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Dear Media Industry: Is There Colour In Your Coverage?

Kyra Kyles, Editor of Ebony, chairs a panel on how to diversify the news world at Social Media Week Chicago. 

By the year 2020, over half of the citizens born in the US will be non-white. By 2060, only 44 per cent of the American population will identify as white. And yet a cursory glance at TV, film and press would have you believe that the white experience is the only one of note.

In a Social Media Week Chicago panel chaired by Ebony magazine’s Editor-in-Chief Kyra Kyles, a diverse line-up of journalists and editors gave their thoughts on how the mainstream media handles race, from click-bait fashion articles to national news stories.

Some gaffes can be waved away as unintentional and innocuous, says Kyles, like the notorious Cosmo list of beauty do’s and don’ts where all of the don’ts were accompanied by photos of women of colour, while all of the do’s featured white women. But even in something so seemingly harmless, there is still a subliminal message; namely, that white women are the beauty ideal.

Such racial biases can weave their way into even the biggest stories without an editor realising. Kyles recalls one time, shortly after Hurricane Katrina, when she had to point out that an article described the people of New Orleans as “refugees,” which would never have occurred had the story taken place in Idaho.

Everybody on the panel can recall a time when they brought up a concern to an editor regarding the language used in an article about a particular ethnicity, only for it to be downplayed, or for the editor to start negotiating on the words they could use. “If I tell you it’s offensive, that means it’s offensive,” says Lourdes Duarte, Co-Anchor on WGN-TV News. “If a whole group tells you it’s offensive, listen.”

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Each panellist also has at least one anecdote about the time they were called upon to act as arbiters, and ‘approve’ content regarding people of colour. “I’m not here to clear you, I can’t give you the black pass,” says Kyles. “It’s important to remember we’re not a monolith,” adds Rummana Hussein, Metro Editor at the Chicago Sun-Times.

That isn’t to say white journalists and editors shouldn’t ask questions if they’re unsure on the right language; building communication between different groups is key to understanding each other better, the panel agrees. “A lot of white folks think you’re being sensitive because they can’t imagine,” says Dometi Pongo, Anchor at Midway Broadcast Corporation. “They haven’t been through that themselves.”

But there is an opportunity to learn almost every day on social media, and Duarte thinks news organisations would be wise to make the most of this instantaneous feedback mechanism. “Sometimes we need to slow down and be thoughtful, take a second to take it in before we post [content],” she says. “Training should be continuous.”

Of course, it doesn’t help that the senior positions held in media are something of a whiteout. And with news organisations shrinking all the time, it makes it difficult for people of colour to work their way up from junior roles to the kind of level where they can exert influence, not just to veto racially insensitive content but also to offer genuine insight. “You need editorial staff of colour who can pick out the value in things,” says Pongo. “Give them a process to own.”

Hussein reiterates advice she was once given by a vox pop reporter; when you’re looking for soundbites from the public, look for a cross section; seek out people of colour and women in hijabs, because only then will you get a sufficient range of perspectives to truly tell your story.

“Back in the Eighties it was all men in media; now there are more women working in newsrooms than men,” says Duarte, asserting that the next step is to bring in more staff who reflect the communities they are reporting on. Certain publications are already doing this; BuzzFeed in particular is transparent about its hiring percentages. “Things are being done,” says Kyles, “but not to the degree that we need to achieve transformative change.”

Overlooking or ignoring non-white consumers is not only embarrassing for a media brand in 2016, it’s also incredibly short-sighted — especially when you consider that 81 per cent of multicultural consumers will show support for a brand they feel they can trust, and 76 per cent freely share their opinions online.

Also, the myth that minority characters and stories only appeal to minority audiences simply doesn’t stack up against the numbers. According to Cheryl Grace, SVP of Strategic Community Alliances & Consumer Engagement at Nielsen: “Black-ish and Scandal both have more viewers who are not black than who are black.”

These are phenomenally popular ABC shows, with black protagonists, telling stories that reflect multicultural experience — but they also encapsulate humour and pathos that is recognisable across ethnicities. Similarly, Hussein points out the irony that in the press, Muslims are only spoken about when it comes to fear surrounding terrorist attacks — and yet actor Riz Ahmed has received critical acclaim for his performance as a Muslim, Pakistani-American character in HBO drama The Night Of.

The real value in diversifying media is not to create a melting pot; Kyle believes that recognising and celebrating differences is what will ultimately lead to stronger stories and a more engaged audience. “No matter what colour your manager is, he or she wants ROI on what you’re doing,” says Grace. “The colour they recognise is green!”

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