles, such as for news reporters. One project suggested the following:

Each reporter will:

a) Identify one diverse person or organization on their beat that they have not used before and arrange an in-person conversation. This is to get into the community more and get ideas for future stories or sources.
b) Identify two regular sources on their beat and find a diverse alternative.[12]

Other projects simply stated their goals, such as, “develop sources who are women scientists.”

Four months later, WHYY brought the cultural competency trainer back to the station to discuss the results of the different team’s experiments around sourcing.[13] Most teams reported success  in improving the diversity of sources in their programs. On the news side, editors said they had tried to be more mindful of how to adjust deadlines when possible to make it more likely to include voices from communities of color. One editor spoke of trying to give reporters the time and space to go to community meetings even when they weren’t sure they would generate a story. This editor also said they had changed coverage after getting input from a manager of color at WHYY. In this instance, the change allowed them to shift from covering a story from a gun violence lens to covering the story from a community lens. Another editor said they had held off running a story until they could get voices from key stakeholders who were people of color, in this case parents in a story about police in schools. This editor also said they were thinking about upcoming local election coverage and planned to talk to voters of color, particularly if the candidates running were not “diverse.”

Others shared examples of limitations they faced. One producer explained that most of what they called “two-way” interviews—interviews between the host and reporters—were with white males, “because that’s who’s in our newsroom.” Another person said she had felt awkward asking people how they identified. “One of the things I’ve been taught is, it’s not what you are, it’s who you are,” she said. The trainer responded to this by suggesting that asking a source about race should begin with a clear statement of intent about how WHYY is trying to represent the whole of Philadelphia, what they need to do that, and how they’ll use that information. The trainer also described potentially helpful strategies that had helped other stations in the public radio system, many of whom he met with.

Connecting to communities

This initial training on sourcing was followed by another session that included discussion of implicit bias and microagressions, and was attended by  journalists from other Philadelphia area newsrooms as well as some WHYY personnel. During the cultural competency project, WHYY also held a series of initiatives to strengthen relationships between WHYY and local communities, supplementing the engagement and outreach work WHYY journalists were already doing. These initiatives included community storytelling events highlighting the experiences of residents—including residents from immigrant backgrounds and survivors of gun violence.

The team also organized workshops where residents were invited to come and learn storytelling skills. Small groups of residents worked with a trainer to talk about stories related to their lives and communities, and how they could develop them. The Producer/Editor of Community Media then followed up with some of these participants to see if they would be interested in working with her to tell their stories for WHYY. Workshops were held in community spaces located in neighborhoods that were considered to be more marginalized.

The project also followed up on the initial staff training by bringing reporters and editors to different communities to talk with community representatives. These included a visit to Germantown, a majority Black neighborhood where previous research found that residents perceived coverage of their community as overly negative and focused on crime. They met with community organization representatives and advocates. Much of the discussion centered around questions of sourcing and representation. In these meetings, community members stressed building relationships with a wider spectrum of people in Germantown. But when WHYY journalists asked about their recommendations for sources, they did not offer direct suggestions. Instead, they stressed the need for journalists to first invest time in showing up and spending time in the neighborhood, building relationships, and earning trust. Following this discussion, a few of the reporters looked into stories about this neighborhood. One reporter returned to the area to meet a community representative about a potential story about a lack of resources for cyclists. But wires seem to have crossed: The journalist said that after the community member showed him around the area, he didn’t find a newsworthy story, but he did not communicate this to the community member. Meanwhile, the community member expressed frustration with the reporter’s assumptions about the neighborhood. The community member complained, “Journalists come in with assumptions even after having a conversation about the assumptions.”[14]

Other follow-ups were more constructive. After another reporter did a story about a proposed development in the neighborhood, he and his editors were invited to come discuss the story with community members as part of a community journalism project. At the session, residents gave feedback, positive and negative, as well as suggestions for additional stories. Crucially, the reporter was asked why WHYY tended to quote the same people—specifically a community leader who was present in the room. The leader even agreed and said that she often suggested that journalists might want to talk to someone else. The reporter responded that “she gives good quotes.” The audience bristled at this, saying that this could be problematic and reinforce tendencies to highlight people seen as able to speak in soundbites. The WHYY journalists and community members in the room discussed the challenges radio journalists faced reporting on deadline, but also agreed that this was an area that deserved follow-up. Afterwards, the head of the cultural competency effort agreed that WHYY would benefit from follow-up training.

