Now upon difficult issues. Writers should pay

Now more than
ever, we are at a critical juncture in the evolution of the news media. Thirty
years ago, no one could have predicted how drastic a change a technology like
the Internet would produce. The prevalence of the digital has not only
engendered a revolution in the news media’s business models, but also an upheaval
of the techniques of journalism and reporting. Younger generations are fast
emerging as large consumers of news, and the newsrooms that will serve their
needs will not look the same as they do today. They will be more modern, more
inclusive, and more collaborative. One of the biggest focuses in building a
better newsroom should be the coverage of controversial social topics: race and
racial relations, gender identity and sexuality, and sexual harassment and
assault. These present many challenges for journalists, who must learn to be
self-aware during the reporting process for stories touching upon difficult
issues. Writers should pay particular attention to their linguistic
construction, focus on big picture trends, and remain aggressive and fair when
covering these topics. Creating a balanced, conscious, and effective newsroom
will require honest conservation, collaboration, and mutual encouragement.

            The
first step in understanding how to build a better newsroom is to focus on the
current state of the news media. As has become clear since the 2016 election,
there are clear ideological bubbles in the United States and a perceived
liberal bias in mainstream news sources. According to the Pew Research Center
(2017), the circulation of daily newspapers has been declining since the 90s,
but the average monthly unique visitors to newspaper websites has increased
since 2014. Readers have a short attention span, spending on average between 2
and 3 minutes per visit on newspaper websites. With 93 percent of adults ever
getting their news online, it is not surprising that the percentage of
newspaper advertising revenue coming from digital is on the rise. The Internet
has made it much easier for people with differing opinions to filter their news
in a way that validates rather than challenges their viewpoints. This has led
to a growing polarization at opposite viewpoint poles (Pew Research Center,
2017). Right-leaning audiences remain skeptical of mainstream news, with only
20 percent of conservatives trusting the news compared with 51 percent of
left-leaning Americans (Edkins, 2017). If we focus even closer along political
lines, it appears Republicans have a much more negative view of the national
news media, at 85 percent, than Democrats, who are more equally divided (Pew
Research Center, 2017). Another important aspect of consistent conservatives’
news diet is that it is centered on one main source: Fox News. The Pew Research
Center (2014) found that this group distrusted more than trusted 24 out of 36
selected news sources, while consistent liberals – who consumed a range of news
sources – trusted more than distrusted 28 of the 36. This information paints a
landscape of political division and differing news consumption. It is within
this context that certain social issues become controversial, as many do not
agree on how they should be covered, if at all.

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            Stories
about racial tensions, gender identity and sexuality, and sexual assault and
harassment have been more present in mainstream media and the public discourse
in recent years. These topics have been the subject of heated debate,
controversy, and protest. Léa Rébeillé-Borgella, a 21-year-old student,
believes these issues are not going to get easier and journalists have to find
ways to cover them: “By nature, they’re always going to be subject to a lot of
controversy among the public discourse, but it’s not a reason to not cover them
because the public needs to be informed of the realities of the issues and to
what extent they are prevalent,” she said. It is no surprise that some of the
most debated and talked about stories of the last two year have fallen into one
of these categories, including police officer-involved shootings, gay marriage,
and the #MeToo movement. When properly covered, these subjects can draw
national attention and strong reactions from both older and younger
generations. In fact, as the news media’s audience evolves, so do its
priorities and what it wants to read about. This is an essential concept to
take into account when designing the modern newsroom.

