After a summer of nationwide protests following the police killing of George Floyd and outrage over the shooting death of a young Black man by a white bar owner in Omaha, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln student newspaper decided to make the value of Black lives the focus of its 2020 fall special edition.
A small group of student editors at The Daily Nebraskan, including Senior Sports Editor Drake Keeler, wondered if the newspaper should do something more lasting than a one-time collection of stories. They decided to create the Diversity and Inclusion Board, which would strive to draw more students of color to the staff, create an environment of inclusiveness and more intentionally cover issues of race, culture and diversity.
Keeler, who is Black and, at the time, one of three non-white journalists among the 20-member senior staff, was already in charge of the special edition. He expanded his duties to include internal chair of the new board his senior year.. Progress was slow, but the newspaper was moving in the right direction during his tenure, he said.
“A lot of the stuff we did initially was internal. We updated our stylebook, and just making sure our policies were inclusive and making sure that this was a place where staff members from marginalized communities would feel welcomed and comfortable was a priority for us,” said Keeler, who graduated last spring and works for a publication focused on Nebraska Cornhuskers sports.
“As far as the coverage, I don’t know if that’s something we deeply analyzed, but I’d like to think that while I was there, we paid more attention to it and did more stories on marginalized communities,” he said.
Student-run campus media, like news organizations run by professionals, have been slow to diversify their staffs and consistently represent the interests of people of color in their coverage. Data about diversity at student-run college media is limited. But a survey by students in a summer journalism fellowship sponsored by the Asian American Journalists Association found Black and Latino students at schools in the sample were severely underrepresented in top editing positions compared to their share of student population.
Participants in the 2020 class of AAJA Voices surveyed student media that had won recent top awards from the Associated Collegiate Press (ACP) or Society of Professional Journalists, asking about the diversity of their staffs. Of the 73 editors in chief who responded, 5.5% were Black, while 9.6% [aggregate figure] of students at the schools they represented were Black. And 11% were Latino, compared to 21.8% of the Latino student population at the schools. Asian and white editors were slightly overrepresented compared to their share of overall students.
The reasons for diversity in newsrooms are the same for both professional and student news operations. Key among them is the belief that diverse newsrooms are better positioned to cover communities with nuance and authority. The nation’s shifting demographics, with a growing share of people of color and a shrinking white population, have hastened the call for newsroom diversity.
But should campus newsrooms be expected to do what professional ones have failed to do after a half-century of trying? The Kerner Commission, appointed by President Lyndon Johnson, issued a report in 1968 calling on newspapers to hire more Black reporters and newsroom managers to create a more accurate portrayal of African American life. Ten years later, in 1978, the newspaper industry set an ambitious goal: achieving newsroom diversity that matched the racial and ethnic makeup of the country by 2000.
It failed. And the new target, 2025, seems even more unrealistic.
Martin Reynolds, co-executive director of the Maynard Institute, which promotes diversity in journalism through training and other activities, makes a case for school media to work with the same urgency. With many Americans living in neighborhoods with little racial diversity, some new college students might find their campus more diverse than they’re accustomed to, and that can be jarring, Reynolds said. Other students might find their campus less diverse than back home. Either way, the students may have trouble adjusting, he said.
“We found in talking with some educators over recent years that it’s been a real challenge in terms of navigating these special dynamics across social fault lines, like race and class and gender, generation and geography, sexual orientation and the like,” Reynolds said. “So, we find it’s essential that student publications don’t replicate the same mistakes as professional news organizations.”
Campus media have not collectively set a goal like their professional counterparts, but many individual newsrooms, like Nebraska’s, have taken the initiative to make changes. Tamara Zellars Buck, chair of the Department of Mass Media at Southeast Missouri State University, said she’s frequently called to speak to campus media journalists about diversity and inclusion. And, she said, the sessions are always packed. “What I can tell you is the students want to do better,” said Buck, a member of the ACP board and former board member of the College Media Association.
Student journalists are no better — and no worse — than professionals at boosting the diversity at their news outlets, Buck said. But many recognize the need to do so and are trying to figure out how.
