I think Conor Friedersdorf’s objections to “newsroom diversity as ideology” are, overall, wide of the mark. It would certainly be a pernicious mistake for communities to be covered only by people who came from those communities, or for journalists to be pigeonholed into reporting only on the communities they come from. But that’s not what the piece by Washington Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander to which Friedersdorf objects is talking about. Here’s the paragraph that Friedersdorf calls “nonsense”:
“You can’t cover your community unless you look like your community,” said Bobbi Bowman, a former Post reporter and editor who is a diversity consultant for ASNE. (Full disclosure: I [Andrew Alexander] sit on its board). “If you have a community of basketball players, it’s difficult for a newsroom of opera lovers to cover them.”
Imagine diversity consultant Bobbi Bowman telling a black reporter, “I’m sorry, your work is good, and I’d like to grant your request to cover Georgetown for the Metro desk, but you can’t cover a community like Georgetown if you don’t look like the people there.”
But that’s not what Bowman said. She didn’t say you can’t cover basketball if you’re an opera lover. She said a newsroom full of opera lovers will find it difficult to cover a community of basketball players. Bowman is talking about the effect of diversity on communities, including the community of a newsroom. People in diverse communities soak up background knowledge from each other. They’re made aware of things they don’t know that they don’t know. They’ll walk in every morning and hear unfamiliar terms being bandied about, they’ll get an inkling of what’s going on out there and how much they have to learn.
In contrast, people in homogenous communities don’t know what they don’t know. They get trapped in echo chambers, and assume that the possibly ignorant opinions they and their demographically similar friends hold are accurate. The opera lovers at the Washington Post will likely do a solid job of covering a community of basketball players, but that’s in part because they’re surrounded by basketball fans. And the basketball players at the Washington Post will probably do a better job of covering opera if there are still a few opera fans left at the paper.
This is actually expressive of a pretty central tension in thinking about racial integration. Conservatism embraced the idea of an individualist anti-racism that permits no discrimination on any grounds by the late 1970s or so. But it did so in part by rejecting communitarian conservatism, which had been associated with support for segregation in the ’50s and ’60s. The orthodoxy on the conservative end of things became that expressed by John Roberts: “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” (Or, as Stephen Colbert would put it, “I don’t see black skin.”) Liberals, meanwhile, have not had an easy time of articulating the difference between barring consideration of gender, religion or ethnicity to exclude people from institutions, but allowing or encouraging consideration of gender, religion or ethnicity to include people in institutions and promote in-house diversity. And it’s a genuine problem: any time you consider one person’s under-represented identity to include them, you may be considering someone else’s over-represented identity to exclude them.
Still, what Bowman is saying here is like what universities say when they explain why they value diversity in admissions: diversity is mission-related. In sectors like education and media, diverse institutions perform better. The reporter you put on a beat doesn’t need to come from that beat. But the newsroom that’s covering all those beats will do a much better job if it contains a mix of people who come from all those beats, too.
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