Poynter leader urges new thinking about diversity

The Poynter Institute’s Kenny Irby is interviewed for NewsWatch segment during visit to the Meek School. Photo by Mark Dolan. November 27, 2012.

At a time when news organizations are focused on matters of sheer economic survival, Poynter’s senior faculty member for visual journalism and diversity says it’s no surprise that newsrooms are experiencing diversity fatigue. However, Kenny Irby says journalists need to change their thinking about the issue.

“Ideas about diversity have been so associated with people and hiring and the cost associated, that when you’re in a hiring freeze, if you’re only thinking of diversity in terms of hiring, you can’t do anything,” said Kenny Irby.

Instead, Irby suggests that journalism organizations broaden their understanding of diversity beyond people and into content.

“Diversity is a catalyst to innovation,” said Irby. “When you have mixed groups and more voices and perspectives it can help you. There are lots of examples of how having a diverse workforce and talent pool leads to more innovative ideas.”

Irby points to the Santa Fe New Mexican as having diversified its coverage of a changing community by focusing on Latino, Hispanic and Native Americans. By covering issues of change as they relate to the audience, Irby says the paper has tapped into potential new readers.

“Publications need to stop and think about their unique audiences – not the national demographics – that’s what helps you build credibility in your local community; that’s what most important, the local trends,” said Irby.

Irby offers the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel as one example of a paper that understands the importance and the opportunity diverse coverage provides.

“This is a paper that has shown continued commitment despite industry tumult and changes,” Irby said. “You’ll find organizations like this that value diversity as a responsibility and as an economic opportunity. As your community diversifies, so does your opportunity to grow audience.”

For individual journalists who may not work for a news organization with a diversity commitment, Irby says they too must change.

“Move out of your comfort zone in the pursuit of truth telling,” Irby said. “There’s a straight line from accuracy and ethical decision making to diversity. As your coverage area changes, so should your sources and subject content and the individual characters in your narratives. Move beyond the usual suspects as a community grows.”

Poynter’s Diversity at Work column is a resource for journalists who want to help keep the focus and conversation about diversity going or who just want to see examples of excellent and diverse news coverage.

Irby says journalists need to focus more on what can be done versus what hasn’t been done.

“Diversity sometimes requires an affirmative action to move forward.”

Irby was on campus November 27 to moderate a panel called “Ole Miss: Perception vs. Reality.” The public forum in the Overby Center examined the role of the media and race in covering the events of November 6 on the Ole Miss campus. Protests following the re-election of President Barack Obama threw the campus into the national spotlight and provided an opportunity for the university to talk about diversity and its importance in news coverage. The panel discussion was sponsored by the Graduate Student Council and hte Society of Professional Journalists.