While this work was positioned within a larger framework of WHYY’s commitment to community engagement, several staff members identified internal disconnects regarding the meaning and value of this work. Some reporters seemed to disengage during trainings or meetings related to community engagement or cultural competency, they said.

One staffer suggested that for such reporters, success was measured by page views rather than sustainable relationships. Community engagement was only considered if it was something that could be done in the time they had available, and if it “continued a narrative…in line with their pitch.” The staffer noted that the time-consuming work of engagement often did not fit reporting habits that focused on short-term products: “There was a basic acknowledgement that it could be helpful, but an unwillingness to change the way that they were doing things,” they said. Several noted ambiguity in how engagement was defined, with some equating it with social media management. Because of these communication gaps, while the initiative taught community outreach and engagement, these skills were not seen as a core part of journalism for many.

 

Connecting to journalists of color

The cultural competency project also offered a series of trainings in radio skills primarily for local journalists of color who were either freelancers or from external publications. One of the barriers to including more voices of color on air had been a sense among management that few local journalists of color had backgrounds in radio production. The workshop focused on the basics of radio storytelling, discussing story examples, brainstorming story ideas, and developing technical skills. As the VP of News and Civic Dialogue explained, another goal was “to send a message that our doors are open at WHYY.”[15]

One participant, a veteran journalist originally from Mexico, said she appreciated the training though she felt she needed more hands-on practice with the recording equipment. She had been able to write some online articles for WHYY but had not yet been able to work on an on-air segment. She hoped the station would include more Spanish-language or bilingual programming in the future, and she was eager to collaborate with WHYY to increase the representation of Latinx communities: “I think we need to continue this for a while, because … I think the American people need to know more about us.”[16]

A young Black journalist said the training exceeded her expectations. She was also new to audio, but when she pitched a freelance story, she said the station sent a producer out to help her record. “I felt more comfortable, because for my first story they sent me out with somebody … So, all I had to do was get used to asking the questions.”[17] With her experience in training and freelancing, she found a job that involved audio, albeit in another state. She hoped WHYY would hire more reporters of color full-time. This latter dilemma was the goal of another participant, also a Black reporter. “I just wanted to get in the building,” he explained. [18] In the end his efforts paid off, and he was eventually hired, first as a freelancer and later as staff—one of the most concrete outcomes in terms of creating a pipeline for journalists of color to access the newsroom.

 

Whiteness and institutional culture

Getting journalists of color in the door did not solve the station’s cultural competency problems.The overall structures of the newsroom and its demographic make-up were difficult to change. Communities of color struggled for representation in part because of the composition of the newsroom and who directed the editorial processes. At WHYY, the vice president of news and civic dialogue was a Black woman, as was the editor of one national program. But apart from this, the day-to-day newsroom editors who vetted local story ideas and managed the pitching process were all white. There had been an ongoing effort to train and recruit more people of color into the newsroom, and their ranks included a reporter and a few freelancers, part-timers, and interns, but these new positions lacked editorial decision-making power. At the same time, in the year and a half that I was observing the cultural competency efforts, several more experienced journalists of color left the organization.

Because of this ebb and flow, the overall percentage of journalists of color did not change much over the course of the project. But as the newsroom’s sole Black vice president explained, WHYY has changed in ways that go beyond these numbers: “When the representation of people of color is so low to begin with, one or two people leaving makes it hard to demonstrably shift our numbers. But the overall makeup of this newsroom is very different now.”

