Shaping the Future of Storytelling: How news organizations can confront 'information inequality'.

Author:DeRienzo, Matt
Position:Industry insight

America has an information inequality problem, and the people on the wrong side of it face risks to their physical and mental health, safety and financial wellbeing.

News organizations must acknowledge that it exists and start listening to the people most affected in their own communities before it can be addressed.

In September, the American Society of News Editors extended the deadline for participation in its annual newsroom diversity survey due to the lack of participation. Only 234 out of 1,700 newspapers and digital media outlets responded, compared to 661 the previous year.

That survey showed found that minority journalists comprised only 16.6 percent of the workforce in newsrooms that responded, a ratio that has seen basically no improvement over the past two decades. It also showed that minority journalists and women are under-represented in newsroom leadership positions, where white men still hold a comfortable majority.

This contributes to and maintains information inequality in several ways.

If entire communities of people are not represented in newsrooms, especially in newsroom leadership, we don't know the basic stories we are missing, the basic information that they need, in the way that we know how to serve white, middle-to high-income suburban families, for example. There are "known unknowns" and "unknown unknowns," as Donald Rumsfeld would say.

When marginalized communities do find their way into local news stories, implicit bias can shape coverage, with stories about young white men focusing on all of the mitigating circumstances and their great upbringing, and stories about young black victims of crime focusing on negative aspects of their past.

Many have pointed out that prominent top male news leaders ousted in recent years in the wake of sexual harassment allegations--Matt Lauer at NBC, Michael Oreskes at NPR, Charlie Rose and Les Moonves at CBS, Roger Ailes and Bill O'Reilly at Fox--had tremendous influence on coverage of the first presidential election with a woman as major party nominee. So it wasn't just that men dominated coverage of Hillary Clinton that many felt held her to an unfair double-standard vs. Donald Trump. It was shaped by men with a track record of open hostility toward and abuse of women.

Even when newsrooms set out to depict marginalized communities through an empathetic, positive lens, Heather Biyant, a John S. Knight journalism fellow at Stanford last year, argues that journalists are writing...

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