            America’s
changing population denotes changing morals and changing values. In 2016, the
U.S. population was 61.3 percent white and 38.7 percent non-white, with 13.2
percent born in a foreign country and 21.1 percent of people over 5 years old
speaking a language other than English at home (United States Census Bureau,
2017). America’s image of a melting pot is only growing in strength as its
population becomes more and more diverse. We are also seeing an evolution in
the generational makeup of the U.S. According to Fry (2016), the Millennial
generation has now overtaken the Baby Boomer generation as the U.S.’s largest
living group. Millennials, which include those born between 1980 and 2000 or
1995 depending on the definition, are more ethnically diverse than previous
generations (Pew Research Center, 2015). Millennials are politically divided
from older generations and, along with Generation X, identify as the most
Democratic generation (Maniam & Smith, 2017). On the other hand, older
generations have a higher prevalence of conservative Republicans. Millennials’ tastes
and preferences have often been talked about – especially in the context of
very specific industries such as the diamond industry or avocado toast business
– but deeper information tells us a lot more about who they are as a generation
and what they value. They are more likely than older generations to see
national identity more inclusively (Stokes, 2017), have driven the push toward
public support for marijuana and its legalization (Geiger, 2016), are less
religious than older Americans (Masci, 2016), and spend almost eight hours a
day online (Laporte, 2015). Millennials’ view of the national news media is
more positive than previous generations, but it has become more negative in the
last five years (Fingerhut, 2016). Another newer generation – Generation Z –
has also appeared in some demographic data and includes those born from 1995
onwards. They are the first truly digital native generation, are ambitious, and
lose interest quickly (Williams, 2015). They also cite YouTube as a reliable
source of information (The Center of Generational Kinetics, 2017). Matt
Carroll, a Northeastern University professor and former Boston Globe Spotlight
reporter, suggested that the world is changing rapidly and the way people
consume news will soon set reading patterns. “You are way more connected to
digital than I am. The person who is born today will be way more connected to
digital than you are,” he said. Even with a low level of trust in the news,
there are some encouraging figures when it comes to younger generations’
consumption of news. According to the American Press Institute (2015), 85
percent indicate that keeping up with the news is at least somewhat important
for them, with 69 percent getting news daily and 40 percent paying for one or
more new services, apps, or digital subscriptions. Another interesting point is
that social media has helped in exposing younger generations to more news on a
daily basis. With news being more accessible than ever, and Millennials and Gen
Z taking an interest in social issues, how can we build newsrooms that respond
to their needs?

            Sifting
through tons of information every day, viewers want to read things that grab
their attention. This does not mean we should use click bait, but rather frame
important stories in such a way that the audience wants to learn more about the
topic. One key way of accomplishing this, especially when sharing stories on
social media, is through personal experiences and human interest takes on
global issues. For example, interviewing a refugee and tracing their journey
makes it much more real and relatable to younger generations than simply
stating how many have lost their lives on the way. Capitalizing on these sorts
of stories to draw the reader in and toward other stories will drive audience
engagement and spark discussion and emotional reactions. Rébeillé-Borgella adds
that a combination of text and visual elements will be the best way to
accomplish this: “You need to have the body, the content that explains it. And
maybe, because everything is visualized now all the time, adding an explanatory
video or something like that would help. But that shouldn’t be the only thing”,
she said. Candice Rebot, a 21-year-old student and one of the creators of the
NEUtoo campaign at Northeastern University, agrees with this, adding that
sources’ voices are also key to engaging the reader. “Visuals are definitely
important, whether it’s a video of someone telling their story, or anything visual
will help. It’s always good to put a face to the person speaking. Quotes are
also important and keep some of the emotion in the article,” she said. In the
same way that stories can engage the audience, so can journalists. As
ProPublica has done so effectively, taking into account readers, their stories,
and their opinions can be very beneficial to the development of stories and
sources. Crowdsourcing ideas and sources in this way can help with the
attainment of another goal: viewpoint diversity. Carroll believes every
newsroom should be reflecting different viewpoints, backgrounds, or ethnic
groups depending on the story. “If it’s a good newsroom with good reporters and
good editors, they are always on the lookout for diverse viewpoints and they are
pushing themselves to make sure they are talking to diverse groups of people,”
he said. Beyond having diverse sources, efforts can also be made to improve
diversity inside of newsrooms, although Rébeillé-Borgella does not believe this
is the end-all-be-all solution. She said one can understand an issue but not to
the fullest extent if one hasn’t lived it. On the other hand, the
professionalism of a journalist can mitigate this separation. “It’s not
necessarily because you are a part of that group that you will relay the
information better. It’s always a matter of balance. I think to a certain
extent, having people who are more diverse would help to have a more eclectic
view, but then it’s also about being a good journalist,” she said. Carroll
added that newsrooms are still unfortunately struggling to hire people of
color. That is one area that the modern newsroom will have to focus on,
especially when it comes to covering controversial topics such as race and
racial tensions.