Despite this, nearly all of the staff and freelancers of color I spoke with expressed some lingering frustrations with navigating the existing editorial structures—particularly when trying to get stories on air about communities of color. Several said the process of pitching story ideas left them feeling that their perspectives were not valued. “When your entire editorial staff happened to be straight white people… trying to explain to them why certain things are important is difficult,”[19] one person explained. She had pitched a story that she believed was a big story for Philadelphia’s Black community, the city’s largest demographic. She said her editors didn’t seem to understand why it was important, so she investigated it on her own. When the story was published, it was well-received by both the audience and staff, but she said she was only able to do the story in the first place because of a lack of oversight. Others shared variations on this experience. One reporter said that while he generally felt supported at WHYY, at times he had a hard time getting editors to understand why, for example, he wanted to highlight certain community voices in a story: “They should definitely hire more editors of color…. An editor of color will be able to see certain choices and catch certain nuances that white reporters can struggle with.”[20] Another journalist said that, when she was new to the station, she felt people didn’t really pay attention to her. “I did feel like being a Black woman, I wasn’t taken that seriously,” she explained.”[21] Yet another staffer said she was usually either “overlooked” by white editors or was patronized by obviously low expectations. “When I come up with really good ideas, it’s like, oh my God, [journalist’s name]. …You’re like really smart,” she said.[22]

Over the course of the project, several Black journalists spoke about how the alternative to being ignored was getting “stuck in the Black community.”[23] One person called it “the Black person’s burden in public media.” Another said she sometimes would talk with her Black colleagues and decide “Yeah, that’s a Black story. I’m going to have to do it, or it will not get done.”[24] However, for some, there was also a sense that they had an opportunity to represent the Black community fairly:

I know when I go out and do a story, I want to show that the community is represented properly…You know, because most of my stories put me in front of Black folks. So, on behalf of WHYY, I think I do a pretty good job of making sure that you know, the Black community out here is properly represented in the press.[25]

Several of these journalists shared a concern that they were encouraged to craft narratives of communities, particularly communities of color, that were more about the community than for the community. This is a distinction that, as research in other regions has also found, can present a barrier to building trust between news outlets and communities. One journalist gave an example of an event, and a story about it that pointed out a deficit in a community. The journalist was frustrated because,  as she put it, “I don’t ever want to tell the community stuff they already know.” The community knew about the problem already. In her view, “That’s what happens when a story is written by someone who is on the outside looking in.”[26] Several of the white editors agreed that they “could do a lot better”[27] in the way the station represented communities:

Sometimes it felt like, oh yeah, like we’re reporting on liberal progressive stuff, but talking about it in a way that mostly resonated and probably felt meaningful to people who were totally not part of those communities. And if you were listening as someone who is part of the community, you would be like, why did they talk to that random person? Like, what are they even talking about?[28]

Interestingly, some of these same editors tended to edit their stories in ways that reporters of color at WHYY felt were more about communities than for them. One journalist suggested that this might be due to “unintentional elitism”:

I think that a lot of the news, what they feel is news is really about politics and is really stories told at a level that … is more of interest to someone who isn’t a stakeholder in that issue. So, they’re talking about gentrification perhaps in an economic way as opposed to talking about what it really means to not be able to pay your taxes.[29]

Many said that this culture of elitism went beyond a few editors. One journalist of color recalled learning that all the young white colleagues she was sitting with had gone to an Ivy League or other elite school. “They operate with a certain level of privilege, and you can see it,” she said. She said her colleagues were all competent and tech savvy, but:

I don’t know how reflective they are about things. I don’t, frankly, I don’t know if they see the value in bringing different voices to speak on different topics—not just when it’s a Black thing or an immigration thing.[30]

For journalists of color who were more junior, there were few role models in the newsroom who looked like them. Several referenced the two Black women who were leading the cultural competency project and how they played a role mentoring the newer journalists of color when possible. But this appreciation for their efforts was often paired with resentment. “It’s an unfair expectation to expect one or two Black women to save the whole organization,” one journalist said.[31]

Some also suggested that their difficulties getting mentorship and guidance as new journalists was exacerbated by overall resource challenges. Editors were often stretched thin and had limited time to prioritize the learning and development of junior colleagues. For journalists of color who did not always come from traditional journalism backgrounds, this could be particularly limiting.

Given these concerns, the question of retention of people of color came up a number of times. Several journalists spoke of other staff of color who had left because they “didn’t feel supported.” Some left during the course of this project. These people felt their efforts to engage communities and produce coverage including more diverse voices was not really valued at all levels of the organization: “Sometimes I feel like I’m pushing,” one person who left the organization said. “I’m trying to sell a product that they do not want.”

