The ‘black sheep’ of the newsroom

By Monique Phillips

The first time I was introduced to the idea of the lack of diversity in the newsroom, I was interviewing a black journalist (who doesn’t want to be named) for a class assignment. I had always thought the newsroom was a place where public opinion was formed, so it must be full of informed, knowledgeable individuals. But this journalist convinced me otherwise.

“They would like you to think they want diversity, but things are the way they are for a reason,” he said. He explained that meeting journalists of colour was a rarity and this homogony in the newsroom was reflected in the kinds of stories being covered.

Monique Phillips stands in front of Ryerson University's Digital Media Zone. (Courtesy of Monique Phillips/Ryersonian Staff)

Monique Phillips stands in front of Ryerson University’s Digital Media Zone. (Courtesy of Monique Phillips/Ryersonian Staff)

As a journalist of colour, I feel my job is to report on issues relating to a diverse group of people and being overlooked by the mainstream media. There is a duality to my struggle as a minority in the newsroom ― I’m trying both to get out of the prescribed system at news organizations and to give a voice to the individuals and issues that have traditionally been ignored.

For a long time I thought I was being too harsh on the industry, and then I was faced with a level of ignorance and racism that I never thought I would encounter. One of my professors said something to me in my third year as a journalism student that still haunts me. “I don’t know why every time there is a shooting ‘in the hood’, the news covers it,” he said.

Hearing these words, I could sense the last fragments of hope I had for the industry shattering.

Looking back at the idealistic view I had of the world I so desperately wanted to be a part of in first year, I realize I was naïve to believe any powerful organization or establishment could be flawless.

I sometimes wonder why the media is able to ignore certain narratives while giving so much coverage to others, and then I think about the leaders in the industry — they are mostly from privileged parts of society.

The racism in news coverage and the industry itself is a product of entrenched stereotypes and ignorance. In the past, I have heard double standards like it being wrong to show a white mother in the media crying, but perfectly fine when a black mother is shown in tears over the death of her son.

My professor’s words reminded me of the media representations of a friend’s brother who was shot. I used to wonder why his story was given such little attention. Why did the news portray him to be a villain who had it coming? Why did they never tell the story of how he was someone trying to change the course of his life? The answer is simple. The coverage of his death indicates a larger, inherent issue at the heart of mainstream journalism — the lack of diverse voices.

Last year, I read a Huffington Post article reinforcing my observations. The Post used an Associated Press story describing an Ohio shooting suspect, T.J. Lane, as a “fine person” to demonstrate that white individuals accused of crimes are treated differently than black individuals. The Post illustrated that the approach to stories is dictated by a set of prescribed and deeply troubling societal norms.

This photo of the 3-year-old Elijah Marsh is taken from a Facebook page created in his memory after his tragic death. (Courtesy of Facebook)

This photo of the 3-year-old Elijah Marsh is taken from a Facebook page created in his memory after his tragic death. (Courtesy of Facebook)

The racism in news coverage and the industry itself is a product of entrenched stereotypes and ignorance. In the past, I have heard double standards like it being wrong to show a white mother in the media crying, but perfectly fine when a black mother is shown in tears over the death of her son.

The situation may seem dark and gloomy with no light at the end of the road, but that is not the case. Recently, almost every news outlet covered the story of Elijah because it was a compassionate tale which many of us empathized with. I hope news is headed towards this level of social outreach.

Former CNN executive producer, Jeffrey Reid Sr., discussed the need for diversity within mass media production at a recent event. I did not attend, but I found myself scavenging the Internet to find out what he had to say. I came across this:

“Diversity is key because what’s a good story to me may not be a good story to the other five white people sitting around the table. But if I have the decision-making [authority], I am going to cover the story that impacts me, my family and the people I associate myself with,” he said.

The lack of diversity in the newsroom is why there is a lack of diversity in the stories that get covered. (Courtesy of Creative Commons)

The lack of diversity in the newsroom is why there is a lack of diversity in the stories that get covered. (Courtesy of Creative Commons)

The parts of his speech I read indicate diversity in the newsroom does not automatically ensure that overall coverage will improve, but it does introduce the possibility of exposing readers to a wider range of experiences.

My professor’s comment on shootings “in the hood” is still fresh in my mind. My heartbeat still starts racing when I think about it. I still regret not reacting to his statement. I still feel like I am part of the problem because I did not stand up to him in that moment.

I look around the newsrooms today and see more diversity than I did when I first entered the journalism program. I hope that with this diversity, exposure will be given to fractions of society that have basically been ignored, and a critical examination of the work that has been done in the past will take place. For now, the only control I have over the future of journalism is the role I play in it.

There will be no more silence when I am faced with racist attitudes. There will be no more regret.

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