Female solar installerConversations about diversity in journalism seem to move forward in fits and starts. Often, I see journalists who write about science, technology, engineering or math devoting a lot of Twitter bandwidth to their frustration about the lack of representation of female and minority writers in our field.

The Atlantic has attributed the news industry’s overall lack of diversity to journalism’s financial crisis.

In response, I’ve written this blog post to share insights based on my experiences of running a relatively diverse environmental newsroom.

This newsroom is at Yale Center for Business and the Environment. It is staffed by a paid team of around 35 graduate students. They are expanding their science writing skills and subject-matter expertise. They produce articles, videos and podcasts for two sites that operate in parallel. The sites are covering environmental finance related to ecosystem conservation and clean energy.

Both sites produce solutions journalism that helps environmental industries grow by analyzing their failures and successes. We provide a third-party perspective, publishing hard news, analyzing the latest trends, and following detailed newsroom guidelines.

As of the end of 2015, 29.7% of the students on our team were people of color. (This compares to a 2014 average figure of 13.3% for reporters at daily newspapers, which is much less than the corresponding 37.4% of the entire United States population. These statistics were quoted by Columbia Journalism Review.)

At the same time, 54% of the students on our team were women. (Nationally, according to a 2013 report by Media Matters for America, women comprise 38% of news reporting staff. This figure has remained level for over a decade. As of 2013, the national overall population average was 51%.)

Most of the writers we hire have college degrees in science or engineering. They are usually new to journalism.

Women and people of color play key roles on both leadership teams.

Both of our sites were started through partnerships with nonprofits. I developed the first site in 2012 at Clean Energy Finance Center, a small national NGO. The site’s performance led to Yale University sponsoring the project and expanding it. Then, our team collaborated with a second NGO, Conservation Finance Network, to create a similarly structured site in partnership with them in 2015.

My experiences with these sites led me to think about what can make news websites inclusive of diverse perspectives. I explored these ideas by developing the list below.

How can we attract writers from a range of backgrounds to our websites? Here are some observations based on my experiences.

Content

  1. Start publishing articles that are relevant to groups whose voices are not already being heard. Keep an eye out for pitches and story concepts about them. Publishing these stories will attract contributors who have relevant expertise. One can make a strong argument that this is essential if your publication wants to provide quality coverage that reflects the existing diversity of the United States and supports democracy. This focus can also make it possible for your team to get the scoop on more original ideas. In my case, the websites I edit have an internationally and regionally diverse scope. This has resulted in us publishing articles about energy access in developing nations. We’re also covering communities that are off the beaten path in our field. For example, I wrote about an Amish and Mennonite community in Iowa that participated in an award-winning solar program. We have also been covering the Caribbean and Mexico sometimes. The Spanish speakers on our team have assisted us with this.
  2. Consider expanding your health-related coverage. Environmental communication research suggests some underrepresented groups may find health-related articles compelling. Within other science beats, there are different health controversies journalists can explore. Both of the websites I edit are publishing articles about climate resilience. We are looking into survival issues in multifamily housing for low-income communities. We are also writing about climate resilience through stormwater management in diverse urban environments.
  3. Evaluate multimedia’s potential. If you want to appeal to millenials or diversify your audience in other ways, video and audio may increase your reach. Podcasts can also have a broad appeal. We’re finding that our readers are motivated to listen to audio.

Language

  1. Make your publication concrete, relevant and readable. Keep sentence and paragraph lengths manageable. Use words that are not too arcane. Don’t strive to impress readers by being obscure or abstract. Obscurity is not a virtue on the Internet, where even readers with Ph.D.s will scan your articles rapidly. Readers want to know the relevance of articles right away.
  2. Eliminate belittling language about class, gender and race. Avoid publishing articles that talk down to people of various backgrounds. Look at how your website frames the lives of people whose background differs from that of your writers. For example, if your website perpetually refers to students from urban high schools in negative terms, people from similar backgrounds may not want to pitch articles to you. Issues like this have been addressed by the creation of minority-oriented publications in the past.
  3. Encourage writers to use their own voices and propose articles related to their interests and experiences. Don’t homogenize your publication. I’ve seen that if writers feel more comfortable being expressive, they will produce better work on average, regardless of their backgrounds.

Cost

  1. Pay your writers competitively. It is tempting to opt out of journalism if one does not come from an affluent background and is having difficulty paying one’s bills. According to The Guardian, expecting interns to write for free will most likely decrease the diversity of your job applicants. So will expecting writers to produce unpaid or underpaid content.
  2. Locate your office in an area with a manageable cost of living. If rents are sky-high, allow writers to work remotely or consider moving your office.
  3. Offer benefits if possible. Assuming that freelancers can easily absorb their own health expenses is a common habit in this industry. However, it may be reducing the diversity of news sites. Depending on the budget of your site, you may or may not be able to provide benefits. Lack of health insurance may filter out writers who are not able to obtain access through their spouses. This is an issue that could be resolved by industry organizations seeking to obtain group discounts on insurance.