A number of staff members, including white staff members, said  WHYY needed greater commitment to cultural competency at the level of editor and higher. As one staffer said, “You have to have the people at the very top be committed to this thing in order to make it work.”[32]

When I spoke with top managers, they expressed commitment to diversity and inclusion. They said they had done a survey two years ago, and many respondents said they thought of the station as “white and more upper class.” One manager said they had been working on cultural competency in response to the survey for the past year: “That’s not enough time to really move the needle much, but I would hope in five years or so, you know, more people would feel that public media was for them than what you had in the past,” they said.[33]  When it came to questions of recruiting and retaining staff of color, one manager acknowledged that there was work to be done to make sure the workplace was “welcoming”: “With the environment here, do the people who are working here who are from ethnic or racial minorities, is there a comfort level in the place?” the manager wondered. “We’re a pretty diverse workforce, but you want to just make sure that they’ll stay.” The manager spoke about possible measures such as mentoring. But the station’s top manager used a more colorblind framing:

I don’t think the rules used to engage any good employee differ depending upon race.  I think where we fall down as management is when we don’t follow those rules for everybody. I think it becomes more amplified for a person of color who may worry about whether they are welcomed or not to begin with.[34]

With regard to how WHYY’s content reflected the community, managers acknowledged room for growth: “Traditionally, there are certain age groups, and there are certain races and ethnicity which have not felt comfortable or welcomed within public media,” one said. “So, altruistically, we have a challenge to improve upon people’s comfort level with us.”[35]

At the same time, this top manager expressed a concern that these efforts should not “prostitute or compromise on the quality of information.” As he explained, “I don’t think we should dummy down our production value.” He suggested there were other ways to make content more accessible through outreach and engagement.

Interestingly, the head of the station mentioned that coverage of diverse communities was valuable not just in connecting the newsroom with those communities, but in connect those communities with “our white middle class audiences” who “have a desire to know more about racial and ethnic minority issues.” A focus on the interests of progressive white audiences informed the increased representation of communities of color in WHYY’s coverage. At the same time, it also explained some of the concerns raised by journalists who felt coverage of communities of color was not intended for those communities.

Several people said that one barrier to institutionalizing cultural competency was the way management had traditionally centered the white audience when thinking about membership. While a number of recent efforts have highlighted the democratizing potential of membership models to encourage greater public investment and participation in journalism, at WHYY several pointed out that this model could also reinforce the whiteness of public radio. One staff member called it the “white dinosaur” problem.[36] Several people worried that membership strategists continued to chase an aging white elite. While these “dinosaurs” would eventually die out, in a majority-minority city like Philadelphia, there was a much greater opportunity to pursue members of color who were more plentiful, and who would be around after the dinosaurs went extinct. But so long as membership devoted its resources (and its pricey special events) to courting the dinosaurs, the rest of the public would have little incentive to connect or feel a sense of belonging.

 

From project to institutional change process

The initial series of trainings, workshops, and community engagement activities for the cultural competency project largely transpired over the course of less than a year in 2018. But the leaders of the cultural competency initiative were adamant from the beginning that  this be a long-term process of institutional change, rather than a project with a fixed duration.

Following the initial wave of source diversity experiments, the team working on cultural competency stayed eager to follow up to avoid losing momentum. The project manager investigated how other public radio stations had incorporated source audits into their daily practices. She reached out to one of these stations, who shared the spreadsheet they used—a simplified version of the source audit WHYY had done. A key difference in this form was that it was intended for reporters to enter data for themselves. This encouraged reporters to think critically about sourcing on an ongoing basis.

But beyond monitoring sources, were sourcing practices changing in the institution? Editors shared, at various points in the process, that they had tried to adapt their practices with reporters—including giving them more time in order to include a more diverse range of sources. But in a meeting to discuss the adapted version of the source audit and the sourcing practices they hoped to address, editors were asked how they did or did not consider “diversity” in the process of pitching stories. In some exchanges, it became clear that there were different expectations around when diversity was considered important. One leader of the cultural competency team said, “In every pitch, diversity at every level should be considered.” However, other editors said this really only came up in some story pitches. There also seemed to be a lack of shared expectations for consequences if reporters failed to include more sources of color.