            When
covering race, it is essential to think about the big picture and go beyond the
individual incidents and instances. According to Schaffer (2003), ways to do
this include finding sources that can speak to more than just their personal
experience, thinking in terms of “truths” rather than “the truth,” and
listening for patterns. Reporting on race is often less about intense conflict
and more about a winding journey. In a modern newsroom, reporters should go
beyond the reports of African American men being shot by police and look at the
underlying trends. Journalists also need to make the effort of using the right
language and keeping up with proper denominations. Being precise in the
language used, by using a style guide like the Diversity Style Guide by the
Center for Integration and Improvement of Journalism at San Francisco State
University (2017) for example, can easily increase accuracy in reporting.
However, as Fitzgerald (2017) warns, being careful about language use does not
mean shying away from harsh and touchy words like “white supremacy” when they are
fact. He also recommends moving away from highly visible racism and placing
questions of resources, power, and access at the heart of stories instead. The
modern newsroom needs to be more self-reflective than it has been in the past
and make an effort of real transparency. Newsrooms have to be open about their
own diversity in order to be honest with their readers. As Ho (2017) points
out, some of the biggest newsrooms have still not increased the employment of
people of color in masthead roles. It is important to represent the communities
one is reporting on. The same can be said for other minority communities, such
as the LGBTQ+ community.

            In
early 2017, the Associated Press finally changed its style guide to include
“they” as a singular pronoun, after years of debate and several newsrooms
making the shift independently (Hare, 2017). At Boston.com, a subsidiary of
Boston Globe Media, it was the policy of the reporters and editors since 2015 to
use the singular “they” when covering stories related to gender identity. Carroll
said that newsrooms were definitely behind the times on gender identity and
sexuality. But, he added, someone from a traditional background living in the
suburbs may not comprehend these language shifts – that is where journalists
come in, as educators and informers. News organizations can rely on outside
associations to help them help others become informed. A good example of this
is GLAAD’s extensive reference guide to covering gender identity and sexuality,
available on their website. As Grimaldi (2016) pointed out, reporters have to
keep up with the evolving standards and, without the lived experiences, have to
work extra hard to “get it right.” Journalists should not only think of how
they write but how they ask questions too. They could also consider confirming
all their sources’ preferred gender pronouns. Perhaps the most important
technique to use it to involve other journalists in the conversation and talk
to sources about what to include regarding their LGBTQ status. The Ethical
Journalism Initiative’s “Guidelines on LGBT reporting” goes one step further,
suggesting reporters ask themselves whether labels are even important to the
story they are telling. If they are, writers should be aware of the terminology
that is appropriate, as mentioned previously, and ask for advice or look at
guides from organizations. For example, in the process of reporting for my
current project focusing on transgender inmates in Massachusetts, I reached out
to Black and Pink, an LGBTQ inmate pen-pal project, not only for help with
sources but also to understand the best way to reach out to inmates in this
situation, how to approach a discussion of their status as trans without
putting them in danger, and how to formulate certain questions about their
operative status and medical care. Without the knowledge of the director of
this initiative, certain inmates might have received letters that were
offensive to them and/or put them at risk for violence. In this case and many
others, stigma is still very high in certain communities and using the right
words can be a matter of life or death.

