Bill Radke speaks with local journalists Monica Guzman, co-founder of Seattle newsletter The Evergrey, and Reagan Jackson, writer at The Seattle Globalist and South Seattle Emerald, about #JournalismSoWhite.
Bill Radke: What is #JournalismSoWhite?
Monica Guzman: #JournalismSoWhite was born as a hashtag on Twitter. But it's also a movement to draw attention to the fact that a lot of American journalism is often built by and for white culture and may be excluding some other communities that are part of American life.
Bill Radke: Reagan, earlier this year you looked at some demographics for Seattle newsrooms. How we looking?
Reagan Jackson: We're looking very white. Which I suppose isn't any huge shock given the demographics of Seattle. But for me, what comes up with #JournalismSoWhite isn't the numbers as much as it is how the numbers are impacting the quality of the media that we're receiving and impacting the bias of the media that we're receiving.
BR: Will you show us that bias?
MG: Well, sometimes it's about tone. One example is recently The Seattle Times wrote an article about a local artist Hollis Wong-Wear, who is Asian, and in their headline they use the word "sidekick." That's not cool to use that term, right? Because to Hollis, to the people affected, this is way more than language. This is a message about how people are viewed. It may seem subtle, but only to some of us. It seems very direct to others.
RJ: Yeah, I remember that, especially because it was a time when we wanted to be celebrating Hollis, right? Hollis is amazing. She's done so many amazing things in the community. She's just an incredible artist and an incredible talent. And for for the Times to kind of do this tongue-in-cheek marginalization of her, a diminishing of her, it just, oh, it hurt. It really hurt.
I guess I get really tired of having to be the tone police. I don't want to be the tone police. I feel like the way that the conversation is set up, it feels very antagonistic. I'm always like, "This isn't right, that isn't right." And here I am trying to write this counter-narrative. I don't want to do that. I've lost interest in that. It's not our responsibility to teach everyone. It's not. If we do it it's a gift, and you're welcome.
MG: It's sort of like external copy editing, right? Of community relevance and resonance. But that shouldn't be external, that should be internal. That should come from within the newsroom so that these issues of trust and whether people feel represented aren't constantly up for debate.
BR: Why do you think that is external? KUOW and probably every media organization will tell you that we want to be more diverse. We want to cover the world. Why is journalism so white?
RJ: Well, Yoda would say "Do or do not, there is no try." You want to be more diverse. What's stopping KUOW from being more diverse? KUOW. It's not us. We're out here. There are plenty of journalists of color. We were just on a panel with five other journalists of color.
But at this point, for me, I'm less interested in being put into white structures and having to go through all the hoops that it takes to to be included. Maybe I don't want to be included. Maybe I want to just do my own thing. One of things I really like about writing for The Globalist and writing for South Seattle Emerald is that those are two publications where I feel like people of color are central. The intention from the beginning was inclusive. And so that's how it's continued. Whether or not [legacy media organizations] add in a black person here or a Latino there, there's not ultimately a shift in culture that allows for centralization of our voices and our experiences.
It's still something other. It's still something counter-narrative. It's still something seen as non-dominant. Whereas with these other publications and these other outlets, we are the narrative.
MG: Any organizational culture has a really hard time changing. So it's easier to instill that kind of inclusive culture if it's there at the beginning. It's hard to do it after years and years and years and years. So often what can happen is this becomes a question of numbers.
My co-founder at The Evergrey, Anika Anand, helped Asian-American Journalism Association do the survey you mentioned. They asked many newsrooms for their gender and race breakdown. We got really interesting information from KUOW, The Seattle Times, The Stranger. And this is a good start because it roots the conversation in something tactile, something that's real knowledge. But the thing to be careful about, too, is that when you just add people, you're not necessarily changing the culture. You have to make sure that your organization can embrace what new people bring.
All the norms of the organizations, all the customs and conventions, all the processes [need to] change to adapt to the new people coming in and the way they see the city. That's when you can see change really happen. It is very difficult to do that with organizations that have been around a long long time.
BR: We've been talking about "the media." Are there personal stories you want to share that makes this come to life?