“I have my students of color who want to know what they can do individually or how they can feel empowered,” said Buck, “but I also have many white students who are saying, ‘Look, we know it’s a problem. We just don’t know how to fix it.’ Or, ‘Here’s our particular problem; can you help us with it?’”
The new editor of Florida Atlantic University’s campus newspaper is facing a diversity-related problem. Black students were so dissatisfied with the paper’s lack of coverage of their issues and events, they started their own online publication. The Paradigm Press was founded in 2020 during the three-month span when the nation was rattled by the dramatic killings of three Black citizens: Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor.
The newspaper, founded by then-student Kennedy McKinney, says on its website that it will “highlight and tell the stories of the Black community” at FAU. “We believe that our community needs more attention and we plan on being the voice for the Black population.”
The Paradigm has published stories about the return of a popular step show, a feature on a Black student government representative, a new poetry slam club and reaction to the acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse, who killed two men during a night of protests and rioting in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
Savannah Peifer, editor–in-chief of University Press, FAU’s official student publication, agrees the newspaper didn’t properly cover the interests of Black students in the past, even as the university, in Boca Raton, is the most diverse public university in the state. About 40% of students are white, 27% Latino, nearly 18% Black and 4% Asian, according to 2021 data. In the fall, Diverse: Issues in Higher Education magazine ranked it 17th among U.S colleges in awarding bachelor’s degrees to Black students across all disciplines.
Peifer, who began leading the paper in January, said having so few students of color on the mostly white staff was the biggest factor in the poor coverage. (Of the 10 paid editors, three are people of color, and the rest are white. Writers are not paid.) Events important to non-white students got overlooked, she said.
She’s committed to doing better and has marshaled the entire staff to help fix the problem, with additional help from the newspaper’s adviser, Wesley Wright, who assists SPJ with a diversity initiative. “I’m trying to make sure they don’t overlook important cultural or ethnic issues,” said Wright, “and also understanding that I can’t speak on these issues because, as much as I can educate myself, I can’t truly understand it.”
Peifer said she is publishing photos that better depict the diversity of the university and plans to “amplify” the voices of students of color, not stifle them. She decided to revive a Black History Month special edition, which was last produced five years ago.
Peifer’s challenge highlights the need for journalism programs to prepare future journalists to address diversity and inclusion issues. There are many efforts to do this by journalism departments and individual educators, though there undoubtedly are also schools where there is little or no focus on it.
Patricia Weems Gaston, a journalism professor at her alma mater, the University of Kansas, advises the campus newspaper staff and teaches diversity techniques. But the best way to show students the importance of diversity is having a diverse faculty, she said. People with different backgrounds have something different to offer, and sometimes that different thing is inspiration, she said.
Gaston teaches a reporting class about hidden stories, which are all linked in some way to diversity, perhaps race, class, culture, rural verses urban, old versus young, etc. She encourages students to think beyond the obvious, engage their curiosity, look in places they wouldn’t normally go. And to do it even if it feels uncomfortable.
“Students are learning there’s this plethora of stories out there that they may not have seen,” she said. They view them as hidden because they’re focused on what they think is the next big story, she said.
A key diversity initiative at Michigan State University helps students make their stories more inclusive. They log the demographics of people they interview to see whether their choice of sources matches the diversity of the community. When the students finish an interview, they ask for information such as race, age and political leaning and enter the data into a spreadsheet. When they review the data, they see which demographics are underrepresented in their reporting and can adjust.
The initiative, called Fair Chance Reporting, forces students to think about diversifying their sources in each story they write. Joe Grimm, a visiting editor in residence who helped develop the initiative, sees it as a reporting tool to help reporters more accurately reflect the community.
“We’re just trying to get to accurate, and I think every good journalist wants to be accurate,” Grimm said.
Featured photo: Brandon Drain shoots a video of another Michigan State University journalism student, Taylor Gattoni, about the Fair Chance Reporting strategy. (Photo by Joe Grimm)
Rod Hicks is director of ethics and diversity for the Society of Professional Journalists. Follow him on Twitter @rodhicks.