Diversity should always be an important consideration in planning journalism events.
Currently and historically, most news media have failed to reflect the diversity of our country’s population or of the communities and segments of society they cover. And most news staffs don’t reflect the diversity of the people they cover. Those facts are directly related, despite earnest efforts of white guys like me to bring diversity into our own coverage efforts.
Even if a conference isn’t focused on diversity as a primary topic (and more conferences should be), journalism event planners should take diversity into account in inviting speakers, panelists, participants and topics. I can’t think of a conference that wouldn’t be strengthened by diversity in race, ethnicity, gender and age. Sometimes other diversity factors, such as sexual orientation or identification, disabilities, religion, political outlook, geography and job could matter in some events. But some of those (as well as some of the demographic factors) might be difficult to know about some potential speakers, unless they publicly state them.
A recent event underscored to me how important perspective is when experiencing and assessing diversity efforts.
Kim Fox and I were speakers recently at the Future of Student Media Summit at Ohio University. I thought it was an outstanding event, better than most of the 150-plus that I’ve attended as a speaker or participant. Fox sharply criticized the event for its lack of diversity, saying, “As a black female college professor I was immediately struck and frustrated by the lineup of speakers for the summit – predominantly white males.”
I’m going to get around to some suggestions for increasing diversity in the speakers and content of journalism events. At the very end of this long post, I will explain some of my personal history of diversity efforts. But first I want to address differing perspectives and how they play into efforts to improve diversity and perceptions of how diverse an event is.
Fox and I are of different genders and races. I was one of those white males that she correctly observed predominated. I counted (guessing ethnicity in some cases) people on the conference speakers page, and 28 of us were white males, compared to 12 women and/or racial or ethnic minorities. I know of one white male who had to cancel, but other speakers may have canceled of whom I am not aware.
Both of the keynote speakers were white men, including me. The other general sessions both featured white men as well. The only female speaking except in breakout sessions was OU student Alisa Warren, who interviewed a featured speaker, Online News Association President Josh Hatch. I would guess from her appearance and some of her tweets that Warren is likely biracial.
I don’t recall guessing and counting the ethnicity of people at a conference before, but my impression is that the OU students who planned this event did better in achieving diversity than most media events I have attended (I’ll guess better than 60 to 70 percent), but not as well as the best. That’s more a measure of how poorly most media conferences achieve diversity than of how well these students did.
Fox faults the conference planners for an all-male panel she attended, where someone in the audience asked why there wasn’t a woman on the panel. I didn’t attend that panel (the conference had six time slots with about four breakout sessions each time). As Fox noted, the question might have been prompted by Scott Gilmore’ s post, Why I will no longer speak on all-male panels, which encouraged asking the question.
Of course, unless you ask during the planning, you’re not immediately aware of the diversity of a panel when you’re asked to serve on one. You may not know yet who the other panelists are because you are the first person asked. You may know that women and/or minorities are among the people being invited, but learn later that they didn’t accept or had to back out. I’m scheduled to be on a panel this summer that, at this point, includes a woman. If she has to change plans, when will I find out (I’m not the panel organizer)? And how could I answer that question if she’s replaced by a man?
I did attend a session that featured all women at the Future of Student Media Summit: OU student Emma Ockerman, editor-in-chief of the Post, moderating a discussion of revenue innovations at college newspapers by Danielle Ferguson, editor-in-chief of the Iowa State Daily, and Victoria Checa, advertising manager of the Diamondback at the University of Maryland. It was an excellent session and I’ve already mentioned some of their ideas to my colleagues at LSU as things we might want to try.
Checa illustrates a challenge event planners have in seeking to achieve diversity among their speakers and panelists: You don’t always know how well you’re doing. She does not speak with a foreign accent, but that’s true of many, if not most, children of immigrants. She doesn’t have one of those common Spanish last names ending in z that help you identify someone as a likely Latina. But I would surmise from her dark hair and her name that she is a Latina. The website Mooseroots says 86 percent of the people with that surname are Hispanic and 6 percent are Asian. Should event organizers have presumed she was Hispanic in assessing the diversity of their speakers? Should they have asked her? Can they know whether she’s married to a Latino and took his name?
My Spanish teacher in college was a Mexico native who spoke with an accent and “looked” Hispanic, but her married name was Harris. If you were planning speakers for a conference and didn’t know her, if someone recommended her as a speaker, you likely would presume from her name that she didn’t add to the ethnic diversity of the speakers.
I emailed a draft of this post to Checa and she clarified her ethnicity: “My father is Nicaraguan and Peruvian and my mother is Nicaraguan and French, so the French part makes it a bit more difficult to tell.” She also described the conference as “incredible.”
Having attended an all-female breakout, and not the all-male one, I didn’t see the lack of diversity as clearly as Fox did. And I should acknowledge the obvious: My gender and race probably affected whether and how I would notice the lack of diversity.
