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Diversity is Accuracy

By Sally Lehrman

Some journalists balk at the idea of deliberately adding underrepresented voices to the news. They think of it as pandering, or at least distortion. But in fact, what’s off the mark is most news coverage today. It overemphasizes the ideas, opinions and prominence of one particular group: usually white, upper-class males. Sometimes, studies show, other demographic slices get undue emphasis — particularly in stories about crime or poverty.

If you’re not checking with a breadth of sources, chances are, your story has got holes.

“This is the community you’re covering,” says Craig Franklin, producer of news special projects at KRON-TV in San Francisco. In his city, about half the population is nonwhite.

Mirroring the community is not the same as highlighting ethnic food, traditions or community gatherings in the news pages. It goes further than incorporating civil rights, immigration, and race issues in ongoing coverage. It’s beyond time to throw out the white experience as the norm, as Franklin explained. “You’re trying to include people as a normal part of the community,” he said. “Not as the ‘other.’ ”

Indeed. The latest census contained an urgent message to journalists. “Hellloooo? U.S. demographics are changing.”

I try not to be prejudiced, but being from California I tend to think of Ohio as lily white. How provincial. Hamilton County, for example, is 23 percent African American. I had no idea that Houston is 11 percent Asian or Minneapolis-St. Paul, 12 percent — with the largest Hmong population in the United States. I didn’t even know that Latinos and Hispanics make up one fifth of the population in Nevada, the state right next door.

Having seen “The Music Man” as a child, I thought I knew who lived in Gary, Indiana. Nope. That city is more than 83 percent African American. Detroit? A full 85 percent.

Want more? Check out Georgia, North Carolina, Iowa, Arkansas, Minnesota and Nebraska and you’ll find sizable Latino populations.

Pointing out the skew towards whites in story sourcing, KRON’s Franklin says, “Maybe we’re not doing the best journalism. If about 75 percent of the U.S. population is white, are 95 percent of the experts white? Is that the reality? Or does my Rolodex reflect me?”

KRON has a diversity group that meets every week just to talk stories. Franklin, who is white, says that’s how producers there overcome the disabilities of a largely monochrome, middle-class newsroom. They talk about how to broaden reporting beyond their own circle of familiarity – and to look at stories about racial and ethnic minority groups from the inside. The results? A feature on Filipino veterans who had been denied government benefits. An award-winning, two-part series on racial profiling of Arab Americans. “It’s a more sophisticated approach,” Franklin says.

Carol Ness, a reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle, recalls how useful it was to have a broad range of Muslim sources already filling her files in the weeks following Sept. 11. Three years earlier, when Clinton ordered the bombing of Sudan and Afghanistan, she had produced a profile of Bay Area Islam in one day. That time she had to rely on one person to link her to the extensive Muslim population in the area.

We all know this technique will work in a pinch, but it can limit your vision. As Ness points out, a single source may have a great network, but everyone in it is likely to have a similar perspective. It’s risky to rely on one individual — and his or her contacts — to serve as a voice for an entire community.

Your journalism can only be as good as your sourcing. So why not work a little harder to make it better?

Sally Lehrman writes about genetics, medicine and health issues for a range of publications and is national diversity chair for the Society.

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