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Media executives from major outlets joined in the virtual panel “Does the News Represent Us? The State of Journalism from Those Who Shape It” earlier this month. It was the capstone event of the year-long celebration of the 100th anniversary of the founding of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.
Charles Whitaker, Medill’s Dean and a member of the RoundTable Board of Directors, introduced the moderator and panelists, observing that along with celebrating the school’s history it was important to discuss this “sea change of a moment in the industries we serve. We’re living through a time when news organizations and marketing and communications firms, just like many other institutions, are reckoning with systemic racism and their complicity in promoting and maintaining institutional racism.”
Emily Ramshaw, co-founder and CEO of The 19th, an independent nonprofit newsroom covering issues at the intersection of gender, politics and policy, led the discussion with Melissa Bell, Publisher of Vox Media; Kim Godwin, President of ABC News; Kevin Merida, Executive Editor of the Los Angeles Times; and Matt Murray, Editor in Chief of The Wall Street Journal.
The conversation offered an examination of an industry not known for self-examination, and an opportunity to hear the thoughts of decision-makers who work at places with an outsized influence on the country’s media landscape.
The first topic concerned leading by example, especially related to institutional change. Tactical ideas included empowering caucuses; examining language, standards and guidelines; publishing a style guide available to the public; meeting people where they live through community meetings (although this effort has been hindered because of COVID-19); ensuring that hiring practices mandate outreach to women and people of color to guarantee those groups are represented in the interview process; and setting up pre-professional internship programs with specific minority-focused colleges.
Godwin, the first woman and person of color to lead ABC News when she was hired in 2021, recounted the first days at her new job. She made it safe for people on staff to “bring their authentic selves to the office.” She told them about her family, how she traveled from New York to Florida on a Greyhound bus to attend college at Florida A&M University, a historically black college, and her experiences working at newsrooms around the country, moving wherever and whenever the job demanded it.
Then she got out of the way of a pre-existing culture council that Disney Corporation/ABC had set up previously.
“I empowered that culture council to talk to the organization in any way that they wanted to,” Godwin said. “And they had all kinds of meetings [where there] were no managers, they organize themselves, and to come back with recommendations to the organization as to how we could be more inclusive inside the organization, and outside the organization and our reporting.”
Godwin also began sharing the diversity, equity and inclusion statistics with her team once each quarter so everyone could see if they were doing better or worse over time.
Participants discussed the importance of diversity beyond race and ethnicity. Diversity of experience, economic diversity, gender diversity and geographic diversity are all essential for presenting a more representative story.
The panelists suggested ways future journalists (or anyone, for that matter) can build skills: Study many different subjects, like history and economics, beyond the ones offered at Medill. Read one or two national newspapers and one local newspaper every day. Learn how to determine the collective truth from what is false and fake. Watch news shows that are outside of your comfort zone. Remember that social media is a communication tool – not research. Get to know the people around you and try to understand what they care about and what motivates them.
The Wall Street Journal’s Murray said, “Take time now as you are studying and going about your college life to be a broadly experienced, empathetic, curious person, and develop skills and knowledge in lots of areas. Because journalism, you know, is one of the best ways to have a lifelong journey of learning and experiencing and trying new things.”
The YouTube video of the entire 69-minute panel discussion may be viewed here.