Why representation matters in journalism

Nikole Hannah-Jones sits at a desk reading a book.

We know the lack of diverse representation harms the journalism field, and Nikole Hannah-Jones shared precisely why with the University of Oregon community this year.

As part of the annual Robert and Mabel Ruhl Lecture, the UO  School of Journalism and Communication welcomed Nikole Hannah-Jones, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and lead writer for the New York Times Magazine's The 1619 project, to a virtual event in February.

Hannah-Jones discussed taking a Black studies course in high school called “The African American Experience.” While in the class, she asked her teacher to give her outside reading on the subject, leading her to Lerone Bennett Jr’s book “Before the Mayflower.” It was then she learned enslaved Africans arrived in America in 1619, not 1620.

The year 1619 stayed with Hannah-Jones, leading her to create a multimedia journalism project detailing the story of the first Africans who arrived in America aboard the White Lion. The 1619 Project explores the continued implications slavery has on American society.

The virtual Ruhl Lecture consisted of a panel moderated by Andrew DeVigal, director of the SOJC’s Agora Journalism Center and professor of practice. It also included Courtney Cox, assistant professor of race and sport, and Shyann Montgomery, SOJC student and co-director of UO’s chapter of the National Black Journalists Association (NABJ).

As a member of NABJ, I had the opportunity to meet Hannah-Jones before the panel during a private conversation with the student association. I joined the virtual lecture after, and here are five takeaways from the virtual event:

“Join your school paper and write the stories people aren’t writing about.”

As a college junior at Cal State East Bay, I remember walking through Downtown Hayward on my way to the train station. One day I saw one of my favorite bookstores, the Book Shop, was closing for good. I walked into the store and asked the manager why the bookstore was closing. I learned the owners wanted to retire, and the building managers wanted to renovate the building to make it earthquake-safe.

The following day I pitched the story to the newspaper editor-in-chief because I hadn’t read any articles in my newspaper about the bookstore closing. I found it fascinating that this was the only bookstore located in the city for how big our town was.

Student journalists are often the first people to break important stories because they have a front-row seat to what is happening on campus. If you want to have a voice about what is happening in your community, then reach out to a news reporter or write a blog piece about it, because change can’t be made if people are unaware of what is going on in their neighborhood.

“We are often told as journalists of color that if we do projects that center our community, they won’t find a mass audience. Oftentimes, we can’t pitch or get support for these projects."

If you look in any newsroom in the United States, especially in Oregon, they may have a few people of color, but they are still overwhelmingly white. Journalists of color are told to report only on feel-good stories or write stories that play into classic stereotypes — the rise of crime in Black and brown neighborhoods, or immigration.

When we want to pitch hard-hitting stories or long-term projects, we have to be prepared and do twice the work to show newsroom editors why the story needs to be told. If we don’t get the support, it will turn into a passion project that we work on in our spare time. Journalists of color are unique because they understand their communities better than anyone else and build relationships with people who distrust the media.

“Be specific with your language.”

As journalists, we believe readers will understand what our stories are about from the very first sentence. That’s not always true because we forget that our readers aren’t as knowledgeable about a subject or an issue as we are.

Readers weren’t at the event with us, and unless there are photos of what took place, journalists have to break down everything, from what color the lights were to what music was playing, and the overall atmosphere of the event.

“Objectivity isn’t dead; it never existed.”

In my very first journalism class, my professor told us journalists need to be objective and report only the facts.

I don’t believe this is true. Journalists have never been objective; those who say they are objective often ignore a community’s history and the events leading up to an event such as Black Lives Matter. They tell the same story over and over again without getting to know who these individuals are.

Journalists still report on the facts, but if we can report on stories that we identify with, people may be more willing to talk to us because we understand the struggles they face. When we connect with a story, it will show our reporting and writing, allowing readers to resonate with a story in a way they never did before.

We still need to uphold journalism ethics and continue to fact-check what people say, but we shouldn’t remain on the sidelines as we have been told. In the age of social media, people can see for themselves what is happening in their community. Journalists, especially journalists of color, can empathize with community members and tell their stories ethically and humanely.

“Journalism is a hopeful profession. We go into journalism because we hope that our work will change something for someone.”

Most journalists don’t go into this industry because of the money. They go into this field because they want to inform people about what is happening in their community. Journalists serve as the watchdog that holds those in charge accountable for their actions.

There is hope that journalism, specifically newsrooms, can change as new forms of storytelling emerge, such as podcasting and short documentaries. It is up to us to hold newsrooms accountable for their mistakes and not continue with the status quo.

— Alli Weseman, Class of ’22

Alli Weseman (she/her/hers) is a first-year student in the SOJC’s multimedia journalism master’s program in Portland. She has freelanced for Portland Monthly Magazine and hopes to work in a newsroom one day. You can find more of Alli’s work at alliwesemanphotography.com.