A Conversation with Benét Wilson
The Women’s Media Center’s recently released report, “The Status of Women of Color in the U.S. News Media 2018,” documents the systemic racism, the old boys’ network, gender bias, and other obstacles that have resulted in a severe underrepresentation of women of color in all news media. Women of color represent just 7.95 percent of U.S. print newsroom staff, 12.6 percent of local TV news staff, and 6.2 percent of local radio staff.
The report includes interviews with nearly 30 women journalists of color who shed light on the challenges they face and offer solutions for media companies. Below is our conversation with Benét Wilson, aviation journalist, Google News Lab trainer, and Online News Association vice president.
WOMEN’S MEDIA CENTER: When so many journalists were naysaying multimedia journalism, you were an early adopter. Why?
BENÉT WILSON: I started out doing this work on a typewriter. But two days after I went to work at Aviation Week in 2006, they had a global meeting with all the editorial staff and said, “Look. We are going digital. If you want to keep up and stay on the staff, you’ve got to get with the program.” I started training myself. This was at a time when there were not many of the blogging conferences, podcast camps, or Wordpress camps that we now have.
WMC: What were the challenges and the amazing parts of this for you?
WILSON: The amazing part was how much there was to learn and how many resources there were to learn from and how many people out there who were willing to help. It revitalized my career. You have to do the writing, reporting, and editing, of course. But when you get tools that make this smart and help you do your job smarter and better, that’s truly revitalizing.
I absolutely had to do this. I had no choice.
WMC: Why are you on the Online News Association’s board of directors?
WILSON: Years ago, we had this thing at ONA conferences called “count the Black people.” At the reception that [the late] Dori Maynard [of the Maynard Institute] hosted at ONA — where everyone was welcome — there were so few Black people the first few years that we took an annual Black people picture. Then we got a new executive director, Jane McDonnell, one of those woke White people who understands the importance of diversity. ONA had a crappy reputation on diversity, was seen as clique-y and noninclusive. … Jane started several initiatives to change that. What tipped this was the 2013 ONA conference in Atlanta, where there was a big National Association of Black Journalists and National Association of Hispanic Journalists chapter. I made it a point to tell people to come. Now I see Black people at the conference whom I don’t know and almost get annoyed by that. The fact they’re coming is a very good thing.
WMC: What are some of ONA’s diversity initiatives?
WILSON: We’ve gotten Knight Foundation grants to bring students from historically Black colleges and universities to the ONA convention. CNN does a diversity fellowship for young to midlevel journalists at the conference. We’ve worked with the membership committee to do a census so we can better find out where our members are. After 10 years, I’m especially proud to say that the majority of our board members are from minority groups.
WMC: You suggest that there’s an urgency for people of color, for women of color to get ahead in this.
WILSON: The future is now. Some newspapers and magazines are digital-only. Just this week, four longtime magazine editors stepped down, hinting that they are tired and can’t keep up with the digital changes and layoffs and doing more with less. Broadcast journalism is feeling the pain, too.
Digital isn’t going away. The kids, young people, aren’t watching NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt like my dad does. We just unveiled at Google News a YouTube training model to show newsrooms how they can create their own channels and interact with people because, more and more, that’s where people are going, to YouTube, to their apps. Many of them don’t have cable. News stations are doing Web-only stuff. That includes TV stations that are pushing out mini-documentaries, information they can’t get out in a 90-second, on-air news segment. There may come a time when there is no local television station newscast as we know it today.
WMC: Are there glaring examples of what happens when women of color are not in the digital news sphere?
WILSON: Mostly, I look at this in terms of where are the journalists of color, in general, not just women: A Minnesota station did a piece about a man who was a suspect in a series of rapes, and they put up a picture of DeRay Mckesson, one of the leaders of Black Lives Matter, as a rape suspect. He lives in Baltimore. Those Minnesota journalists saw a random Black person and got mixed up.
Then, there’s the story of a white news anchor who was reading a story about some incident, and he used the quote “Ninja, please,” which seemed a variation on the N-word but he didn’t know that — had no clue. There are other problems along those lines. A person of color on that staff could have pointed these errors out, but where are those journalists?
WMC: Does ONA have any initiatives specifically targeting people of color or women of color?
WILSON: We don’t specifically have programs for women of color. But one of our programs is the Women’s Digital Leadership Academy for 25 women who, last year, met at the University of Southern California. And we make a very concerted effort to make sure women of color are in that mix. We had almost 500 women apply last year. Poynter has a similar program that had 400 applicants, and I was a part of that, too. I was thrilled because a lot of my mentees were selected for both programs.
WMC: Overall, how do view your role, the weight you carry, and what you bring to bear?
I take this very seriously. My role is to make sure that young women, especially Black women, journalists of color of all ages, have the same opportunities as anyone else.
Between 2009 and mid-2016, I reviewed 300 resumes for free because the resume is the first thing that trips people up. I have a vast network. I recommend people for jobs. I tell the folks I help that they also are obligated to help, to bring other people along.
I talk to people on the ONA board, at industry conferences and events: “Look. Your newsroom needs more diversity.” I don’t believe in embarrassing and shaming people, but I do believe in giving them actual solutions, people they can hire tomorrow. We don’t want to hear the excuses anymore: “We can’t find a Black woman, we can’t find Hispanics …” This work is a long, slow haul, and it’s extremely important.
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