By Catherine Komp, NC Local Newsletter Editor
During the racial justice protests of 2020, many news organizations pledged to do better — in their coverage and sourcing, in culture and policies and in engaging with and serving audiences of color.
Often the result of bottom-up mobilization from staff, news outlets published commitments to diversity, equity and inclusion; statements on anti-racism; and updated their audiences with progress reports. More than four years later, some of these efforts have waned and others are still going strong.
“The young people are helping to keep us accountable and honest. We’ve been listening,” said Monica Barnes, Community Engagement Director at ABC11/WTVD, which serves Raleigh, Durham and the Fayetteville areas.
I had the chance to chat with Monica (who is also an NC Local News Workshop advisory board member) and two ABC11 staff members leading the station’s DEIB efforts. Barnes said they began DEI training back in Spring 2019, a year before the murder of George Floyd. When calls for action grew louder the next year, they were ready.
“Because we had already done racial equity training, we were already positioned for that work and then started to broaden it,” said Barnes.
Barnes formed a “Belong Team” of staff members interested in working on DEI and they initially focused on content. Belong Team representatives began by talking with managers about how they could be more inclusive in day-to-day content decisions.
“For me personally, I do a lot with stock imaging,” said Lenaé Frazier, creative marketing producer and Belong Team co-lead. “What kind of folks are in the stock images? Just that one thing, something that seems so little, could have a bigger impact than you realize.”
The Belong Team also partnered with the ABC11 news department on a language guide. It includes a glossary of inclusive terms to use (and others to avoid) and questions the news team should ask when working on stories, from confirming pronouns to looking at whether stories focusing on marginalized groups include sources with lived experiences.
“It was a lot of pulling from different resources. There were a lot of discussions with the newsroom,” said Frazier. “It helped that the lead of the content committee at the time was a news EP, so she was able to have a lot of insight into that. Once the committee had something together, it was disseminated to department heads, so everyone could take a look at it.”
The guide was shared with seven sister stations in the Disney-owned network and now they’re working with ABC News to broaden it.
“We hope it’s a breathing thing, right? Because language changes all the time. So that’s always the hope, that it stays current,” said Frazier.
Frazier says the language guide birthed another idea: the need for translators, including in breaking news situations. They invited staff to fill out a form indicating the languages they spoke and now have a database anyone at the station can tap into.
“Pronouncing names tends to be an issue at times,” said Michelle Young, community engagement producer and co-lead on the Belong Team. “Obviously, if the name is Sally, Jane, that’s easier for us, but you want to be respectful to all people.”
The cumulative impact of these changes led to a bigger change — an environment where staff felt safer to bring their whole selves to work.
“At one point, some people did not feel comfortable pitching some stories. But now I think that comfort level has increased,” said Young. “So they’re pitching stories that matter to them because that’s something that we keep saying, ‘If it matters to you, then it is probably going to matter to some other people. So let’s get that story out.’”
The Belong Team’s “People Committee” took a look at the station’s interviewing process. They recommended making it more inclusive by involving a Belong Team representative in all finalist interviews.
“We all have biases present during interview processes. We are there to help eliminate some of the biases and to create some transparency in the process,” said Young.
Young and Barnes add there’s another benefit too — potential hires see the station’s efforts to improve DEIB and see themselves in staff members who have interviewed them.
“Now we have the most diverse newsroom we’ve ever had,” said Barnes, who’s worked for ABC11 for 27 years.
In an effort to try to retain talent, the station also participated in the NC Local News Workshop’s Media Equity Project and started a “producer bootcamp” initiative. The one year-long program helps entry level staff grow into more advanced roles, either at ABC11 or sister stations.
“A lot of the newsrooms are struggling with finding employees and retaining them and producers are a big role that we need. So, this was a way to get people in that pipeline to make sure they know this is what you can do and so that we can produce new producers,” said Young.
When the station started to notice burnout, Barnes said they began to focus on wellness offering yoga and natural juices, as well as a culture of kindness — how to treat and take care of each other. To show support and connection, they recognize annual events like Pride and Veteran’s Day. Frazier and Young say even small gestures, like bags of candy on Halloween or cupcakes and ice cream on a regular weekday, can uplift the team or provide a space for connection and conversation.
“Neither Lenae and I are managers, so people will talk to us in a different way than they may talk to a department head or manager,” said Young. “So we’re able to be there as a listening ear sometimes and then we can provide that feedback to the managers as needed. But just being able to talk with them, to be there for support, that’s helpful.”
I asked Young and Frazier what’s on their wish list for the future. They’re aiming for all ABC11 staff to go through an intensive, six week training provided by Justice Leaders Collaborative. Young also wants to expand initiatives that support staff morale; Frazier wants to make sure all this work they’ve been doing lasts long after Belong Team members roll off or move on. And, they’ll continue working to meet the needs of staff. One common request is for more one-on-one time with managers.
“They want constructive feedback,” said Young. “They want transparency on how to grow, that was something that was really big. They want to know where they stand there within the company. Those were three areas that we’ve heard of.”
📚 Antiracist Journalism: The Challenge of Creating Equitable Local News is a new book by Andrea Wenzel, associate professor at Temple University based on five years of research into DEI initiatives at both majority-white news outlets and two start-ups where at least half the staff identify as BIPOC. Wenzel looks at whether DEI efforts are merely performative or if they’re transforming norms and power structures. Listen to her interview on It’s All Journalism and read a piece Wenzel adapted from the book for CJR.
📚5 ways to support source tracking in your newsroom is part of a series from American Press Institute’s “Source Matters” initiative which is working with a cohort of news organizations across the country. Participants are using API’s source tracking platform to build more accountability into their reporting practices, broaden sourcing and ensure diverse sourcing practices align with diverse hiring practices. The San Antonio Report recently shared their results with readers.
📚The Objective, in partnership with Free Press and members of the Future of Local News Collective, is publishing a series by local news leaders working to create equitable and community-rooted models. “Mistrust in journalism signals the need for a fundamental shift in how news organizations approach journalism and civic information,” writes Ayinde Merrill in the first piece. “Rather than ‘covering’ communities, news organizations should commit to a service framework that engages actively with communities’ varying information needs and wants.”
📚 The Institute for Nonprofit News has a wealth of DEI resources, including tool kits, case studies, a reading list, policy and language guides.