I did notice that the group who went to dinner for the speakers Saturday night was all-white-male, a mix of out-of-town speakers and hosts from OU. It wasn’t a huge group, about 10 of us. I see by my email invitation that multiple women and people of color were invited. I presume and hope travel schedules or dinner plans with other friends were the factors that kept others from joining us, not that they didn’t feel welcome.
From my different perspective, the students planning the OU event produced an excellent event on many counts. They probably did better on diversity than Fox gave them credit for, but they should aspire to do better, and I support Fox in pointing out this shortcoming. Students need and want to learn, and diversity is an important lesson for students and professionals to learn and relearn.
Planning Just the Facts
I recently helped plan a much smaller event, Just the Facts, an American Press Institute fact-checking boot camp hosted March 12 by LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communication.
We had 10 speakers at the event, including a panel moderator and a fellow organizer and I who presented some short 5-minute sessions before each of the major sessions. I don’t know what type of event is a greater challenge in terms of achieving diversity. A smaller, more tightly focused event such as Just the Facts, where all speakers need a particular specialty, forces you to use a narrower pool of potential speakers, but a single speaker can notably change the demographic balance of the event. For a larger event such as the Future of Student Media Summit, where the topics covered are broader, the pool of potential speakers much larger, but you also need to recruit more minority and female speakers to achieve true diversity.
This might be a place to point out a central fact in the challenges of achieving diversity at these events: This can be difficult because of the deplorable diversity record of the news business, particularly in print and digital. Until the late 1990s, Federal Communication Commission rules required stronger diversity efforts in broadcasting than the newspaper business ever achieved.
As Fox correctly noted, the news profession has women and journalists of color with expertise in the topics covered at any conference. But white men with similar expertise usually outnumber them notably, or are more prominent, due to the industry’s historic and current failure to diversify, either because of intentional discrimination or the “unconscious bias” that Fox cited. So sometimes planning an event requires some conscious effort to identify and invite the women and journalists of color whose expertise will provide valuable contributions to the conference. And, if the topic(s) of your conference are areas where the lack of diversity in experience and opportunity is particularly egregious, those few experts might have more demands on their schedules and be more likely to turn you down.
I don’t mention any of this to excuse the lack of diversity at any event, just to note that planning an event with diverse speakers and topics requires a conscious attention to achieve diversity, just as planning a fun, instructional or thought-provoking even requires attention to those matters.
In our initial planning for Just the Facts, we were thinking the daylong program would have four sessions. We had five ideas, each of them a topic or an organization we were interested in hearing from: someone from PolitiFact, someone from Snopes, someone from “The Daily Show,” a session on fact-checking information from social media and a politics panel of people from Louisiana.
We decided we would definitely have the politics panel; that group would not involve travel arrangements or expenses. We would invite people from PolitiFact, Snopes and “The Daily Show.” At that point, I had no idea about the race or gender of the people we might get from any of those organizations. If we were able to get someone from each of them, I’d do a short segment on social media verification (we opened each of the longer sessions with a “fast fact” presented by API’s Jane Elizabeth or me). If one of those three organizations didn’t have someone who could help, I was confident that I’d be able to recruit someone good to lead a full session on social media verification. My list of potential speakers for that session included multiple women and people of color.
I expected at least one of the organizations wouldn’t be able to provide a speaker for our date. Planning an event involves some rejections from people who are busy or have schedule conflicts. I turned down or backed out of more than a dozen events last year because of my treatment for lymphoma, causing those event planners to turn to Plan B (or C or D, since I’m not necessarily always Plan A). If I had been a woman or a journalist of color, I would have fouled up the diversity planning of those organizers, especially when I accepted an invitation, then canceled because of changes in my treatment schedule.
Our goal all along was to recruit speakers for a strong program, but diversity was a factor in my mind from the start. I hoped for some diversity in the people from the three organizations we were targeting, and figured we’d have more opportunity to achieve diversity in the panel and the social-media speaker, if needed.
The fact-checker at “The Daily Show” is a white male, Adam Chodikoff, who accepted our invitation and was an excellent lunch speaker, presenting funny debunking clips from the show and then describing the research that went into each.
After PolitiFact Editor Angie Holan, a white female, turned us down because of a schedule conflict, we invited Gardner Selby, a white male who’s editor of Politifact Texas. Selby was an excellent lead-off speaker, but Holan’s schedule affected the gender diversity of our event.
We had the reverse happen with Snopes. Founder David Mikkelson, a white male, initially accepted, then decided that he’d better send someone else because he would be returning from a trip to India, and either might be too tired to speak well or travel delays could cause him to miss our program altogether. He suggested Brooke Binkowski, a white female editor at Snopes, who was both humorous and instructional. (Mikkelson did actually come and sit in the audience, but Binkowski was the speaker.)
