How My Student Newsroom is Leading the Way on Diversity and Inclusion
A look at how The Daily Pennsylvanian, the University of Pennsylvania’s student newspaper, is trading a history of exclusion for a future of inclusion.
by Beatrice Forman
Communications Student and Editor
On May 15th, 1993, nearly 14,000 copies of The Daily Pennsylvanian (the DP), the University of Pennsylvania’s independent student newspaper, were stolen and dumped in trash cans across campus by Black community members. Citing a legacy of institutional racism and columns that single out students of color, the perpetrators felt they committed a just awakening. The DP did not, calling the University police and demanding the students be criminally responsible for the confiscation. Ultimately no charges were pressed and business continued as usual — the paper managed a print run, never acknowledged the lack of representation on its pages or staff and chalked up its failings as circumstantial.
Until recently, it felt like that story could’ve been ripped from today’s headlines.
I am one of the managing editors of 34th Street Magazine, the DP’s sleek and sexy arts and culture mag. At present, I am the only Latinx member of the paper’s editorial board, which currently has no Black members sitting on it. Often, I float in a sea of whiteness, afraid to remind my colleagues that the editorial choices we make often isolate communities of color on campus. Sometimes we don’t make very good ones. In 2018, we published an incorrectly labeled map of Africa to accompany a front-page story about “high-risk” study abroad locations. Recently, we’ve published pieces misattributing diverse student activism to Biden, championed the plight of legacy students and spoke in coded language about racism on campus. Plainly put, Black and Brown communities on campus didn’t read us because they didn’t see themselves reflected on our pages, nor an effort made to close the gap.
Newsrooms’ Racial Reckonings
Galvanized by the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and slews of others as well as the ensuing overdue racial reckonings happening in newsrooms across the country, I began viewing my position of Diversity Chair as a change agent and led my colleagues in making a commitment to diversity and inclusion — full-stop.
Admittedly, we’ve made strides in the past, but we’ve always shrouded them in secrecy. In January of 2020, the DP was the first college newspaper to capitalize the ‘B’ in Black, making the decision months before the Associated Press but never formally announcing it. The paper offers scholarships for staff members with financial struggles who struggle to justify spending hours of unpaid labor in a windowless office, effectively lowering some barriers of entry to become a student journalist at Penn. Historically, however, these decisions have been made silently, often unknown to the students who’d like to hear them the most. The best way to learn about the DP, we say, is to join us. But, to many journalists of color, joining us seems synonymous with joining a legacy of exclusion.
A Changing View of the Role of Campus Publications
Now we understand that to change the culture of our newsroom, we have to be loud allies and acknowledge that there is no such thing as impartial, objective journalism in an era of rampant police brutality, presidential attacks on protesters, and a culture that rewards racism with hard-earned dollars and media space. Right now, there is one side: the side of anti-racism, and to be on the other means to revert to the status quo of silence, reporting on racism but never saying it’s wrong. Within the last 3 months, the DP has chosen to align with the right one.
On June 19th, the DP’s president, Isabella Simonetti, published a letter from the president outlining the DP’s position, a historic decision marking a change in how we define our role on campus. “For too long, the DP has failed to lift up the voices of Black students, and make sure their unique experiences and perspectives are heard and valued,” she writes, “With such a large platform on campus, we must do better…We aim to tell the truth, and right now the truth is that people of color in our country are in danger.”
She then goes on to outline a strategy created by myself and the members of our Diversity Commitment to begin forming reparative relationships with BIPOC students and make our office more inclusive. The highlights: a refusal to give into mainstream race tropes in our reporting, robust anti-racism training and deliberate effort to allocate new space to BIPOC writers, however critical they may be of us, in the DP.
I’d like to think we’re making good on those promises. Beginning in July, we held workshops with alums at Frontline, the Guardian, and the Philadelphia Inquirer to set standards on how to cover protests and racial tensions on campus, increase the intersectionality of our arts & culture sections, and prioritize Black issues and voices without tokenization. Going forward, we’re restructuring our newsroom operations to dedicate more writers and resources to the sections covering race and gender, and socioeconomic inequality campus. And, most importantly, we’re planning the DP’s first-ever comprehensive anti-racism training. It plans to focus on the implicit biases we have as journalists and how to actively challenge them as we report, photograph, lead and hire.
Evolving the Breadth of Voices
Now, I’ll be the first to say these are stop-gap solutions. Ultimately, the DP cannot change until the composition of our writers does. We can never truly be the voice of Black and Latinx students until more join our ranks and then ascend to leadership positions. But that’s not going to change in a semester, nor is it going to change without a deliberate improvement on our behalf. We must be better, and that means empowering our predominantly white staff to do the work BIPOC student leaders do on campus every day: to educate the majority on inequities in Penn’s operations, to call out blatant acts of racism and ask of our community to be vigilant and critical in all that it consumes.
Of course, the challenges the Daily Pennsylvanian faces are not new. Nearly every college newsroom at predominantly white institutions faces the same issue of underrepresentation on staff that leads to flawed and lopsided coverage. Marissa Martinez, the Daily Northwestern’s first Black editor-in-chief, outlines these obstacles in a letter than challenges the history of college newspapers. But because we’re all facing the same problems, we can rely on each other to create solutions.
I’d imagine that many student journalists of color are trying to start a much-needed revolution on their campus. I’d imagine that they like I once was, are scared to criticize the spaces where they’ve made lifelong friendships or ask for radical change. My advice to them is: Nothing you’re asking for is radical. It’s necessary. So, think big. Think about what the freshman version of yourself wanted most in moments of frustration from your college daily and work to make him or her proud.