NC Local for Feb. 17: Why source diversity is essential

By Eric Frederick, NC Local newsletter editor

[Also in the Feb. 17 edition: Two new wins for public records access, McClatchy sets new minimum salary for journalists, a new editor for the Sanford Herald, and shoutouts to the Chatham News + Record, NC Health News, Carolina Public Press and others. Sign up to get NC Local in your inbox each week]

You can’t cover a community unless you understand it — and that means listening to its people, and to the people who represent it. And that means diversifying your sources.

Melba NewsomeMelba Newsomean independent journalist in Charlotte,has focused for the past year on helping us do that, in her work as a Reynolds Journalism Institute fellow. In this Nieman Reports piece, she talks about the barriers we must overcome. They include media distrust among many Black people — and a reluctance by experts of color to be “used” as token representatives in reporting, or to hand over the fruits of a lifetime of hard work when its “moment” arrives. One academic told her:

‘We’ve been toiling in this vineyard for decades trying to get somebody to pay attention to social justice and these systemic racism issues, but no one cared. Now that it’s a hot topic, you want to come in, pick my brain, and get the benefit of all my hard work for free. No, thanks.’

There’s also, of course, news outlets’ lack of real engagement with communities of color — including the tendency to parachute into a crisis, do a deadline story about a single day in the life of a community … and walk away.

Newsome talks in the piece about four ways to start breaking down those barriers: Redefine who is an expert … lay the groundwork before it’s needed … explain the reporting process … and practice cultural competence. Read more of her advice

As part of her fellowship, Newsome led a survey of journalists about diversity sourcing to help her understand what they’re doing and what they need, and she’s building a training program to help them address the challenge. She’ll go over that curriculum with her media partners — WFAE, The Charlotte Observer and North Carolina Health News — train their newsrooms in it, and then make it available to anyone.

It was my pleasure to chat with Newsome the other day about all of this. Some highlights:

How did this become a passion for you?

I grew increasingly frustrated with the narrowness of the coverage. Every story about Black people shouldn’t be about crime, and every story about Latinos shouldn’t be about immigration. That fails to cover the full spectrum of who we are. 

 People of color are mostly covered when in crisis. …. But we remodel our houses, have book clubs, are sports fans, put our kids in Kumon, and love to cook, too. Also, unless the story is about issues specific to people of color, expert voices are overwhelmingly white. And sometimes even when the story is about Black people, the experts quoted are also white! There are Black epidemiologists, etc., but they are only quoted when the story is about Black people and COVID. Hell, one of the chief vaccine researchers who’s been at Fauci’s side is a young Black North Carolina woman [Kizzmekia Corbett, a Hurdle Mills native who grew up in Hillsborough and earned a doctorate at UNC-Chapel Hill].

 Tell me about the training program you’re building — what you hope it will do.

 Well, I hope that, first of all, journalists will understand the importance of having more diversity in their reporting, and that this will also tell them how to go about doing that, how to find sources, some of the traps they might expect or find along the way. Just having people think about things like calling an HBCU for an expert, rather than just always going to Chapel Hill.

 If I’m a reporter and I want to raise my cultural competence, what do I do first?

 Learn about the community, or the people that you’re talking to, before just rushing in. … It’s important to do some homework, so you will know how to address what to say. So that you don’t alienate. And so that people understand what your mission is. … And for just regular people, I think it’s important to explain the process. And listen to them, so that they don’t feel that this is just an in-and-out thing, that you’d only come here to report on us when there’s a crisis. That’s not representing us. Know the whole circle of who we are.

 What do you hope the news media look like in, say, 2025?

 Like the community. Say, for instance if we’re looking at Mecklenburg County, where the population is 32% black. I hope that’s what the newsroom looks like. It looks like the place you represent. 

 What’s your biggest worry?

 This notion that all points of view are equally valid. They are not. Acting as if there’s no objective truth. There aren’t two sides to climate change … that debate is over, and if you act as if these people who deny it have an equal point … we are afraid to call balls and strikes. There’s so much misinformation. 

 We saw that with the election, where it took so long for people to even acknowledge what had happened. So where did it lead?

 What’s your best source of hope?

 The next generation. Sometimes when I look at a journalism class, it looks like America. You know, people of all colors, all faiths. That’s my hope. … At least, I think, the acceptance of diversity just as the norm. 

 What’s next for you?

 Well, I would like to expand this in some way to the next step. I thought the biggest challenge would be just getting people to say that this was worthwhile, but … what I found out was about the hesitancy among sources of color sometimes, and that was a complete surprise to me. So I want to go a little deeper about overcoming those objections … and developing the cultural competencies to work with different communities and get them on board and explain the whole process.

More help with diverse sourcing

➡️ Journalism for Black Lives: A Reporting Guide. From Free Press and The Movement for Black Lives.

➡️ Measuring progress on inclusivity (Newsome’s report on how tracking your use of sources is essential, and how NC Health News, WFAE and The Charlotte Observer are doing that).

➡️ Newsome’s guide to diverse source databases. Here are a few other rich resources to get you started:

Related insight

➡️ The Philadelphia Inquirer recently did a diversity audit of more than 3,000 of its stories. The coverage, from a largely white newsroom, skewed white and male. But the more diverse news teams produced stories that included more diverse subjects. (Might that be a clue to a solution?)

    ➵ Meanwhile, the Inquirer, the Lenfest Local Lab and The Brown Institute, helped by funding from the Google GNI Innovation Challenge, are building open-source tools that will help local newsrooms do DEI audits of their coverage. Find out more here, and get contact info if you’re interested in taking part.