Being fairly new to Louisiana, I sought suggestions of others in the Manship School and Louisiana media for potential politics panelists. The initial suggestions I received were all male (and presumably white, but I didn’t know them all). I noted the gender issue and sought and received two more suggestions. One well-qualified woman didn’t respond to my emails (with a special legislative session, followed quickly by the regular session, our event came at a busy time for Louisiana political journalists). However, Marsha Shuler, a veteran political journalist, accepted and joined two LSU political communication professors, Ray Pingree and Bob Mann, and Charles Maldonado of the Lens as panelists. Another LSU prof, Martin Johnson moderated.
When Steve Myers of the Lens suggested Maldonado as a panelist, I presumed he was a Latino. Mooseroots says 93 percent of the people named Maldonado are Hispanic. He may be, but I didn’t ask him (I’m sending him a draft of this post and will update if he responds). But, if you didn’t note Maldonado’s Latin-sounding name, he didn’t look notably different ethnically from the other panelists.
He explained his ethnicity by email after I sent him a draft of this post: “My father is from Venezuela and has dark skin and black hair. You’ve noticed that I got my mother’s looks, though. Her maiden name is Johnson and she’s from Detroit.”
Some facts of diversity today are that Hispanics range in color from light-skinned to dark-skinned, that lots of white people have dark hair and that children or grandchildren of immigrants often have little or no accent, that progress in achieving diversity results in more biracial and inter-ethnic parents, whose offspring don’t “look” like a particular ethnicity.
It’s probably progress in diversity that some people are getting hard to label, I should note. Maybe one day labels won’t matter. But diversity does still matter, so you should seek to achieve it, even if that means some guessing.
In hiring, it’s sometimes easier to identify the ethnicity of a person than when you’re looking for a professional to invite to join a conference panel. An applicant’s resumé might list membership in an ethnic group such as the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, or a scholarship that mentions ethnicity. In planning a panel, you might need more research and still might not find out.
And, if you ask about someone’s ethnicity, you’re almost telling that person, if he or she is the guessed ethnicity, that you’re inviting because of ethnicity rather than expertise, a potentially insulting experience of apparent tokenism. Or, if the person says no, he or she is white just like me, should you disinvite? Of course not. I’ve never asked the ethnicity of a person I’m considering for an event or a job.
So how did we do on diversity for Just the Facts? Of the 10 speakers and panelists, three were women and one of the men was Hispanic. Numerically, it was better than the Future of Student Media Summit. But you should strive for more diversity.
Advice on achieving diversity in events and hiring
I have more experience in hiring than in planning events. My advice on pursuing diversity applies to both, though some tips might apply more to one experience than to the other:
Build a diverse network. You might gravitate more naturally to people who share your own demographic traits. You’re likely to share tastes in music, sports, food and other aspects of culture and more likely to feel naturally comfortable together. So then, when you call on your network for help in planning a conference or hiring, you’re likely to get recommendations from people in similar narrow demographic circles. And frankly, if you’re a white man my age, many of the people sharing your demographics have accepted buyouts now and are out of journalism. And if they’re still in journalism, much of their network has accepted buyouts. Whatever your own demographics, you should always be working on diversifying your network.
From a career of cultivating a diverse network, I have lots of people who are younger than me and a different gender, race or ethnicity, whom I can ask for suggestions to speak at a conference (and many of them would make great speakers themselves). At both TBD and Thunderdome, my colleagues represented wide diversity by nearly any respect (except that all had strong digital and journalism experience). I can post an inquiry about conference speakers or a job opening to either former workplace’s Facebook group and be confident that I’m reaching a diverse crowd and that some of them are sharing my request with other diverse crowds.
Insist on quality and qualifications. As Fox correctly noted in her post, female journalists and journalists of color can match white men in virtually any qualification you seek. They may not be as plentiful as qualified white men, but the ones who have succeeded are every bit as qualified.
In fact, you might upgrade the quality of your speakers (or staff) when you find the qualified woman or minority candidate. An unpleasant but undeniable fact of the white-male-dominated workplace is that women and journalists of color sometimes need to be better than the white men they compete with to succeed. So when you find the qualified ones, you can almost be certain that they’ll be outstanding.
Give someone a break. I have years of experience now training journalists and speaking at conferences. But I had never spoken at a conference when the North Dakota Newspaper Association asked me to lead some workshops at its 1998 state conference. They gave me a break. I did pretty well, and now I’ve trained or taught for more than 400 newsrooms, universities, associations, seminars and so on.
If you find a good potential speaker who knows the subject well but hasn’t spoken before, you might consider a little coaching in presentation skills (I’d be happy to help). You might start someone out on a panel rather than leading a solo workshop or being a keynote speaker. You might set up the appearance as a conversation, with a more-experienced speaker interviewing the novice speaker in front of the conference crowd.
