Update: NC Media Equity Project

This week, the newsletter features my friend and mentor Melanie Sill, creator of this newsletter and the founding interim executive director of its home, the NC Local News Workshop. Check out the full NC Local newsletter from Sept. 8 for more from Melanie. Sign up to get NC Local in your inbox every Wednesday.

By Eric Frederick, NC Local Newsletter Editor

How can North Carolina local news organizations engage and serve people they have long overlooked or undervalued — including Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) residents, and others who’ve been marginalized by media organizations’ culture and practices as well as in news coverage?

Melanie Sill
Melanie Sill

For nearly a year, six media partners and the NC Local News Workshop at Elon University have been working (individually and collectively) to make long-delayed progress on that complex question, brought together in a pilot program called the NC Media Equity Project.

The project was launched in the fall of 2020 by the Local News Workshop, which had just started up at the Elon School of Communications, inspired by national conversations and calls to action on addressing racism and inequity in journalism and media. Workshop leaders built the project in partnership with a half-dozen North Carolina outlets that had identified the need for change as urgent and were committing significant resources to DEI work (diversity, equity and inclusion).

While they represent different approaches to informing North Carolina, some of the outlets voiced similar goals and struggles — and, like much of the state’s media, were predominantly white in their staff makeup, coverage and audience. They recognized historic gaps and challenges in serving an increasingly diverse state, made more urgent in 2020 after the murder of George Floyd, the impact of the Black Lives Matter movement and other events sparked new recognition of racism’s role in ongoing inequity — including in media.

We wondered: Could collaboration on DEI yield the kind of learning and broader gain we’ve seen from other kinds of collaborative projects in media?

The NC Local News Workshop asked organizations to commit time and attention to sharing their efforts, learning from others, and joining forces as leading media outlets to advance a statewide conversation. The partners that signed on include ABC11/WTVDThe Charlotte ObserverEducationNCThe News & ObserverPBS North Carolina and WFAE.

The Workshop’s aim was to facilitate knowledge-sharing among these organizations, supplemented by resources, monthly coaching calls with veteran media executive and journalism Professor Dorothy Bland, and quarterly gatherings with national experts that were later supplemented by monthly speaker sessions.

This summary raises a glaring question: What about outlets that are led by and rooted in BIPOC communities, some new and some long established? These organizations already serve people often left out by news coverage, and have been key stakeholders and partners for the NC Local News Workshop since its inception.

We spoke to BIPOC journalists and media founders before we launched the Media Equity Project, seeking their advice on how to advance DEI progress in North Carolina’s media ecosystem, and heard a strong refrain that change needed to be owned and driven by white media leadership. Several NC media leaders spoke to the cohort during one of the quarterly sessions, offering insights with the expertise of journalism built on community relationships.

We’re still learning and working toward takeaways from the year: One is that there’s no quick answer or single approach that works for everyone, but many models have lessons others can adapt.

Dean Rochelle Ford of the Elon School of Communications, an experienced national leader on diversity and inclusion, has reminded the partners that working toward true inclusion and equity isn’t a one-time program or event. “It’s a journey,” she says, and she has put the Workshop and school’s support behind “walking that journey” with the media organizations.

Partners are engaged in content analysis, hiring and internal culture initiatives, community outreach and more. During the year some have made progress on staff diversity, from the front lines to senior positions; others have looked at leadership and power within their structures, hosted training, organized staff committees, championed new content, or made their DEI commitment more transparent to audiences.

For example, here is just a sampling of updates on content and coverage that partners presented during their most recent quarterly workshop in July:

◼️ At ABC11, news director Bervette Carree shared a video highlighting some of the ways the station is both doing inclusive coverage and conveying its aims to viewers. Echoing what other partners have found, she said that the key is building culture that extends internally and out to the community and to viewers as well. “Our goal is to build a collaborative culture that is respectful and genuine, where everyone feels comfortable speaking up,” she said, “and there is trust between team members and managers, where everyone has the support to be themselves and there is a sense of community inside.”

