Reporting On Diverse Communities: Avoiding the Obvious

Jun 21, 2014

It’s no secret that public radio has a diversity issue; diversity in our newsrooms and diversity in our content. News outlets are making efforts to be more inclusive in the reporters they hire and the stories they tell. But that opens up a whole new set of issues: How do you tell stories about a community you aren’t a part of? Is it the job of the reporters from those communities to tell those stories? And what exactly are we talking about when we refer to “diversity?”  A conversation between PRNDI attendees and Tara Gatewood (UNITY) and Hansi Lo Wang (NPR’s Code Switch) at the session entitled "Reporting from Diverse Communities" touched mostly on race and ethnicity, though there are many types of diversity including religious, economic, and gender.

Before I share some of the highlights and tips from the conversation, it’s important to note as Hansi Lo Wang did during the breakout session that “it’s about context.” There are no simple solutions or pieces of advice that will fit every situation. What we do know is that it makes the difference for audiences. Wang told attendees, “Look at the demographics of the area you’re reporting in. If there are no voices that represent that diversity then it’s not really truthful. If you don’t have diverse voices I don’t know if I trust you’re accurately reflecting the reality of the country.”

Here are four more more tips from the “Covering Diverse Communities” session:

1. Be Yourself

This one seems pretty obvious, right? But Wang noted that for many reporters this can be the most difficult part. You’re a journalist, you’re helping tell a story. “I think people can detect that you’re not being genuine. Ultimately in any situation, you’re trying to develop trust. Being confident in your role in that situation is an important start.” Be straightforward about what you’re doing and don’t pretend to be someone you’re not.

“You don’t have to trick people,” Gatewood said, “You’re there as a journalist.”

2. Find the Universal in the Specific

Hansi Lo Wang told an anecdote about one of his first assignments for Code Switch, a story on Lunar New Year. He knew immediately what type of story he didn’t want to tell. “The typical story is, ‘Oh there’s a parade, and fireworks, and look, they eat weird food.’ I don’t gain anything from that. Listeners don’t gain anything from that either.”

Wang decided to cover the red envelopes filled with money typically given out during the festivities by family members, and the decision-making process for folks when it comes to figuring out how much to give someone.

Wang said, in the end, the story was about,“The calculus of celebrating New Years. It’s something everyone can connect to and that can provide insight. And it’s also a conversation between generations and diasporas. It’s about capturing that and marking a holiday that’s important. You get insight inside and outside the community.”

3. Connect

“People want to parachute in, do a story and not come back until the next big thing,” says Gatewood. That leads to some skepticism on the part of those being interviewed. Subjects want to understand why the story is being told and if they do, she says, they’re more likely to open up. Explain yourself as a journalist. A lot of people, especially in under-reported or misrepresented communities, have a mistrust of the media, and for good reason. For years they have only shown up in coverage when the media wanted to talk about plight, incarceration, poverty or violence.

It also helps to go into a story with some basic knowledge of the community you’re entering. "Communities want to be able to set the record straight,” Gatewood says. Research is essential. “That's how you show you respect."

4. Find the Diversity in Diversity

When we talk about diversity, in the context of reporting and just generally, it’s easy to fall into referring to races, genders, and religions as if everyone who falls under those umbrellas are the same. Whether in the neighborhoods that we’re reporting from or in our newsrooms, it’s good to remember that individuals exist. Wang says, “Just because someone is Latino doesn’t mean it’s a Latino story. The words like Asian, Latino, African-American describe a lot of people."