One of the complications was that WHYY is made up of a variety of teams working on programs with different structures. Not everyone was at every meeting, and some worked with freelancers or with reporters from outside the Philadelphia region. The issue of freelance photographers in particular came up in one of the meetings intended to clarify processes. While reporters and editors had participated in cultural competency trainings, often outside photographers, who had not been trained, were brought in to help with assignments. This led to an example of what the head of the cultural competency initiative called a “big failure.”

The Women’s March in Philadelphia had been plagued with criticism over underrepresentation of women of color in media coverage of the movement. When an online story about the march was posted, all the photos taken by the freelance photographer featured white women. But the head of the initiative noticed that when the reporter, who was a woman of color, tweeted about it—her photos had people of color in them. The manager instructed her to embed her tweets in order to offer a more complete understanding of the march. She then asked her staff to reach out to every photographer they worked with and clarify that they were mandated to show “diversity,” and if they did not, they wouldn’t employ that photographer again.

In this incident, the manager noted a structural weakness—that freelance photographers could unintentionally undercut their efforts to better represent the diversity of the city. She declared a change in how they would work with these freelancers. At the same time, several staff pointed out that the current source monitoring system did not include a way to monitor visuals—and they had not received training on representation and bias in selecting images. In the meeting, a few staff members suggested the freelancer at the Women’s March could have made an innocent mistake, simply thinking “that’s a good picture.” This suggested there was room for a more critical exploration of how the quality of visuals were assessed in-house, as well as by freelancers—a change the cultural competency team agreed would be beneficial.

The example of the Women’s March photos highlights the importance of understanding every element that goes into making the final product. Even if a reporter takes great care with their sourcing and writing, all of that could be undermined by a poorly chosen photo, headline, or social media framing. All the players that shape how a piece of content is presented must be brought into this process if it is to be effective.

Going forward, the manager leading cultural competency efforts is looking for ways to embed these processes throughout the newsroom. This includes revising a role previously devoted to working on cultural competency and community engagement to give it more editorial authority. The person who had previously held this role had expressed a sense of being siloed away from day-to-day news operations. By clarifying the remit of this position and ensuring that it has adequate power, this role has the potential to help routinize cultural competency practices both in the newsroom and in the station’s engagements with communities—but this is unlikely to be successful if the person is seen as separate, sidelined, or lacking authority.

In addition, with support from another foundation grant, WHYY plans to work with a “Community Voices and Engagement Fellow” who would help them to better represent communities. Among other things, the fellow may be tasked with creating and implementing a stylebook to be used across the organization. Finally, the project manager is exploring how to develop functions within the ongoing source audit to make it easier for individual shows and reporters to track their progress. The team is also working to determine how to set goals for this progress—and how these might be tied into staff member’s annual evaluations. Through this combination of efforts, the Vice President of News and Civic Dialogue leading this work is seeking to steer the newsroom to a point where cultural competency is no longer a project, but rather is central to how they approach the work of journalism.

 

Assessing progress

Despite a number of challenges and limitations, WHYY’s cultural competency initiative was able to track a measurable change in the newsroom’s sourcing. A little over a year after completing their first source audit, where 80% of local sources had been white, a snapshot of their ongoing audit showed just under 65% of sources were white. Sources identified as Black jumped from 4% in 2018 to 26% in 2019. The comparison between the two times is not perfect: The first drew from a random composite of dates and the second draws from a cumulative running total. But the totals do suggest incremental improvement. They are still well short of parity with the demographics of Philadelphia, where only 34% of the population is non-Hispanic white, but they are considerably closer to parity with their regional coverage area (which includes surrounding suburbs) which they estimate is 67% white. Progress was less noticeable with regards to the diversity of the station’s newsroom. While just under 80% of staff members identified as white in 2018, a little over a year later, the staff was just under 75% white. While several journalists of color joined WHYY in that time period, others left, including several senior staffers. While the number of Latinx staffers rose, the number of Black staffers actually decreased.

