A Conversation with Mitra Kalita
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 Mitra Kalita, CNN Digital's vice president for programming.
WOMEN’S MEDIA CENTER: If being female and South Asian has helped shape your approach to journalism, how and why has it?
MITRA KALITA: I got into journalism as a result of the movement to diversify journalism. I say that intentionally and apply that to my career intentionally. This wasn’t an accident. I was part of a movement born out of the Civil Rights Movement and, more specifically, the  Kerner Commission Report [on Black uprisings against oppression] recommendation to change newsrooms as we know them so that we could change journalism as we know it.
When I was 16, and was a Dow Jones intern, I spent two weeks in a workshop structured around helping you figure out how you’re going to be a part of this change we need to see in media. Twenty-five years later we still are contending with a lot of the same issues; we are not telling the story from the perspectives of all our audiences. There is this imposed narrative or an imposed structure [that raises questions]. “Whose story is this? In whose voice are we telling it?”
WMC: Give an example of what you’re talking about.
KALITA: On 9/11, while on staff at Newsday, I jumped out of the dentist chair in Jackson Heights, Queens, where I live, as soon as the hygienist said this was a terrorist event. No one’s cell phone was working; the subway had shut down. I was in line at the pay phones, waiting to talking to my editor and interviewing people in Spanish, Bengali, and English. The newsroom’s initial mandate was that I get to downtown Manhattan, so I started walking toward the Queensboro Bridge. I started seeing Bangladeshi butchers shuttering their shops. People are crying. A van of Muslim men turns on a car radio and one of them says, “This is going to be terrible. This is going to be just like 1993” after the first World Trade Center attacks.
After an hour, I’ve only managed to move three blocks away from that pay phone. I called my editor again: “Do you have any of this context, this reaction from both New Yorkers and the world? Because that part of Queens reflects the world.” Latinos are suddenly worried about tighter immigration. And Bangladeshis are worried about being targeted because they’re Muslim. I called in and asked, “Does anyone have this?” And my co-worker Katia Hetter said, “Not like you do.” So, that became much of what I covered for the year.
You cannot write about race in a vacuum, or about identity as something separate from the news story. If we separate race and gender from the stories that allegedly have gravitas — and I’m not saying race and gender don’t have that on their own — we’re not doing our jobs.
WMC: In terms of diversity, what does CNN look like beyond the faces on the TV screen?
KALITA: We don’t give out actual numbers. … But my teams are diverse. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
My teams are running, arguably, the world’s most powerful home page for news. For me to not, essentially, monitor that home page to ensure that it’s reflective of the world we live in would be a huge disservice, just paying lip service to diversity. Monitoring that home page, checking for diversity in photos, everything, should be as natural … as checking to make sure there are arresting headlines. That’s the level of diversity that the media need to internalize and see as an opportunity.
WMC: When did you decide you’d be a manager, and how do you wear that management hat?
KALITA: I’d been at The Washington Post, with a really great gig, when I got a call from an editor at The Wall Street Journal, where I’d been an intern, who wanted to send me to India — not because I already was a good editor, but because he thought I was a good journalist.
I tell my teams that you don’t have to be a manager to be a leader. This is not a one-way street. I turn to people and people turn to me for advice: How do I write a strong lede? How do I make my story more diverse, or my newsroom more diverse? These were the questions folks in the industry were asking me before I became a manager, and that was a way of grooming me.
For starters, you must have a diverse candidate pool when you are making decisions on new hires. You get to that point by being intentional but also by proving what diversity does. When I was at the Los Angeles Times, it was known that you could not send your candidate to me for a final round of interviews unless, during the initial round, you’d had a diverse pool. That’s one piece of it.
The other is that when Prince dies, and you have African Americans on staff who, within an hour, have delivered three beautiful essays on what Prince’s death means, that’s when I get to remind you of diversity’s value. You connect the hiring to our journalism and to how we’ve distinguished ourselves.
WMC: Do other women of color, people of color, seek you out?
KALITA: They do. Women, in general, seek me out. People of color seek me out. Even some white men seek me out. It’s fine and I’m flattered by that. I probably have about three conversations per week with folks in the industry that are purely informational. Sometimes they will lead to jobs for them. … I see the value of mentoring.
And this part may be way in the weeds: We are now in a moment of presenting the American people as so polarized, as the coastal elites versus people in fly-over country. Those terms mostly are wrong and have an element of insult in them. I worry that, as we’re talking about diversity, it’s often discounted as political correctness. The point of diversity is to get dead into the middle of the issues, to not be so polarizing but try to present as many points of view as possible.
Right now, I worry that diversity might be seen as a PC option, not as an imperative.
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