If There Isn't a Person of Color in the Room You’re Missing Something

Jun 25, 2016

When Adrian Florido woke up Sunday morning his phone was blowing up. There was a shooting. In Orlando. A gay nightclub. On Latin Night.

Immediately he knew — most, if not all, of the victims would be Latino.

Florido started tweeting about that fact. The backlash came quickly, replies on twitter that whether the victims were Latino wasn’t relevant. “No need to create divisions where none exist,” @WayneTheCaveman wrote, “or tribalize us.”

Simultaneously, NPR was putting together a rapid response team. Fifteen journalists getting on planes, heading to the Pulse Nightclub and the neighborhoods around it. But not one of them spoke Spanish.

So Florido, a reporter with NPR’s Code Switch, called his editor. “You need to send me too,” he said.

“The fact that Latin Night was the first thing I thought about and the last thing other (journalists) thought about is a problem.” Florido said at a PRNDI panel on covering race. “But it’s not uncommon.”

That dissonance is why conversations about reporting on race are so crucial, Florido said.

George Bodarky ushered the 2016 PRNDI conference into session by inviting Keith Woods, VP of Diversity at NPR, to moderate a panel on race. Specifically, how public radio newsrooms can cover race more thoughtfully, responsibly, and how they can do it quickly.

The panelists -- including Florido as well as Kameel Stanley, a reporter from St. Louis Public Radio, Tim Lloyd, also from St. Louis Public Radio and Judy Valente from WGLT in Normal, IL – had a lot to say.

But it wasn’t always a comfortable conversation.

Almost all of public radio is aimed at white people. That means we're doing something wrong. -- Adrian Florido

“Almost all of public radio is aimed at white people,” Florido told the (mostly white) crowd at the conference. “That means we’re doing something wrong.”

So what to do? “The only real answer is hiring,” Florido said. “It’s not going to happen if you don’t have brown and black people in your newsroom.”

Valente from WGLT agreed. “We still don’t have an African American reporter or any minority reporters at all on our staff. You get into a routine and you just don’t have to think about it. Sometimes our eyes aren’t open.”

“When I retire I hope I’m replaced by a person of color,” Valente said, adding that she would be disappointed if that didn’t happen.

But hundreds of positions, particularly management positions, aren’t going to open up overnight.

Until those opportunities come around, some newsrooms are working to be more deliberate in bringing diverse perspectives into their reporting.

In 2014, Valente worked on a four-month investigation of policing in the twin cities of Normal and Bloomington, Illinois. The investigation showed that African Americans were being targeted for traffic stops.

When it was time to find someone to interview for her story, she didn’t have any sources who were people of color. So she says she just “began to ask African Americans we know, including a woman on one of our music shows — and the stories started pouring back.”

Valente found a college student who had recorded his encounter with a cop who pulled him over when he had gone looking for a textbook he’d dropped in a field after a late night study session. The cop didn’t believe his story. After finding the book and showing the cop, the student said  the cop looked disappointed.

“Nobody ever believes us. Even when there’s video, even when there’s data,” said Kameel Stanley, after hearing a clip from Valente’s story. “You know there’s this burden of proof, and who has it? It’s people who look like me.” The second season of the podcast Stanley co-hosts, We Live Here, focused on the burden of proof.

Nobody ever believes us. Even when there is video, even when there is data. You know there is this burden of proof, and who has it? It is people who look like me. -- Kameel Stanley

The student in Valente’s story didn’t have a criminal record -- she checked.

“As a journalist, you have to look behind some of these things.” Valente added.

But what if a source does have a criminal record? Maybe they had been profiled too.

Stanley says that’s precisely why context is crucial. “I grew up always hearing journalism mentors saying ‘content is king’ but I think when you’re dealing with issues of race, identity, ‘context is king.’ There is a ton of coverage around race right now but many of them are missing context.”

“Automatically ‘defaulting’ to a white person can discount the voices people of color. We have to realize that.” Stanley added.

“You gotta be able to hear the voice of people. You must hear it from them, not about or around them,”said Woods. “It’s crucial to make sure that stories about race include the voices of those directly impacted.”

The floor was opened to questions, but there were only a few. Acknowledging that the room was an “uncomfortable space” for people of color, Jen Chien, Managing Editor of KALW commented on the “need to bring people of color’s voices into stories that are not about race.”

But the biggest take away from the panel: hire. Make your newsrooms look like your communities. Everything else is a stop-gap.