MG: So, when I first got to Seattle I worked for The Seattle Post-Intelligencer and there are undocumented Latino immigrants who wait outside of places like Home Depot and Lowe's looking for work. I speak Spanish, I'm Mexican, and I started talking to them and I eventually met somebody who I thought had a really compelling story. I interviewed him several times knowing that it wasn't confirmed that the P.I. would follow up but thinking that it probably should be. And then the P.I. sent another reporter from the paper with me to go and decide whether this was worth a story. And the decision was that it wasn't.
The man had family in Mexico he was trying to bring over, and he just had all these stories that to me seemed ... What would you need to make this news? What would you need to make this interesting? This is already so different from what Seattle knows. What more do we need? And I didn't fight because I didn't know how. I didn't have enough confidence. I don't know to this day whether I should have and maybe if I did I would have heard very objectively definitive reasons why. But I can't help, you know, I think about that sometimes.
RJ: What came up for me is why I am a journalist, in general. I became a journalist kind of unintentionally, in a very backwards way. I went to brunch with some friends and I was talking to Alex and Sarah and Jessica, who ended up being the the founders of The Seattle Globalist, about international education and my thoughts on diversity there. From that one conversation, Alex invited me to write a story, and I did. I did it just because I was interested in it. It was something that I was really passionate about. But I did it without any expectation that it would be published because I never really considered myself a journalist.
A big part of that is because I always thought that journalism was only about facts. It was a form of media in which you couldn't really put in your thoughts or anything personal, that it had to be very removed. I think that was because that's the journalism I grew up seeing. But through that experience I learned that actually the stories that I was finding in the community were worth telling and that it was something that I could do actually as a profession.
BR: That idea of journalism being objective sounds like a very white point of view to me because [the idea] that we can distance ourselves from ourselves ... That seems like a very white attitude to have.
MG: Yeah, we've been talking in the industry about objectivity - does it really exist? Can we really embrace it? For a long time and I think initially the conversation was about ideological and political objectivity. Now we're in this incredible revolution when it comes to how we think about our identities in all these different ways.
And journalists as professionals, we pride ourselves on thinking, "It doesn't matter who I am, I can tell anybody's story." I think that's one of the things about #JournalismSoWhite that is particularly hard to swallow, because there is a criticism there. There's a critique about "Are you sure? Really? Do you think that just by being an open human being you can unlock all the stories you need to? Maybe there's more you need to do than you think." That's a real challenge. That's where a lot of the resistance, I think, comes and that's where some of the toughest conversations need to go.
RJ: You need to evolve.
RJ: You need to change you need to gain a different skill set in order to remain relevant. But, again, that's actually not the conversation for me. My conversation is more about "What can I do as a journalist of color to empower other people in my communities to have a voice, and to have a place where their voices are going to be heard?" I'd love for more people in my community to have access to KUOW, to be able to be on the radio, to be able to tell their stories on a broader platform. But in the meantime I'm starting where I am. I'm starting with the Emerald. I'm starting with with The Globalist. And we're doing, I think, the most exciting journalism in the city right now. We're killing it. We're setting a bar, we're setting it high. Think of it as a challenge. I want to see white media raise their standards to come up to where we are.
BR: OK, so in the Seattle media world of your dreams, what stories are we getting?
RJ: Aaah! Everything! In the Seattle media world of my dreams, we're getting stories about people in a way that everyone is a person. I know that sounds really basic. It sounds like "What is she even talking about?" But I just feel like I would like to see journalism where everyone is treated as a human being. Where everyone's story is explored with an equal depth and an equal sensitivity to who they are and what they're contributing to the world. So I would say stories about activism, art, whatever, just making sure that people of color are portrayed in a way in which it's evident and obvious that whoever is writing about them understands, knows, and cares about them
BR: Not reduced, not othered, not put in relation to the white world.
RJ: Yes. All of that. I mean it's not that complicated. I read white media about white people all the time; it does that. I just want to see that all media does that.
MG: And it's not checking a box either. It doesn't feel like "Now we're going to take a trip to this place that is not really ours, but is in our city." That's often how it feels, right?
MG: I think the ideal Seattle media landscape is one where we turned the volume way up on all the parts of our city that we can barely hear. The idea right now is that we barely hear from them because they're not interesting enough, there's nothing really going on, and that's just not true. I think we also take a step back from rooting our stories and our journalism in institutions and in official sources.
And we say "This is about people." It's all about people. Why are we even paying attention to anything else? It should always begin with people, and there are plenty of people in these places where we do not hear from.
So let's fix that.