Editor’s note: This essay is adapted from a speech Dorothy Tucker, president of the National Association of Black Journalists, gave in late July in Chicago.
A few weeks ago, I received an email with this startling subject line: “N-Word published on front page….”
That caught my attention.
The email, from a Jeffrey Dale, was about a Patriot Ledger story in Quincy, Mass. The front-page piece concerned a man threatening African American neighbors with a gun and spouting racial slurs.
When the story ran, the entire N-word was spelled out. Dale, then a Patriot Ledger copy editor, was livid. He complained to his editors, but was told the decision to print the slur had already been made.
It was in that moment that Dale recognized what the National Association of Black Journalists has been shouting about since its founding in 1975: Diversity and inclusion matter and it’s about more than having black or brown reporters.
It’s about having people in decision-making capacities who are sensitive to issues regarding communities of color. Dale told me that 100 percent of the editors in the Patriot Ledger’s newsroom are white, as are its vast majority of journalists. What really disturbed him is that with the rise of hate crimes in communities across America, his editors chose to print that word.
What happened in that newsroom is happening in too many newsrooms across America. We’ve seen recent incidents of everything from racist cartoons and on-air racial comments to purposely using photos that promote negative representations of African Americans.
Dale’s story is an example of what happens when you don’t truly embrace diversity and inclusion in the newsroom. We must go beyond equal opportunity and ensure that people with the ability to make sound decisions about how images and words are used are leading our newsrooms and that we are hiring people like Dale.
Now Dale needs a job because he quit the newspaper in protest.
By the way, Dale is white and Jewish. Yet, he immediately chose to put himself in the shoes of the African American readers who would see the story.
Dale said to his editors, “if you will do it to their community, you will do it to my community.”
He quit on the spot, refusing to be a part of an organization that would choose to ignore the warnings of someone who cared about journalistic integrity, fair representation and who tried to prevent the use of offensive or racist language in print.
Dale’s quitting did spark change. The newspaper later used asterisks for the offensive term in another version of the story.
I am sorry Dale had to quit his job to take a stand, but I applaud his commitment to our craft and his respect for communities of color.
The National Association of Black Journalists is concluding a Job Satisfaction Survey for our members. Early results tell us that more than 77 percent of survey respondents believe they have experienced racial discrimination in the workplace. More than 60 percent say they have experienced racism or racist comments while reporting or working on a project.
Our survey has not yet closed, but the data is alarming. Our industry can do better. We must do better.
In 1978, the American Society of News Editors pushed the industry to reach racial parity in newsrooms by 2000. In 2019, however, the Association says “the racial diversity of newsrooms does not come close to the fast-growing diversity in the U.S. population as a whole.”
There have been reports upon reports, including recent ones by Nielsen, noting that companies that fail to embrace diversity and inclusion will not thrive in a diverse America. That goes for news organizations that have an obligation to accurate, fair and sensitive reporting.
Consider these questions:
What would you have done if you were Dale? How will you use your voice to stop discriminatory and insensitive practices? Will you put yourself in someone else’s shoes to understand how they may feel after reading, hearing or viewing language or images that are culturally offensive? What steps will you take to learn what is considered offensive to different cultures?
As Dale looks for a new job — and I am committed to helping him find one — the communities they serve. I will always hold his story close to me. It tells us that diversity and inclusion are not just about bodies in seats, but concern real involvement in decision-making. His story tells us that it’s about a mindset.
It’s about establishing a newsroom culture that cares about all of its employees and the communities they serve.
Dorothy Tucker, an investigative reporter for CBS 2 Chicago, grew up in Chicago’s Lawndale and Austin communities. In August, She was elected president of the National Association of Black Journalists.
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