Integration

  1. Be relatively friendly online and offline, even if you are busy. If you have a forbidding persona as an editor, people from underrepresented groups may be reluctant to approach you with their ideas or pitches. I make a point of being accessible and talking with journalists online. Doing this gives me the opportunity to learn new skills, get the pulse of the industry, and listen to useful conversations. I mentor other journalists from time to time, but try not to overcommit.
  2. Seek out sources from underrepresented groups. This can expand your dialogue with them and the writers they know. Journalists from these groups will see this interaction and may become interested in pitching. This may broaden the ideas you cover, which can benefit your publication. According to an article from Society of Professional Journalists, this can help to make your publication representative of the larger community. I am reaching out to some new sources this spring and summer to look for story ideas.
  3. Expect your writers to have varying lifestyles and social views. For example, when working with writers on your team, be aware of diversity in their family situations, religious views, social circles, and diets. Nothing says “we don’t want vegans on our team” like hosting an event at a restaurant that only serves steak and seafood. The reverse is also true; don’t assume that all of your writers are into health food unless that is the topic of your publication.
  4. Connect with organizations for minorities in journalism as your schedule allows. You can use these connections to recruit contributors. You can also ask members of these groups for informal feedback about your beat and your publication. This can give you ideas about how to improve what you are doing and reach new audiences or sources. I am following the #divsciwri Twitter hashtag to see what people are saying about diversity in science journalism. I am also observing some diversity-related conversations about media entrepreneurship on Facebook and elsewhere.

I would welcome comments from other journalists about how these ideas can be exported to larger news operations or adapted for your own sites. If you are inspired to write blog posts or articles that build on any of these questions, please contact me via Twitter or LinkedIn to let me know. This post is intended as a starting point for conversation.

 

“What is the main lesson you’ve learned from trying to target specific audiences in your climate work?” David Minkow, who edits content for Climate Access and the Social Capital Project, asked me this question recently.

In three words, my response is: “Customize your messages.”

Today’s media environment is a crowded place, dense with conflicting demands for our attention. In this climate, the messages that rise to the top are the ones with the greatest relevance and the most effective targeting.

Know your audiences. Read the news publications they read – even if you disagree with them. Understand the jargon they use at work and the casual language they use on the weekends. Find out what they do for fun. Become familiar with their values. Try to think the way they think.

One of the best ways to learn how to customize messages for an audience is through cultural immersion. Go and visit your audiences in person. Go out to dinner with them. Get to know their priorities. Learn how to establish credibility with their organizations. Work with them and talk with them as much as possible.

Then, once you know your audiences, use techniques like community-based social marketing. Find out what constraints prevent them from taking environmental actions. Address these challenges through concise and direct communication. When you talk about benefits, tailor your language to your audiences.

Don’t rely on messages about preserving the environment or saving money. These popular messages may not resonate with your audiences at all. To develop messages that work, you need to know your audiences and understand them as well as people in a small town understand their next-door neighbors.

My neighbors listen to very good music... whether they like it or not.
Get to know your audiences’ cultural preferences as well as you know your neighbors’. (Source: Someecards.com)

How can nonprofits build diversity awareness into their communication? There are no easy answers. But I find it helps to think of diversity-friendly communication as a tapestry. If you weave diversity awareness into each aspect of your outreach, you’ll see better results than you would if you tacked it on at the end.

That’s the approach my former coworker Dr. Sherrill Sellers recommended when we wrote the CIRTL Diversity Resources. Although the Diversity Resources were written for university instructors, nonprofits can use similar approaches. I recommend checking out our case study collection if you are thinking of organizing facilitated conversations about diversity.

When we were producing the Diversity Resources, we sifted through many university workbooks on creating welcoming climates. We found that a band-aid approach to diversity-friendly communication may be a step in the right direction, but it is just a step. More needs to be done.

After the Be the Media! conference in Boston on Dec. 6, I wrote the following list of questions to help organizations communicate inclusively. Items 1, 2 and 6 are partly based on comments by our facilitators, Elena Letona and Kathleen Pequeño.

  1. Whom do you ask for their opinion? If you look at whose voices are absent from your decisions, you may find some gaps. Consider having conversations, surveys and focus groups to include unheard stakeholders. For example, if you are working on an environmental issue in a low-income community, remember to ask for community feedback. This is especially important if there is a language barrier.
  2. Are your communication channels working? Make sure not to rely exclusively on the Internet if you want to reach a diverse base of potential supporters. Consider mobile-friendly websites and phone apps. Low-income young people often browse using their phones. Test drive new approaches to see what works.
  3. Is your communication jargon-free, easy to understand, and interesting? Remember, your audiences are not required to listen to you, even if you’re communicating vital health information about disease prevention or disaster awareness. Think about the style of language you’re using. If you use research language with non-specialists, your message may be ignored or misinterpreted. Ask your audiences for feedback.
  4. Is your message relevant? Why should your audiences care about the issues that matter to your organization? If you get to know them and learn what matters to them, your communication will be much more on target than it would be otherwise.
  5. Have you stepped outside your office to visit your audiences lately? How well do you know them? The more you develop  relationships, the better your communication will be.
  6. Have you considered partnering with or hiring messengers from underrepresented groups? Try crowdsourcing media, inviting people to tell their own stories via videos or blogs, and asking questions to draw out answers. You can use the results to develop stories for funders, decision makers, and media.
  7. Do you ask for constructive criticism? If you only focus on positive stories, you won’t see the roots of problems.
  8. Are your events, jobs and internships accessible to people who earn less than a middle-class income? Holding fundraisers with lower ticket prices, reducing reliance on alumni networks for hiring, and paying interns who can’t afford to take unpaid internships are three steps you can take to make your organization more welcoming.

Weaving ideas like these into your communication and outreach can help you develop real relationships with communities rather than being seen as an outside agency. The more you make your communication two-way – listening, respecting community comments, and taking an interest in others – the better your results are likely to be. Seek to understand before seeking to be understood.


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