            Our
third controversial topic, sexual assault and harassment, has been on the front
page of most newspapers since the New
York Times first broke the Harvey Weinstein story. A huge social movement
has swept the nation, with many women coming forward with their own stories of
harassment and assault. Carroll thinks this reflects broader changes in
society: “Women’s roles have gone from second-class citizens to running major
corporations. There is a much greater willingness of people not being afraid of
speaking up when bad stuff happens,” he said. With more of these stories coming
up, it is difficult to choose what to report on. Blanding (2017) advises
reporters to consider stories that go beyond the criminal justice system and
focus on recovery and healing. In terms of the reporting, earning the trust of
a victim is essential, but it should not be done at the expense of journalistic
sensibilities: reporters have to balance the verification of facts with the
empathy they feel for someone talking about a traumatic experience. One way to
ensure fairness on both ends is to set ground rules for interaction early on.
The editing process should be one that is transparent and includes people from
different backgrounds. Rebot pointed out that reporters have to be careful in
not becoming the ones harassing the survivor. “When we did the NEUtoo campaign,
we realized we went a bit too far in some instances and made the survivors
become the victims again and they started reliving the moment. So make sure you
keep a distance between what happened and what you are trying to say,” she
said. She also recommended focusing on positive words, such as using “survivor”
rather than “victim” to empower sources. The choice of words is once again
essential to the proper coverage of this topic. Hiltner (2017) recommends using
descriptive but not euphemistic wording and staying fair, especially with the
potential of legal issues arising. The choice of words must be justifiable and
journalists should welcome comments from readers and engage in conversation. In
a November blog post, Daniszewski (2017) called for journalists to use the word
“misconduct” rather than “harassment,” arguing that it is more encompassing and
does not diminish the alleged acts, while also avoiding the legal pitfalls that
sexual harassment, which has a specific meaning, brings. The behaviors being
alleged or admitted should be described as specifically as possible. Glover
(2017) said that in reporting on this difficult topic, writers should stay away
from the words “scandal,” “sex,” “claimed,” “proclaimed,” “reportedly,” and
“shenanigans.” Most of the stories we have seen so far in the public discourse
have revolved around public officials and figures. Rebot thinks reporters
should not focus on celebrities as much because the public cannot relate to
them: “I feel like because it’s famous people, we tend not to focus on it and
people don’t seem to realize how often these horrible things happen in the
workplace, at school.” she said. Journalists need to translate this social
movement and intense focus on sexual harassment and assault into local coverage
of the issues and the action being taken. Carroll believes this is already
happening: “It doesn’t generate many headlines but there is an effort to focus
on regular people’s stories. It has trickled down very, very quickly into other
organizations,” he said.

            Because
of their controversial and taboo nature, these three topics are quite difficult
to cover – both for sources and for reporters. They involve a lot of
self-awareness and consciousness. To cover them effectively in a newsroom that
caters to Millennials and Generation Z, who want to read about these stories,
reporters should establish procedures and routines that focus on three key
concepts: collaboration, encouraging openness and discussion, and supporting
minority colleagues and women. The revolution in office design has made collaboration
easy to accomplish. Open floor plans and the removal of cubicles in most
organizations means going around to speak to a colleague or shouting out a
question in the general direction of the newsroom are easy and commonplace. At
Boston.com and within the Boston Globe newsroom, this was an hourly occurrence.
People ask how to spell certain things, what the right word is to use in a
specific situation, or for another editing eye. Collaboration is essential to
avoid mistakes, slip-ups, and mishaps – especially when covering one of our
three controversial topics. Journalists should not simply ask the most obvious
person about the story they are writing. Instead, they should think about who
has written about the topic before or has experience reporting on it, as well
as who has personally experienced it. From collaboration will naturally flow
openness and discussion. Sharing feedback, thoughts, and opinions on a specific
subject, how a story is developing, or someone’s choice of words can be very helpful
and educational. This flow of ideas and information should also translate to
audience engagement: reporters need to communicate with readers via social
media and structured call-outs so they can better answer their needs and tell
them the stories they need to know. The last aspect, supporting minority
colleagues and women, also emerges organically from our previous point.
Creating a supportive, collaborative, and open newsroom will ultimately result
in the success of all who work in the newsroom. That success will undoubtedly
lead to better storytelling, better reporting, and better visualizing.