Diversity is hard work.
That’s how Dr. Meredith Clark, lead investigator for the annual Newsroom Diversity Survey from the American Society of News Editors, described her work to a group of some 60 people from across the country who gathered at West Virginia University in October.
Each year, Clark’s survey measures the racial and ethnic makeup of America’s newsrooms and has consistently found that minority groups go underrepresented for any number of reasons-- exclusive hiring and recruiting practices and a lack of support for working journalists of color among them.
But the group that gathered at WVU’s Media Innovation Center set out to change that. Teams of professional journalists and journalism students worked together to find real-world solutions during the social hackathon titled “Missing Voices: Diversifying the News.”
“A hackathon is a really useful, productive way to get people to problem solve,” Dana Coester, MIC Creative Director and associate professor in the Reed College of Media, said. “We’re creating a collaborative, immersive environment where these teams had to really sit with each other and have difficult conversations to get to a solution.”
Each participant was assigned to one of six teams made up of students from Emerson College, Northwestern University, Morgan State University, the City University of New York, UC Berkeley, the University of New Mexico and WVU. They were guided through the weekend’s challenges by media professionals from Scalawag Magazine, the Maynard Institute, the Democracy Fund, Public Radio International and Rewire.News who served as mentors and teammates.
Teams first worked together to choose their diversity challenge from a list presented by the hackathon’s facilitator Michael Grant, the experience design editor for the Center for Investigative Reporting and a recent John S. Knight Journalism fellow.
“One of the really great things about how we went about creating challenges for the students was that we surveyed them to ask about the issues they see [in newsroom diversity],” Grant said, “but we also included folks who worked professionally in the space of diversity. We saw this overlap of issues [experienced by both professionals and students] and started to construct the challenges out of that.”
Grant’s challenges called on teams to create a number of physical materials they could immediately put to use in their newsrooms, whether professional or student-run.
Over the course of about eight hours, he challenged participants to create projects or initiatives that would help newsrooms hire more diverse staff, design a workshop, training or resource materials to help journalists better understand marginalized communities, or write a diversity handbook for newsroom leaders.
Diara Townes, a student at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York, helped her group create a diversity reference tool with multimedia elements to help newsrooms better support journalists of color and also educate white journalists about the minority communities they are often called upon to cover.
Her group set out the initial designs for a web app that would include an introductory video explaining why language is important when covering minority populations, a searchable database of relevant definitions and a quiz that would help professional journalists identify their own biases from the start of their reporting experience.
“We tried to break down what it means for a journalist or a reporter to support a community so people have an opportunity to not only understand their biases and perspectives, but then apply it within their newsroom,” Townes said.
Although this was not the first hackathon hosted by the Reed College of Media, it was the first focused on finding solutions to a social problem. Previous events were centered on empowering women to participate and lead in the technology industry, but those hackathons were traditional competitive models, with teams presenting their products or business designs to a team of judges.
October’s diversity hackathon removed the competitive piece of the model so that teams could instead focus on creative, collaborative solutions.
“I felt like I had the freedom to ask difficult questions of my teammates about what I can do to support journalists of color and journalists who identify as queer or gender fluid in newsrooms,” said WVU graduate student and West Virginia native Emily Martin. “But at the same time, I was given the opportunity I needed to explain how those same teammates can support journalists from rural areas, like Appalachia.”
By bringing participants from across the country to the heart of the Appalachian region, many experienced the diverse culture and heritage of Appalachia for the first time. One of the goals of the event was to expand participants’ view of a place that Coester said is often misrepresented or left out of national media conversations.
“At WVU, we have been really assertive about making sure that rural voices are present at media tables and are working to make sure that our region is a larger part of the national consciousness through projects like 100 Days in Appalachia,” Coester said, referring to the digital news publication incubated in the Reed College that started as a response to the national media’s coverage of the region during Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.
“It’s really important to us that we are leading the problem solving for our region instead of other people doing that problem solving for us and we do that by authoring our own stories, much like the diverse group of student and professional participants wanted to author their our solutions in this space,” Coester added.
The hackathon began with a “Welcome to Appalachia Dinner” the night before teams began their work, providing participants with an immersive experience led by farmer, chef and 100 Days in Appalachia Food and Culture Editor Mike Costello.
Costello served the group a four-course meal of food steeped in local culture. Between each course, he shared the historical meaning and heritage of what was on their plates.
When people come together for a meal, Costello said, they’re more open to having a genuine conversation with the people sitting across the table from them.
“I think sometimes the issue of diversity in Appalachia is not told because people here don't feel empowered enough to tell their own story. I think that's because we've been told both from the outside and the inside of the region what our story is,” Costello said. “That's why it's so important for us to try to turn narratives about shame, desperation and poverty into narratives about innovation and ingenuity [through food]. People find a lot of pride in and they find a lot of power in.”
The dinner served as a scene setter for participants, Coester said. It allowed them to learn more about the culture of Appalachia as a region, but also get them thinking and talking about diversity and inclusion beyond issues of race and ethnicity.
“We wanted to make it a really welcoming experience, but we also used it as a way to for everyone to enter conversations about bridging divides and problem solving together from the start,” Coester said.
The hackathon came on the heels of Morgan State University College of Global Journalism and Communication’s Kerner Plus 50 Symposium, a panel of which was hosted at the MIC and was attended by hackathon participants.
Commissioned by Pres. Lyndon Johnson during the nation’s Civil Rights era and released in 1968, the Kerner Commission compiled a report that found the country was quickly diverging into two separate societies divided by race. And it called for a more diverse media to better represent the struggles, concerns and aspirations of communities of color.
But decades later, symposium panelist Dr. Michelle Ferrier, dean of the Florida A&M School of Journalism and Graphic Communication, said she doesn’t see much progress being made.
“As we look to Kerner 50 years later and where we are in terms of diversifying our newsrooms, we haven't moved very much in terms of [ensuring] that we're providing diverse voices,” Ferrier said.
“Right now, we desperately need our people who are innovators thinking about the future of the nexus of journalism and technology, diversity, equity and inclusion issues [and] thinking about how we're going to [design] products, distribution and content that works to serve those communities that have not had good news and information provided for them,” she added.
Those innovators, Ferrier said, are our young journalists and journalism students. That’s why the resulting ideas and models created at the hackathon didn’t stay within WVU’s walls. Instead, those ideas were compiled into a comprehensive report shared with the news industry.
“Our goal was to take all of the solutions that were incubated at the hackathon and see how we can collaboratively move those forward,” Coester said. “Much like the Kerner Report called on the nation to take action in the diversity space, we want to call on our fellow media professionals to stand up and start including those voices that have for so long gone unheard.”