A Conversation with Nikole Hannah-Jones
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 Nikole Hannah-Jones, racial injustice reporter for The New York Times Magazine, 2017 MacArthur “genius grant" winner, and co-founder of the Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Journalism.
WOMEN’S MEDIA CENTER: You’re in a glorious moment, writing a book and adding the MacArthur Foundation fellowship to your list of awards. But what’s been inglorious about your career, perhaps precisely because you are a journalist of color?
NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: I’ve spent a lot of my career having to fight to tell the stories I’ve wanted to tell. Some editors didn’t approve. They assume that Black writers who want to write about racial inequality are biased or that those stories are not of value. Or they try to make sure that once you write a story about Black people, you can’t write another one of those stories for a while.
During the lowest points, I thought about leaving the profession. I was depressed because the only reason I became a journalist was to write about these issues and tell these stories. But, at the same time, I couldn’t imagine not being a journalist. I have long felt like this is my calling. I stuck it out largely because I couldn’t figure out anything else to do, and there was no place else for me to go. Luckily, I ended up getting a job in New York at investigative news organization ProPublica — where I worked four years before going to the Times — and since then I have been able to do the kind of reporting and writing I’ve wanted to do.
WMC: When you talk to other women of color in the news business, what do you hear?
HANNAH-JONES: It’s still very, very challenging for women of color, particularly women of color who present in a certain way, for those of us who are vocal and push for diversity and want coverage to reflect our society. I hear all the time how hard it is, how much of a challenge remains, how we often aren’t mentored or groomed in our careers, how our forward advancement often is harmed by us just being who we are. I don’t think newsroom managers have gotten much better at this at all. One, it’s rare to see a woman of color in a mainstream newsroom in a very high management position, and, for those who are there, it’s [often] been a struggle.
WMC: Why does this situation seem so static or, as some say, regressive?
HANNAH-JONES: Because this is how it’s always been. We can look at any industry and ask that question. It doesn’t matter that people tend to see newsrooms as being more progressive; I don’t know that progressives are that much better on race than anyone else. People hire people who look them, who have a similar pedigree, and who tend to be in their networks. Often newsrooms say they want journalists of color, people whose skin tone is different, but not necessarily people who think differently and have had different experiences than [White people].
My experience has been that people who hire in newsrooms talk about wanting diversity, but for some reason, when it comes down to hiring, candidates of color have some flaw and just couldn’t make the cut. It happens again and again to the point that it feels systemic. I know several journalists of color, Black and Latina women, who are extremely qualified for jobs. They interview but never hear anything. Sometimes, we investigate on our own. And we get, “She looks good on paper but we heard she’s hard to work with.” It’s a stereotype that particularly Black and Latina women have to deal with. It also tells me that, a lot of times, women think they’re getting good references and they’re not.
Over time, a lot of people get frustrated and just leave the industry. It’s a big loss.
WMC: How do you counter that?
HANNAH-JONES: I try to open doors as much as I can for other women of color and other journalists of color. But, for an unemployed journalist who has had seven or 10 interviews and nothing pans out, I don’t think I can rightly tell that person not to leave the industry. We tend not to have a financial cushion. And it’s hard to tell people to stay in a field that’s not valuing them, where they are having a hard time finding full-time work. That’s a precarious position.
WMC: In a country comprised, more and more, of people of color, how does the news industry become more representative and turn a corner toward ensuring that journalists of color have a more equal say in shaping the news narrative?
HANNAH-JONES: The “how” is easy. You hire journalists of color, you promote journalists of color, and you retain journalists of color. If you look at news organizations, including my current employer, a lot will hire a few high-profile writers of color. But among the rank and file, the numbers are embarrassingly small. How do we move those in charge of hiring from simply talking about this to actually taking action? The only thing that most organizations respond to is external pressure, and I’m just not seeing that pressure.
Newsrooms will have to live up to what they say their values are and understand that it’s not about having some naïve view of diversity. It’s about Are you able to cover this nation accurately and fairly? The answer is “No, not as long as your newsrooms are majority White.”
Also, we’re going to have to begin investing in our own news organizations, ones that are able to retain top-caliber journalists of color. I was just reading a quote from [Samuel Cornish and John Russwurm, editors of Freedom’s Journal, the first African-American newspaper]: “We wish to plead our own cause. Too long have others spoken for us.”
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