Numbers alone do not tell the story of WHYY’s efforts. As discussed, at the heart of these initiatives is a change in culture, and a shift in journalistic practices. Conversations and observations revealed some efforts to adjust editorial norms to prioritize the inclusion of more diverse voices. However, conversations also suggested simply increasing the amount of coverage of communities of color would not address concerns around the narratives framing that coverage. As mentioned, journalists of color in particular expressed worries that narratives were often more about communities than for these communities. This perceived distance between the newsroom and communities will likely only diminish if:

  1. a wider cross-section of staffers is involved in sustained community engagement efforts that go beyond social media and are not just one-offs, and
  2. more staffers in the newsroom come from these communities and/or are embedded in them. Tackling this will require sustained resources that prioritize this mission at all levels of the organization.

While shortcomings remain, the vice president for news and civic dialogue gave an example of how the cultural competency trainings and broader efforts had given them a shared language to handle challenges when they arose. When the marketing department had offered a few tickets to a coming music festival, “It seemed like every person of color said, ‘Oh, I want those tickets.’” She said that should have suggested that the event was important, especially to communities of color, but no one had been assigned to cover it: “By not even assigning the story, it was like damn. So, how do we define what’s of value to us?” She wondered if editors would have been more likely to assign a story if the event has been held at Philadelphia’s Center City as opposed to its location in an area more associated with communities of color. After the event, she learned that the newsroom planned to cover an incident at the concert in which several concert-goers had been injured. At that point she intervened and encouraged editors and reporters to “flip the story” to offer more holistic context on the event, using a cultural competency framework. So while a lack of diversity in the editorial ranks led to an initial oversight, the newsroom was able to make adjustments: “That was one of those two steps forward, one step back kind of things.”[37]

Conclusions

What can we learn from this institution’s efforts to build “cultural competency” in its journalistic practices, newsroom composition, and orientation to communities?

Perhaps one of the most tangible interventions of this initiative was the practice of auditing and then monitoring sources quoted in local stories. In the training with staff to explore sourcing practices, the trainer encouraged journalists to question those practices traditionally associated with “objectivity.” As discussed, this included uncritically selecting sources from institutions traditionally associated with authority (for example, professors at universities), rather than looking for expertise in a range of forms within communities. These journalism practices, the trainer pointed out, often have secondary consequences of over-representing white voices. By encouraging staff to be more critical about their source selection and to monitor it over time, this program was able to have some influence, at least, on the quantitative representation of communities of color.

However, there were a number of moments in the training and the follow-up to it when narratives of colorblindness were not challenged—for example when a staffer expressed a reluctance to talk to people about race, or when others spoke about “diversity” in a generically broad sense that re-centered whiteness by suggesting everyone who was not white was “diverse.” The ideology of colorblindness suggests that race no longer matters and should play no role in legal, social, or cultural decision-making. As scholars such as Eduardo Bonilla-Silva have pointed out, the rhetoric of colorblindness can be used to minimize racism or racist microaggressions. Examples range from the more overt “All Lives Matter” phenomenon, to the more subtle and increasingly common practice of referring to non-white individuals as “diverse” in a way that centers whiteness. By failing to recognize difference and racial power hierarchies, narratives of colorblindness can obscure structural racism, even when they carry an idealistic intent.

Critically, while the number of voices of color may have increased, this does not necessarily mean the narratives being produced are for those communities. Indeed, a number of staffers expressed concerns that they were complicit in reporting about and not for communities.[38] Here, journalists may benefit from what City Bureau’s Harry Backlund outlines as an information hierarchy of needs, riffing on Maslow’s pyramid. Backlund argues: “A huge amount of journalistic resources go into the top of the pyramid to serve the abstract needs of a comfortable few, completely passing over the basic information needs of a great many. Journalists routinely cover inequity as an abstract phenomenon that can be observed and remarked upon from afar.”

Of course, one way to narrow the distance between the perspectives of journalists and communities would be to give people connected to these communities more agency over the crafting of their own narratives. This is something WHYY has made some efforts to do by offering a platform for community voices, but it has largely been siloed to certain areas and under the purview of certain job positions. Likewise, while there has been a concerted effort to hire journalists of color, most of these hires have been at junior levels so far.

