Martin Reynolds, co-executive director of the Maynard Institute, is seen on July 2, 2019, in Oakland, California. Reynolds says he is hopeful that journalism is at a moment of reckoning on systemic racism in newsrooms. (AP/Eric Risberg)

Maynard Institute’s Martin G. Reynolds on challenges facing Black journalists and how US media needs to change

By on

Martin G. Reynolds, a veteran journalist and editor, is co-executive director at the Emeryville, California-based Maynard Institute, which was established to help diversify newsrooms through training programs.

A year after the Maynard Institute’s founding in 1977 — originally as the Institute for Journalism Education — people of color made up 4% of journalists nationwide, according to the institute. While the media industry has grown more diverse over the years, it still has a long way to go before it becomes representative of the people it serves, according to a 2018 report from Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy.

The News Leaders Association’s most recent survey on newsroom diversity from 2019 shows that people of color comprised 21.9% of the salaried newsroom workforce — a figure it called “encouraging” — but only 18.8% of all newsroom managers, which it deemed an “area of concern.” The survey noted that the results are not complete, as they reflect only newsrooms that chose to participate.

The national protests against the death of George Floyd, a Black man, in police custody on May 25 in Minneapolis have again brought to the fore the question of newsroom diversity and challenges faced specifically by Black journalists, both in the office and out in the field. 

Reynolds spoke with CPJ in mid-June about the unique set of challenges Black journalists face and ways that the media can encourage diversity. His answers have been edited for clarity and length.

How are the George Floyd protests different from past protests you’ve observed in your career? Have they highlighted any challenges Black journalists might face when reporting generally?

The thing that really stood out to me at this time was that the usual understanding between police and journalists — that journalists are at the protests to do their job — broke down. It feels like the rhetoric has shifted under the current administration and that that has really permeated into the relationship between press and police that I don’t really recall seeing during my career as a reporter and editor.

Compound this with the threats that journalists of color may face being in these places, it makes the situation even worse. Black journalists are going to be viewed as protesters and not journalists, as we saw with Omar Jimenez at CNN [a journalist of color who was arrested while doing a live broadcast] even though he identified himself and had a camera crew, it didn’t necessarily matter.

Another part of it is the difficulties that Black journalists and journalists of color face from their own news outlets. Some of the threats lie from within the very newsrooms the journalists are supposed to be working in. 

What security challenges do Black journalists face that others might not, and what creates these challenges?

Black journalists walk into a job with a completely different threat model. 

Inclusion is not a part of how news organizations operate. There’s this notion that who someone is and what they bring to their work is bias when in fact, it’s what makes them important in a moment like this [during the George Floyd protests] and important in general.

I think there are editors who are looking at this old outdated model of objectivity, and it’s surprising to me that people think that they’re objective, which is completely ridiculous. That [model] doesn’t account that Black journalists and journalists of color — especially younger journalists of color — will have a totally different generational environment than older generations.

I’m a Gen Xer. The younger millennials and now the young Gen Z’s coming up who might end up being the ones who get sent out to cover these protests — they have a very different relationship to this world, to cultural competency, which I think is great.

Editors need to be mindful of how this story is affecting journalists of color. It doesn’t make them biased, but you’re not going to be able to separate your humanity from this and shouldn’t have to. 

How do you think that newsrooms can evolve to meet the needs of a more diverse staff and address any safety concerns that journalist of color might have?

I think that [addressing those safety concerns] would be an evolution on the part of the institution of journalism.

We [create safety guidelines] for folks who are in war-torn parts of the world and who are navigating [risks] in those places because you are operating in a conflict zone. Well, the reality is America is a conflict zone and if we are to be real about that then we need to account for the societal implications that are not just stories for Black journalists, but realities. 

If we’re talking about a U.S. news organization assigning [someone] to a story in a different land, that’s a choice we can decide to make or not as an organization. The health and safety of that reporter are being considered perhaps in a way of them not being seen as deficient, it’s just sort of thinking okay how do we approach this safely. Whereas if editors are saying, “Okay, well I don’t want to hire Black people because I’m concerned about how something may happen [that would threaten their safety while they’re reporting] this story,” I don’t think that works. These are the people of this country and you can’t very well exclude them from coverage of their own lands about an issue that they deal with every day. 

I think being mindful of [the issue of diversity] is vital — I also think it’s an opportunity. If you think of it from that perspective and what that means, it is beginning to make your newsroom embody inclusivity because you are accounting for inclusivity. It might be viewed as an HR function, but in fact, it’s a function of embracing the totality of the individual and who they are and what they need to be. 

What’s the next step to making the media a safer and more diverse environment?

I’m hopeful that, as we’re talking about systemic racism around policing, that journalism too is at a moment of reckoning. It’s been over 50 years since the Kerner Commission report came out, and called out the media and news organizations for the lack of diversity and complicity in being unable to articulate the pain of the so-called American urban ghettos.

[Editor’s Note: The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, also known as the Kerner Commission, was convened by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1967 and produced a report on civil unrest in the U.S. frequently referred to as “race riots.” Sections of the 1968 report dealt with the lack of diversity in American newsrooms.]

I’m not even talking to people about diversity right now, I’m talking to them about — are you understanding that your news organization is seen as a facilitator and sustainer of systemic racism? I don’t think we can deny that because American newsrooms are — look at them.

Then [we need to look at] what are the steps necessary to ameliorate that issue and take this conversation about diversity in the form of hiring and retention and fellowship programs off the table. All those things are important but we have to reconcile the deep waters that the country is reconciling — that is the conversation that we need to have.

Here’s the thing, this is not a Black problem. This is not something we’re supposed to be solving. We’re supposed to be healing and white people need to recognize the system that they have created and they have benefited from and to be actively engaged in being anti-racist and in doing so make society become healthier and connected.