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 Newsome, an 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].