Newspapers are not too physically different from each other. While dimensions of each publication may differ slightly, there’s still the distinct lines of black ink set in columns and surrounded by images and advertisements — all printed on flimsy paper, which are stacked up, rolled tight and tossed on doorways of millions of homes across the nation.
The difference, of course, is the stories. More often than not, competing local papers are serving the same communities and reporting on the same issues. But the content reveals a
hidden problem: who is behind the computer screens writing the stories.
Publications are not required to release demographic information, yet it is no secret that at the helm of the majority of Seattle newspapers are newsrooms primarily composed of white journalists.
The Seattle Times participates in the American Society of News Editors’ national diversity survey, which reported that people of color made up 20.8 percent of its newsroom. The Stranger and Seattle Weekly do not publically report the racial makeup of their newsrooms.
Without more diverse voices in the media, stories about people of color are not being told with the necessary nuance needed to prevent mistakes from happening that ultimately disenfranchise communities of color.
In December 2015, The Seattle Times published an article about local trio The Flavr Blue, fronted by artist Hollis Wong-Wear. Wong-Wear has worked with Grammy award-winning artists Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, and despite their lack of contributions to The Flavr Blue project, the article’s headline originally labeled her as Macklemore’s “sidekick.”
There is a long-used trope in mainstream media that places Asians as “sidekicks,” usually to white male characters. Social media adopted the hashtag #NotYourAsianSidekick in 2013 to call attention to this stereotype. Wong-Wear, as an Asian-American, experienced the same role confinement with the headline.
The Seattle Times’ choice of words sparked outrage, with Wong-Wear and various online publications calling attention to the conflict.
“I am interested in holding Seattle media accountable for its egregious incompetency when it comes to women and people of color,” Wong-Wear said in a statement she posted on Facebook, questioning the editorial decisions behind the headline after a series of fumbled apologies from The Seattle Times.
“People who are trying to make this about race or the race of our staff are focusing on the wrong issue,” the Times said in an email to Wong-Wear, which she published in an article on Medium in February. In the piece, Wong-Wear criticized the lack of apology, and again, demanded that the newspaper be more accountable to the population it serves.
Holding the overall media industry accountable through representation is a conversation that has been gaining steam locally and nationally. Frustrated sentiments are recounted across timelines with the tag #JournalismSoWhite, a hashtag created by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas (made in reference to the #OscarsSoWhite campaign regarding the lack of diversity among Academy Awards nominees). These tweets and think-pieces have added to the conversation regarding the insufficient number of writers of color at the table.
But for folks here in Seattle, it’s not just about numbers. It’s deeply personal.
There is always a racial disconnect when the media engages with people of color, says Seattle Black Book Club organizer Palca Shibale.
“It’s very obvious when [we are] speaking to a very white institution, who are always constantly asking me to re-explain racial issues,” Shibale said.
The Seattle Black Book Club (a group of local activists who fight against gentrification and other prevalent issues of racial inequity in the city) stepped into the local spotlight when they protested Ian Eisenberg’s Central District marijuana dispensary, Uncle Ike’s, and the repercussions the business has had on the surrounding community.
A recent profile of Eisenberg in The Seattle Times briefly mentioned the protest, and to the Seattle Black Book Club, this coverage fell short.
“We didn’t get a chance to make our statement,” Shibale said. “The reason he wrote about Eisenberg was because of the action Seattle Black Book Club led about gentrification.”
Yet despite this, the article did not analyze gentrification or the ramifications his business practices have had on the Black community or attempt to reach them, they explained. “[The reporter] wrote a story that deeply affects the Black population without considering to put the input of the Black population … I do think this is a diversity problem. It is exclusion,” Shibale said. “A white man wrote a story from the perspective of a white man about another white man ... what is that but pushing out?”
This is just one example of many that has impacted how members of the Seattle Black Book Club have had to respond to any media request.
“When we are depicted, it is in a hostile way, or we are not depicted at all,” Shibale said.
Associate Professor Sonora Jha researches the way people of color are represented in media. Jha, who teaches journalism at Seattle University, analyzes the issue beyond just demographic makeup of an editorial staff. In her work, she looks deeper within the fabric of stories at portrayals, and in particular, sourcing.
“We tend to speak to women only when it’s stories that concern some aspects of women, or we tend to talk to people of racial and ethnic minorities when it’s about Ramadan or stories about the South Asian community in Seattle,” Jha said.
Bypolar, an organizer with Seattle Black Book Club, is hesitant to be used as a source by some local media outlets because of stereotypes in sourcing. “You have to only give them soundbites [on camera interviews] because they will find a way to typecast you,” he said.
“From the point of view of the audience, if people of color don’t see themselves quoted or represented ... then [newspapers are] basically failing a huge part of their readership, and it can have a delegitimizing effect on people,” Bypolar said. “People don’t feel validated, and it can lead to the sense of being set back.”
The media has never been any other way. Historically, people with money and influence have controlled media, which has resulted in a tradition of Eurocentric content catered towards a white America. Additionally, financial and educational barriers limit access to a journalism degree, a job requirement for many publications.
Race comes into play even as a freelance journalist, said Danielle Henderson, a former writer for The Stranger: “I feel like I’m a pinch-hitter for some publications,” she said. “I don’t might writing about race, but it bothers me when it’s the only thing people want me to talk about.”
Online outlets and self-publishing methods have helped elevate minority voices, however hiring practices at major publications and networking also play vital roles in effective recruitment, and retention, of journalists of color in the mainstream media landscape.
One Seattle nonprofit is working to fill those gaps in the industry. The Seattle Globalist has been producing online content since 2012 that reports on the intersection of local and global issues. Its mission explicitly works to reverse the norm by providing a platform and programming for communities of color, with an emphasis on young people of Seattle.
“We started the youth programs because there was a high need to develop next generation of journalists,” said Christina Twu, the organization’s community engagement editor.
Through the apprenticeship program, youth are able to work one-on-one with a mentor to hone their skills. Additionally, The Globalist provides internship opportunities for students who have demonstrated an interest in media. For community members who may not want to go into journalism but still seek media training, monthly workshops are held on topics such as interviewing or opinion writing skills.
Seattle Black Book Club organizer Bypolar would like to see more media outlets controlled by people of color.
“We need a lot more black-only radical papers to reemerge,” he said. He says there is a need to lift up black and brown voices across the media landscape outside current systems — everything “from news media that’s controlled by primarily black folk … to television to movies to music.”
If organizations are serious about diversity, Bypolar suggests they need to follow through with financial support.
“To survive, we have to create our own spaces,” Shibale elaborated. “We as Black people cannot wait for them because the systems do not wait for us.”
A newsroom’s imperative is to bring forward a variety of stories from a variety of perspectives to its readership, and to hold power structures accountable through unbiased and accurate reporting. The narratives printed are a reflection of our society. Important stories get told when journalists from different backgrounds are able to work together to question and uncover new corners of our communities — in a newsroom that reflects the many experiences of its readership and is able to hold people accountable to all community members.
Representation in media through inclusion of people of color isn’t an option anymore — it is necessary and it needs to happen for the sake of the future of newspapers and journalism altogether.