This experience, of course, is not only an issue for WHYY. Across the industry, retention of journalists of color is a critical challenge. While there has been growing attention to supporting the development of talent of color entering the journalism “pipeline,” there are far fewer programs and funds supporting mid-career and more senior journalists of color. In many newsrooms, editors and other managers of color play key roles mentoring new journalists—as well as ensuring the cultural competency of numerous editorial decisions. But because there are often fewer journalists of color in these roles, they shoulder a heavier load that can lead to burn out. And retention problems earlier in the career chain lead to a smaller pool of journalists of color to recruit for mid- and upper- level editor positions. Foundations and others who care about fostering more culturally competent newsrooms should look for opportunities to support journalists of color to advance after they enter the newsroom, and as they progress to more senior roles.

Scholars such as Emily Drew have argued that news organizations should seek to practice “antiracist journalism”—and that projects like source audits can be one way to raise the consciousness of journalists about how racial power structures operate in their work. However, they also warn that these projects can fall short when they are not institutionalized. WHYY is working to institutionalize cultural competency practices. Continued progress toward routinizing cultural competency will depend on adjusting and strengthening structures and positions that support it. Given that, for most legacy organizations, the work of cultural competency requires pushing against years of entrenched cultures of whiteness, it is no surprise that these processes take time. But if these legacy organizations are going to survive, they must urgently prioritize cultural competency processes. Without these, they have little hope of building trust with journalists or communities of color, and claims of representing a “public” will become increasingly hollow.

For WHYY and other news organizations seeking to make a transformative shift toward antiracist journalism, pursuing greater inclusion and representation must be part of the work of journalism, and of the organization as a whole, and not just people with words such as “community” or “engagement” in their titles.

 


[1] I have personal experience with these home truths having worked for over a decade as a white public radio producer prior to entering academia. Throughout my research I have attempted to be mindful of my own positionality, taking fieldnotes to record my perceptions of how my own orientation has shaped experiences interacting with study participants and observations of activities, and how I continue an ongoing struggle to be mindful of white privilege and assumptions of whiteness norms.

[2] As of 2015: https://www.cjr.org/analysis/are_podcasts_the_new_path_to_diversifying_public_radio.php

[3] https://www.nationalpublicmedia.com/npr/audience/?profile=the-business-leader

[4] https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/philadelphiacountypennsylvania

[5]https://current.org/2018/07/whyy-efforts-focus-on-increasing-racial-diversity-of-staff-audiences/

[6]https://current.org/2018/07/whyy-efforts-focus-on-increasing-racial-diversity-of-staff-audiences/

[7] According to WHYY market research (Scarborough), 78% of WHYY listeners are white, compared with 67% of their regional coverage area (which includes the suburbs surrounding Philadelphia).

[8] Over the course of the study, I observed five training sessions, four community outreach events, and multiple staff meetings. I interviewed 18 WHYY staff members and managers (several multiple times), a training consultant, and four outside training participants.

[9] Correspondence with VP for News and Civic Dialogue 9/7/19.

[10] From cultural competency training at WHYY, 5/23/18.

[11] This approach bears some similarity to an approach taken by Gannett newspapers circa 1988

[12] WHYY’s source diversity newsroom experiments list. Shared October 1, 2018.

[13] Follow up cultural competency training 9/20/18.

[14] Interview 7/5/18.

[15] Interview 5/22/18.

[16] Interview. 7/3/18.

[17] Interview. 6/23/18.

[18] Interview. 6/20/18.

[19] Interview 7/3/19.

[20] Interview 9/3/19

[21] Interview 5/14/19.

[22] Interview 5/18/18.

[23] Interview 5/18/18.

[24] Interview 5/17/18.

[25] Interview 5/20/18.

[26] Interview 5/14/19

[27] Interview 5/18/18

[28] Interview 5/17/18

[29] Interview 5/17/18

[30] Interview 5/18/18

[31] Interview 7/3/19.

[32] Interview 5/17/18

[33] Interview 5/21/19

[34] Interview 5/21/19

[35] Interview 5/21/19

[36] Interview 11/06/18.

[37] Interview. 6/21/19.

[38] Of course, there are limits to what this study can conclude with regards to how communities perceive narratives as it focused on the perspective of the journalists. For this reason, this study will be followed by a related study examining how the products of these efforts are perceived by community members. This includes a series of longitudinal focus groups with residents of a Philadelphia neighborhood where WHYY has conducted outreach.

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Andrea Wenzel is a senior research fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism. She is an incoming assistant professor at Temple University's Klein College of Media and Communication, and a PhD candidate at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.