The messages about the need for diversity in our neighborhoods, region and workplaces keep coming, and they are important.
So I was glad to hear them last week during a day-long seminar on diversity and inclusion sponsored by Ameren at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
I had hoped that the program would include deep conversations that challenged me to question assumptions. I wanted a reminder that my position in the world as a white woman from an upper-middle class family means that I am inherently blind to the experiences and realities of people who aren’t like me.
I need that reminder, as a resident of long-segregated and unequal St. Louis, and as the executive editor at St. Louis Public Radio, an imperfect institution that is trying to include more voices on its staff and in its work (an effort equally important to NPR).
Maybe I’m naive, but I like to think that many in our community value diversity. What we struggle with is making the aspiration reality.
For our newsroom, the importance of doing more than paying lip service to that ideal became abundantly clear during the protests in Ferguson in 2014. That’s when it became downright embarrassing that of the station’s 26 editors, producers and reporters, we only had two people of color.
It’s not that the white reporters are incapable of producing fair stories about communities different than their own. However, white reporters are bound to miss details, nuances and access to people in non-white communities. Put simply, a largely white newsroom might miss, or misunderstand, what many in our community are saying.
I’m not just talking about when they are covering issues directly related to race. I’m talking about all issues.
Covering Ferguson forced us see this problem clearly and forced us to move from paying lip service to diversity to actually doing something. As a newsroom, we knew we needed to change who works in our newsroom, who we turn to for sources, and how we conceive of our coverage. We hoped that by adding journalists of color to our newsroom and broadening our sources to include more people of color, we would tell better stories that are truly reflective of all communities throughout the St. Louis region.
Here’s what we did in the newsroom. Whenever there was a job opening, we made certain to post it where journalists of color would see it and we became much more intentional about reaching out to good candidates to encourage them to apply for the jobs. We also secured a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to lead a four-station initiative focused on bringing more journalists of color into the public media realm and telling more stories about a broader array of communities. That grant became what is now called Sharing America.
Today, we have eight people of color in the newsroom, two of whom are editors. We also consider gender identity. We have 10 men, 15 women and one non-binary person in the newsroom. Three of our six editors are women.
At this point, you may be saying, “Shula, that’s fine but I still hear a lot of white men on your airways, hosting the shows and telling us about traffic.” To which I say, “True.”
As a station, we are very aware that our daily talk show host is a white man, as are the people who anchor the national programming throughout the day. But St. Louis Public radio is committing to changing that over time.
There are other voices you hear in our stories, sources, and we realized we needed to address that, too. First, we started working with a local tech company to create a tool that would function as both a digital rolodex and as a way to track the race, ethnicity, geography and sexual orientation of our sources. I know nothing about how technology comes together, but I do know that this source index is a very tall order and the tool is still under development.
We also started regularly tracking who we are talking to for our stories. Twice so far, we have conducted self-reported, point-in-time surveys of all sources interviewed for stories. We believe that regularly reminding reporters to be aware of who they interview for stories, will encourage reporters to make different choices about who to include. These surveys have not included St. Louis on the Air, just the reporters in the newsroom.
Here is what our first two surveys found. In our first survey in 2017, nearly 40 percent of the 180 people we interviewed were white men; 26 percent were white females; 15 percent were black women and 10 percent black men. Less than 1 percent were Latinos and Asian and about 2 percent were unknown or not asked about their race.
In our second survey in 2018, we saw a change. Of the nearly 200 people we interviewed for stories, 33 percent were white men — still the largest contingency, but it was a significant change. The percentage of black men interviewed was 12 percent; black women 25 percent and white women 20 percent. We managed to diversify sources in other ethnic and racial groups as well, but not by much: 1 percent of all sources were Latino, 3 percent Asian and less than 1 percent were South Asian and Middle Eastern. Also, in the 2018 survey, we had two people whose racial identity was not known.
When it comes to the LGBTQ community, our numbers were small both years and didn’t grow in size. The relatively small count doesn’t mean we didn’t talk to LGBTQ people, but rather that we may not have known we were talking to them because we didn’t change our habit of not asking about someone’s sexual orientation unless they brought it up, or unless it was pertinent to the story.
There is much to criticize about our coverage when it comes to race, equity and diversity. And we certainly aren’t boasting about how far we have come when we know how much farther we have to go. The four years it’s taken to even get to this point haven’t been pretty or easy. But as someone in charge of a very public-facing newsroom, I think it’s important for us to be transparent about our efforts — warts and all.
Touting the benefits of diversity, equity and inclusion is a good thing. The St. Louis region needs to keep its focus on those efforts. We're trying to do our part and will keep discussing what it will take to achieve a more diverse newsroom that serves the entire community. We know the work is never finished.
Follow Shula on Twitter: @shuneu