UNITY President Russell Contreras speaks at the UNITY Diversity Caucus on June 17, 2016, in Washington, D.C.

UNITY President Russell Contreras speaks at the UNITY Diversity Caucus on June 17, 2016, in Washington, D.C.

By Kelsey Nelson, UNITY Reporter


Kelsey Nelson portrait

Kelsey Nelson

To expand upon the accepted dictionary definition of diversity, journalists from across the country descended upon the nation’s capital to discuss what diversity means for the future of the news industry.

The third annual UNITY Diversity Caucus — hosted by UNITY: Journalists for Diversity — was June 17, the anniversary of the Charleston church shooting, which was acknowledged by all 70 of the caucus attendees. UNITY President Russell Contreras delivered the opening remarks. He told a story about a lesson he learned from his uncle. When he went to ask for advice about his incoming role leading UNITY, his uncle said: “What’s your plan? It’s good to talk. Now it’s time to do.”

PHOTO GALLERY: View scenes from the event That uncle’s message resonated throughout the day as UNITY leaders and caucus attendees did not just want to talk about diversity issues in the safe confines of the American University campus, where they had gathered for the meeting. UNITY’s leadership wanted people to take what they learned and apply it back in their respective journalism organizations, newsrooms and campuses.

Participants shared best practices for supporting diversity in journalism including the importance of mentoring the next generation. Ways to partner with students as early as high school were discussed, and the Asian American Journalists Association’s multicultural JCamp was one example of such outreach.

How to Frame a Story: Lessons From Orlando

“Challenge with passion but not poison,” said facilitator Jill Geisler, the Bill Plante Chair in Leadership and Media Integrity at Loyola University Chicago.

“When we first put this together, history was a little different,” Geisler said. “Orlando had not happened.” She then led a vigorous discussion about the horrific event that had occurred in Orlando just days before the caucus. With the massacre still fresh in everyone’s minds, the conversation turned to the role journalists play when tragedies occur.

“Who’s the victim in stories, and how do we characterize them?”  asked Eloiza Altoro, UNITY’s executive director.

“It all goes back to framing the stories,” said Karen Hansen, membership manager for the Radio Television Digital News Association.

UNITY board member Sharif Durhams said the Orlando shooting hit home. The same night as the attack, he had been at a gay bar and he learned of the crime as he was leaving.

Alfredo Carbajal, secretary of the American Society of News Editors, said that when he first heard about the shooting, he noticed the Hispanic surnames and immediately thought it had been a targeted attack against gay Hispanics.

Members of NLGJA, the association of LGBT journalists, provided context for the conversation by explaining how the gay rights movement started in a bar, saying that gay bars are an iconic “safe place” much like the church is for the African-American community.

Keith Woods, vice president for Diversity, News and Operations for NPR, then expanded the conversation. He said that when the story broke, it was described as a shooting at a nightclub in Orlando. Then came the detail that the club was a gay bar.

Woods hammered home the point of how important language is, and he addressed the struggles that some news organizations and journalists faced covering Orlando. He said he initially cautioned his staff against unnecessarily identifying the site of the shooting as a “gay club.” He said most people would not specify that someplace was a “straight club,” and that’s when the  term “straightwashing” came up at the caucus.  “Straightwashing” was discussed as a way of avoiding the real issues.

Several people mentioned the importance of style guides to instruct coverage.

It was “the otherness being written about in ways to say you aren’t something,” added Geisler as the caucus participants discussed the disconnect between media coverage of the Orlando shooting and the LGBT community.

UNITY adviser Michelle Johnson discussed how the National Association of Black Journalists and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists released a joint statement after the shooting about what terms to use. The discussion then transitioned into the words used to characterize the shooter. Amanda Barrett, the Associated Press’s enterprise planning and administration manager, mentioned being mad at her own organization for not calling the gunman a terrorist.

Angie Chuang, an associate professor of journalism at American University’s School of Communication, said: “When you’re a white shooter, you get to be mentally ill. You get to be motivated.” People referenced accused Charleston shooter Dylann Roof and how some media explained his actions by saying he was mentally ill.

Moving back to Orlando coverage, Chuang said it’s important to share that the shooter “claimed the act in the name of Islam. And while we cover that story, it’s important to communities that we cover the victims.”

Leadership coach Robert Naylor brought up understaffing in newsrooms, but he offered no excuses: “We have to be prepared for the next. It’s an unfortunate situation, but there will likely be another one.”

One of the key lessons from the Orlando discussion at the caucus was that diversity is something news organizations need to buy into at all times, not only in times of crisis.

Case Studies: ESPN’s The Undefeated and AP’s Race and Ethnicity Beat

To address the importance of having diverse journalists to help tell diverse stories, Senior Vice President and Editor in Chief of ESPN’s The Undefeated, Kevin Merida, presented “Creating a Newsroom With the 3 C’s: Crew, Culture and Content.” The news platform that launched May 17 is unlike many newsrooms: Most of The Undefeated’s staff are people of color. Merida discussed creating a “responsive” newsroom to handle sports stories while adding race and diversity angles to traditional and nontraditional stories. “The main thing is I want people to feel is empowered,” he said. “Empowerment is the greatest thing.”

Merida shared how he built a successful team of about 40 people from different backgrounds. “You have to constantly challenge and disrupt yourself,” he said.

Following the experiences that Merida shared, Sonya Ross and her colleague Barrett presented on “Developing a Race and Ethnicity Beat to Cover America.” Ross described how the idea for this AP beat came during President Obama’s reelection run: “We need a root of journalism that can document this change for future journalists.”

One of the first stories the beat covered was about a controversial photo of 16 African-American female West Point cadets raising their fists. She described the issue of personal identity for these women vs. the military’s identity. “We have to spin gold from air, but events happening in the country at this time drove the need to feed resources to this type of journalism,” Ross, the beat’s editor, said.

She described how at first the beat was treated as something that can’t be categorized, but “we want our reporters to be sourced in the community.”

The 2016 UNITY Diversity Caucus was co-sponsored by American University’s School of Communication, Loyola University Chicago and the National Association of Broadcasters.

The 2016 UNITY Diversity Caucus elsewhere in the news:

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