Get some help. I was once playing a lead role in recruitment of candidates for a top-editor vacancy. My initial field of candidates was all-male (after some women I thought might be good candidates said they weren’t interested). I told some female colleagues of my dilemma. They approved of my diversity efforts and absolved me of blame (which felt nice, but didn’t diversify my pool of candidates). But one of them did later steer a good female candidate to me, and my continued efforts turned up another strong candidate. Eventually the three finalists were a white man, a woman and a man of color. All three interviewed well and we had a tough decision. The publisher chose the man of color, who excelled in the position.
Your network includes some people whose networks might be more diverse than yours. Ask them for help. Just as the “old-boy network” perpetuated the white-male-dominated conferences and newsrooms, the old-girl network and networks of journalists of color can help diversify. Publicize your opportunities within formal groups organized around demographic minorities, as well as within the individual networks of friends who don’t share your own demographics.
Diversify the planning. I was the only male planning Just the Facts. Jane Elizabeth of API approached me about collaborating with LSU. I sought volunteers to help me plan and two female colleagues volunteered. Perhaps I could have achieved more diversity in the speakers if I had recruited a colleague of color to help plan the event as well.
Keep trying. If achieving diversity were easy, it wouldn’t be an issue now, with all the commitment to diversity that journalism organizations have voiced through the decades. We are overcoming decades worth of discrimination that have made our profession less attractive to some of the groups of people we’re discriminating against. Some potentially good journalists pursue other fields, and others leave our field in frustration. Do the best you can with this conference or this hire. Learn from your successes and failures with this one and try even harder the next time.
No excuses. When I called Fox’s post to the OU student who planned the workshop, he didn’t make excuses. He acknowledged the criticism and seemed committed to learn from the experience. You’re not going to reach perfection with any hire or any conference, whether you’re talking about diversity, quality of programming, logistical matters or whatever. Making excuses not only compounds whatever errors you made, it keeps you from learning and doing better next time.
Welcome accountability. It had to sting when the students who had worked so hard planning the Future of Student Media Summit read Fox’s criticism. But journalists hold people accountable, and we need to be able to take accountability when it’s turned on us. I guarantee the next events any of these students plan, whether at OU or in their professional careers, will be better because of the sting of being held accountable for this event’s lack of diversity.
My personal history with diversity
I know I’m not the person to judge either my intentions and commitment to diversity or my results. Whether this post seemed defensive, reflective or insightful, or a combination, some background might be helpful (even though it’s already too long).
With friends, colleagues and family, diversity has been a factor in my life since childhood. My parents raised me during the 1950s and ’60s with a strong appreciation for the diversity of this nation. Dad was an Air Force chaplain, and diversity was strong in the military in those days. The Air Force was an all-volunteer service then that probably had a disproportionate share of racial and ethnic minorities who saw it as an opportunity to get training, education and professional experience while serving their country. I remember my parents frequently entertaining people of color in our home and us visiting the homes of people of color. When we were in Japan (6th and 7th grades for me), the friends my parents were probably closest to were an interracial couple, a Japanese pastor married to a white American.
I should note that gender diversity wasn’t nearly as strong, but I think I learned enough egalitarianism to expand my view to include gender. And early in my adulthood, after Dad died, Mom enrolled in seminary and became a minister, helping diversify a heavily male field and presenting an example of diversity for her children.
As we’ve grown, my family has become diverse as well. My brother and his biological children have adopted children from Korea, Vietnam, Guatemala, Haiti, India and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, as well as African American and biracial children from the United States.
As a student editor at TCU, I hired (I was told) the first female sports editor of our student newspaper, the Daily Skiff. In more than 50 hires in my professional career where I took the lead in recruiting, made the final decision or both, 45 percent have been women and 18 percent have been journalists of color.
As a reporter and writing coach at the Omaha World-Herald in the early 2000s, I attended a SuperVision diversity training program at the Freedom Forum. I followed up by interviewing current and former staff members of color at the World-Herald and giving the executive editor a report on their experiences and some recommendations for improving diversity in the newsroom. I also led a Reality Checks audit of our content and how well it reflected the diversity of the community.
Twice I led sessions for seminars the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education presented for journalists of color.
I blogged in 2013 about the importance of making diversity a priority in newsroom leadership. That year I also spoke (as the only white male) on a panel on diversity at the Online News Association with Dori Maynard and Jessica Valenti.
I don’t say all this to boast, though it’s clear I think I have a pretty good track record on diversity issues. I just review what I regard as achievements to make this point: You can think you’re doing pretty well and still fall short of ideal when planning a conference or fail to notice or speak up about diversity issues when speaking at or attending a conference.
Diversity issues, like journalism ethics or accuracy, aren’t something you master. They are a continuing challenge that you address with each story, each hire, each event. And then you address them again. And again.
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