◼️ The News & Observer, with a staff committee as the driving force and help from McClatchy’s news analytics team, undertook the most ambitious audit of news sourcing ever done by a McClatchy newsroom. Instead of a random sampling of stories, The N&O built a comprehensive database drawn from all coverage over a three-month period: 1,300 news stories, with more than 3,300 sources identified, and more than 40 staff members participating to help categorize sources (by role, some demographic detail and other factors) and stories for the data analysis. An internal committee is discussing ways to draw on the data, and the newsroom plans to share findings with readers this fall, said Sharif Durhams, managing editor and interim executive editor.

◼️ Education NC’s Sergio Osnaya-Prieto, communications strategist, described the nonprofit organization’s mission-driven approach (“to improve public education for North Carolina students”) and said EdNC approaches diversity, equity and inclusion on four levels: intrapersonal, organizational, in its community presence and in terms of systems change. CEO Mebane Rash wrote about the organization’s goals and approach toward DEI work in June 2020 and again in January and June of this year, when she explained the four dimensions of their approach and outlined a major change in the nonprofit’s governance structure.

◼️ The Charlotte Observer’s Charlotte Five team launched The Skillet, a video series reported by Emiene Wright that “draws connections between African cuisine and the everyday dishes of the diaspora,” featuring Charlotte area chefs. Sherry Chisenhall, who recently retired as Observer executive editor, told partners that the initiative grew in part out of a source and content audit that identified gaps in coverage, then led to staff brainstorming on how to improve coverage by reflecting and reporting on more of the region’s diversity and culture.

◼️ WFAE has added content and updated its website to raise the visibility of coverage of race and equity, now listed on the main dropdown menu, and also of the station’s commitment to diversity and inclusion. These steps are part of a change agenda, supported by a diverse board of directors, that has also helped the station raise more than half of its $1.2 million goal to fund a new race and equity team for the next three years, said CEO Joe O’Connor, who also published a letter to WFAE’s audience and supporters about the station’s DEI commitment.

◼️ PBS North Carolina has increased viewership both on broadcast and streaming platforms for its long-running weekly show Black Issues Forum through a format change, making the program with host Deborah Holt-Noel more topical and adding a stronger digital presence, said Chief Content Officer Justine Schmidt. Also, PBS NC has joined with new partners to expand its Reel South documentary series (itself a product of partnership with other PBS stations) with a new project called Hindsight, which supported short documentaries from six filmmakers, including North Carolina’s Dilsey Davis and her film about an interracial Durham choir forced to take a new path amid COVID-19, “Now Let Us Sing.” Developed over a full year in partnership with Firelight Media and the Center for Asian American Media, Hindsight stands out not just for delivering short films from diverse filmmakers but also for providing tools and mentoring to help people establish careers. Josh Clinard, a PBS NC associate producer, summed up the Hindsight project’s commitment to filmmakers: fair commissions, professional development, robust feedback on scripts and rough cuts, a full suite of post-production services (marketing, distribution, engagement, film festival strategy, and broadcast and digital distribution) — in other words, much more than a grant to produce one film.

This month, the Media Equity Project partners are producing a joint virtual event to seek insights from BIPOC residents in North Carolina on how to improve coverage and service.

The listening event, scheduled for Sept. 30 via Zoom, is being organized by a committee of journalists and producers from the partner organizations, guided by Alicia Bell of the nonprofit organization Free Press and Media 2070, who has led similar work with the Charlotte Journalism Collaborative.

If you’re interested in learning more about the listening event, or want to suggest people to include, email us.

We’ve learned a lot in the NC Media Equity Project’s Year 1, which the coronavirus pandemic turned into an all-virtual program, and gained deep respect for what it takes to turn good intentions into real change with the promise of lasting impact.

Our last quarterly gathering will include brainstorming on how to extend some of the project’s lessons to other organizations in North Carolina’s local media ecosystem, and to communities.

Led by new Executive Director Shannan Bowen, the NC Local News Workshop also is looking toward Year 2 of the Media Equity Project. Email her to learn more, suggest programming or get involved.

— Melanie Sill