CAREER

4 Ways to Make the News More Inclusive

Beatrice Forman
Communications Student and Editor

Inclusion in JournalismJournalism is the pursuit of truth. Our chief job as reporters is to present the truth in the most objective, digestible, and impactful way. But, what if we’ve been taught to search for truth in the wrong places? What if we’ve been taught to consider deadlines and the virality of our stories over the communities they impact?

In 2020, the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas found that distrust in media pervades the Black community. Based on results from a survey, out of about 1,052 Black Americans, the center found that trust in the media among respondents was especially low, averaging a 3.2 on a seven-point scale. Even more jarring: respondents cited bias as the chief cause of their skepticism, often stating that coverage of Black communities is one-sided and plagued by stereotypes.

It’s easy to see where this stilted relationship comes from. Reporting often happens on a transactional basis, especially when it comes to marginalized communities. We’ve been taught by professors, mentors, and legacy media to extract what we need — a quote, a source, a photo — from neighborhoods of color and leave, never thinking about what comes next. This leads journalists (and by extension, our readers) to look at Black and Latinx communities as beacons of trauma, and while it’s important to cover the problems impacting some of America’s most vulnerable populations, it’s important to cover their joy, too.

So, how do we break this cycle of shortcuts? We go back to the basics. Here are 4 tips to get student and veteran journalists alike thinking about how to make their beats more inclusive.

1. Start Thinking About Pronouns

While gender has always existed on a spectrum, it’s taken common knowledge a long time to catch up. And as transgender activists work to increase visibility and acceptance of gender fluidity, the likelihood of interviewing a source who doesn’t fall into the gender binary increases.

What does this mean? We must ask sources for their pronouns — or how they refer to themselves in casual conversation — at the start of an interview. Just like we ask people to state their name, age and occupation, asking for pronouns establishes a baseline for how a source should be identified. More importantly, it gives people agency over their stories and builds trust. While words as simple as “he,” “she” or “they” may not matter to us, they matter a whole lot to people who’ve had their gender questioned, so questions like these demonstrate an added level of consideration and empathy.

That being said, we ought to consider when a source’s gender identity is essential to a story. Throwing around the phrase “transgender” in fluff pieces about pop culture trends or run-of-the-mill neighborhood news isn’t the progressive stand an editor may think it is. Rather, it fetishizes and tokenizes the group, making it seem like your publication is parroting diversity instead of championing it. Gender identity should only be included when it enhances the story, not distracts from it.

2. New Frames, Not Old Stereotypes

Journalists often rely on heuristics, or mental shortcuts humans use to help them understand complex subjects, to get their readers across the finish line. Often, heuristics can be useful — for example, using the Democratic Party’s platform to reinforce a candidate’s beliefs help us keep them accountable. However, when heuristics reduce complex stories into tales of stereotypes, they turn harmful and continue to platform long disproven misconceptions.

Stereotypes are not truth. They never have been and they never will be — and that’s because communities of color are not monolithic. Given that our duty as journalists is to report the truth, we should not be reliant on stereotypes, but rather uncover what lies beneath them. We often read stories about undocumented Mexican immigrants or blighted Black communities and take them as gospel, a stand-in for every immigrant experience or every Black neighborhood. Not only do stories like these ignore more latent problems, they also refuse to showcase the power and agency these communities hold. Challenge yourself and your newsrooms to look for stories that confront stereotypes, not uphold them.

To ensure you’re telling the right story, not the convenient one:

  • Don’t conflate crime with race.
  • Use active voice to show accountability and ownership, especially when it comes to covering protests and police brutality.
  • Don’t sensationalize, especially when it comes to covering protests. It’s important to write events as they unfold, even if the order isn’t exactly titillating.

3. Follow the Golden Rule

We’ve all heard the Golden Rule drilled into our heads since childhood: Treat others the way you want to be treated. We internalize it in our daily interactions — it’s why we don’t cut other drivers off on the highway and pay it forward in the Starbucks line. Yet legacy media often drops the consideration when it comes to minority groups, often imposing identities on Black and Latinx communities that they never asked for.

Case in point: English-language news outlets often use Latinx as a more gender-inclusive stand-in for Latino or Latina, even though Spanish is an inherently gendered language. 76% of Latinx adults have never heard the term, yet outlets like The New York Times and Washington Post use it. Many Spanish speakers find words like Latinx paternalistic as they co-opt the Spanish language without understanding it or inviting stakeholders to the table. Situations like this can be avoided if newsrooms stopped and considered a new, more updated take on The Golden Rule: Would I like to be referred to the way I’m referring to others?

To ensure you’re doing right by the communities that span your beat, always:

  • Ask how a person identifies and use that identity consistently, even if it may contradict your publication’s style guide.
  • Keep track of how people identify themselves, especially if your beat involves returning to the same sources repeatedly. It sounds small, but it demonstrates to sources that you actively listen.
  • Don’t overstate circumstances for drama. For example, don’t claim a source was starving if they mention frequently skipping breakfast. Use the actual detail or opt for gentler, but still accurate, wording.

4. Prioritize Diversity and Inclusion

Prioritizing diversity and inclusion doesn’t go against the tenets of journalism you learned in college. If anything, it means those tenets are evolving to fit a new, more crowded media landscape where readers can platform publications and cancel others based on their values. Journalism has always been about getting at the truth, but as the events of 2020 have shown, the truth has different shades depending on people’s backgrounds. It’s our job — as writers, as investigators, as consumers — to put together those shades to paint the full picture, and that means going out of your way to ensure underrepresented populations find peace on your pages.

Beatrice Forman
Beatrice Forman
Communications Student and Editor at University of Pennsylvania

Beatrice Forman is a senior at The University of Pennsylvania pursuing a B.A in Communications and Political Science with the hopes of becoming a working journalist at the intersection of politics and pop culture post-grad. Forman is the editor-in-chief of Penn's premiere arts and culture magazine, 34th Street, where she manages a staff of over 100 writers and editors. She’s also an editorial assistant at the Pennsylvania Gazette, Penn's award-winning alumni magazine, and the diversity chair of The Daily Pennsylvanian Inc., where she is working to create the most progressive and inclusive student newsroom around.

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