The color of expertise:
Talking heads and talking truth
“We report the news and only deal with facts. If a person does something good, we report it. If they break a law, we report it. It doesn't matter what color, nationality, etc. they are. We treat EVERYBODY the same!”
These were the emphatic words of a Minnesota media professional who responded to a survey earlier this year, when asked, “What are some strategies to ensure accurate reporting about Indigenous people and people of color in Minnesota?” In the same vein, another said, “No strategies needed. Report the facts.”
While variations of this “just the facts” line has long been a journalistic credo, research shows that true objectivity is not attainable. Journalists make myriad choices about which facts to privilege, who gets to help communicate them, and how.
One area where racial and other biases appear in media is determining who gets to be the esteemed “talking head” or “expert” that newspapers, radio shows, nightly broadcasts, community publications, and digital content editors use to help us understand what is happening in the world around us. These sources interpret trends, speculate about the impact of policies, explain scientific advances, or even talk about their take on family life and community challenges, among other roles.
But by Minnesota media professionals’ own assessment, People of Color and Indigenous residents seldom get the mic or the pull quote.
In our recent survey of nearly 250 Minnesota media professionals (conducted jointly with Wilder Research), we asked how often People of Color and Indigenous (POCI) people are used as subject matter experts for stories that are not explicitly about race and culture. Seventy-two percent of all professionals surveyed said either rarely or never. Among journalists who themselves identified as POCI, that percentage rose to 84 percent.
These results mirror other research about the media, showing that Black men are infrequently portrayed as successful members of businesses and families, and that in general, people of color and women are grossly underrepresented as subject matter experts. Several public radio tracking efforts have begun to document the disproportionality and shift the mix of voices, including changes at Minnesota Public Radio News.
The power and privilege of being the talking head
Members of the media need to ask themselves, and use data to truthfully answer the question, “Who gets the privilege of being the talking head? And are these people reflective of our community?”
Last month I had the opportunity to attend the “Truth and Transformation” conference, where these survey results were first presented. There I learned more about the importance of community-designated expertise and broader racial narratives. Many community participants discussed the various ways in which trust in the media has been eroded by years, indeed decades, of damaging media caricatures or the virtual absence of some communities from media representations.
Media professionals need to integrate voices that bring expertise in all of its forms—including one’s lived experience and truths as members of racial, cultural, linguistic, or socioeconomic minorities.
Because People of Color and Indigenous people are also under-represented as official spokespersons and highest-ranking members of business, government, academia, and other spheres—as a result of systemic economic and educational disadvantages—an over-reliance on interviewing only people in the top tier of organizations will compound racial bias in media. I would argue that media professionals need to integrate voices that bring expertise in all of its forms—including one’s lived experience and truths as members of racial, cultural, linguistic, or socioeconomic minorities.
In diagnosing the problem of too few diverse media sources, one respondent to our survey commented, “People of color do not often reach out to media and present themselves as experts.” While this may be true, a greater number of survey respondents felt the direction of this expectation must be reversed:
“[We need to be] building relationships with multiple sources who can provide tips, be an expert or refer to experts and give feedback on past stories. With a small minority group, it can be tough to find a broad range of people to represent different voices in the community—so there's not just one person regularly speaking on behalf of a whole group in the city. It can be tempting to use the same sources over and over.”
By their own admission, once a diverse source is known to them, journalists return to that same well too often, rather than identifying a range of POCI voices:
“[We need to] go to regular people, talk to them. Do not allow self-identified ‘community leaders’ speak for the whole of the community, and do not assume that a community is a monolith just because it's a minority.”
“No one speaks for their entire race or tribe.”
Whether due to limited source diversity or other shortcomings, our survey revealed that 80 percent of media professionals surveyed think news media in Minnesota are doing a “poor” or “fair” job of portraying Indigenous people and people of color in local news coverage. When asked, “What are the biggest challenges for media professionals to increase the accuracy of reporting about Indigenous people and people of color in Minnesota?” media professionals commonly cited lean staffs, a workforce that doesn’t represent the diversity of the community, the power of managers and editors to set priorities, unawareness of biases, time constraints, and a general lack of trust and relationship with communities of color.
One survey respondent said, “We show up when something traditionally 'newsworthy' has happened, but they otherwise barely talk to POC or spend time within communities of color.” Said another, “For White journalists, our lack of familiarity and social ties can hamper our ability to connect and go deep inside an issue. If we don't live, work, worship or go to school together, we really don't have the knowledge, reflexes and contacts to probe a complex story and figure out what's missing.”
So what is a newsroom to do to create more racial equity in reporting?
The Minnesota media professionals surveyed had their own ideas. Many called for hiring more Indigenous people and people of color in media, especially in leadership positions, as well as creating more avenues for training on implicit bias, cultural competency, racial narratives, and historical trauma. In addition, they recommended:
“Developing, updating and sharing source lists that are diverse.”
“Show up at events that are important to the community.”
“Finding stories about the good things [community members] are doing. Oftentimes we only hear about the negative—crime, poverty, illiteracy, the achievement gap, etc. Look beyond the surface and change the camera angle.”
“I have relationships with sources I've built over time and check back with. I've asked for their thoughts on my coverage and sought their help challenging my perspective and broadening my sources.”
“Reach out to [POCI]. Listen to them. Believe them. Recruit them. Train them. Retain them. Promote them. Over and over and over.”
Above all, media professionals are gifted at asking questions. It’s heartening to see them asking the tough questions of their own industry.