There’s a show that played on Broadway some years back called Avenue Q. It was a spoof on Sesame Street. It had puppets and dirty jokes, and quirky songs. One of those songs is “Everyone’s A Little Racist.”
It’s the kind of song that leaves you feeling a little guilty when it’s over. You have to ask yourself, OH, GOD! Am I racist too? Even a little?
I remember talking with my girlfriend, who took me to the show. We laughed at most of the jokes, but we couldn’t stop talking about THIS song. And I asked her, do you think it’s true? We’re all even just a little?
Talking about race is a challenging topic to discuss, but that’s why I started with the story about the Broadway show. Sometimes you have to approach these heavier issues with something light so everyone can begin in a place of comfort. But for this week’s episode of The Reporter’s Studio, I wanted to talk about this topic with someone called on by companies, corporations, and newsrooms to help them better handle the issue within their organizations.
Celeste Headlee has been an NPR host for years, and you still hear her hosting shows like Here and Now from time to time. She’s also the author of books like, We Need To Talk: How To Have Conversations That Matter, Do Nothing: How to Break Away from Overworking, Overdoing, and Underliving, and her latest book, Speaking of Race: Why Everybody Needs to Talk About Racism—and How to Do It.
TRS – How often are you talking to newsrooms and reporters about the issue of race? And I’m just wondering the type of questions that you get.
Celeste Headlee – I started a nonprofit called Headway, which is focused on bringing racial equity and reform to public media in particular. So I am talking to newsrooms quite a bit. Generally, if they’re calling me, it’s because something has gone wrong. And so it’s very often crisis management at that point. I try to tell people that we have to change our tactics and move away from these crisis reactions to being proactive and creating muscle memory in an institution, especially a newsroom. Because when you have muscle memory, it means that even when people quit, even when new people come in, the institution knows how to be equitable, fair, and just. There are systems in place that are automatically equitable, fair, and just. It’s not about accommodating personalities. And so that’s sort of what I try to get across to people: not let’s deal with this crisis, let’s find its root causes. Let’s bring up all those undiscussed bubbles that nobody’s talking about and get to the root of what created the tension here. We are especially prone to racial bias and discrimination in the news business. And a big part of that is because we rely on gut instinct. We call it news instinct, but it’s really gut instinct. And gut instinct is the most vulnerable kind of thinking to discrimination and bias and unconscious and implicit biases. You think a news story is important because you think it is, but there are all these unconscious biases making you think that stories, that economic story about Boeing, is more important than the story about the Latino community in Detroit or whatever it may be. So it makes us vulnerable.
TRS – Going back to the Black Lives Matter marches of a couple of years ago, one of the things that kept popping up and this has been a real big challenge is, we’ve seen the reaction from the party on the right. In Florida especially, they’re pushing laws that, as a human, you just stop and say, that’s just racist. But as a reporter, you’re like, how am I supposed to talk to this person?
Celeste Headlee – So I think media writ large is kind of responsible for, in a small part, for where we are. Even at NPR, we took the lazy man sort of cowardly way out for a quite a long time, meaning that we did the ‘he said she said’ false balance where rather than putting our own reputation on the line because NPR kept getting attacked as being liberal, which is not true. They’ve done research studies. It’s not true. But they kept getting attacked as liberal. And so, to fix that, they would just always include an opposing voice. And you can’t have an opposing voice on climate change or the safety of vaccines. That’s not feasible, but that’s what we did. And so, it created a little bit of this combative environment. Not taking full responsibility. When you’re approaching somebody like that, I always approach them from the standpoint of how wide the agreement is.
So, for example, if I were reporting in Florida, I would say I’m confused, and I’m really hoping you can clear this up because I’m super curious about your standpoint. We know that the support for the LGBTQ community’s support for same-sex marriage is incredibly popular in the United States. That’s bipartisan that everybody agrees on. So let’s dig into what you’re trying to prevent here. Give me the example of a real-world example of what you’re trying to prevent. You have to really use those five why’s; (Sakichi) Toyoda’s five why’s. You have to really dig down into specific examples. The problem becomes when you start talking about generalities, the liberal agenda, and the gay agenda. That’s just talking points. You’re never going to find anything of use in that conversation. You have to drill it down to specific stories, specific examples, what they specifically have experienced, and what did their kids experience? It’s about telling stories. And yet we don’t do that when it comes to politics and economics. We allow people to give us talking points instead of specific true stories.
TRS – As you pointed out, depending on which market you’re in as a reporter, the newsroom will look a certain way. Most newsrooms I’ve been in have been very white. The bigger the city I got into, obviously the diversity was better. In your experience, in your travels, what have you seen? Have things gotten better? Or are we still way behind?
Celeste Headlee – Yes. They have gotten better, and we’re still way behind. At the same time, we are seeing some improvement in the recruitment of diverse staff. But, over the past year, we’ve seen an unprecedented exodus of talent from public radio, not just the network, but also at local stations, especially women of color. We have thrown all our energy into recruiting diverse talent and not throwing enough energy into creating inclusive environments where they can feel supported and feel that they have a chance for promotion and growth. It’s funny; I was talking to somebody at NPR about the Bureau system. NPR has bureau chiefs in different regions of the country, and they’re generally that portal through which local reporters get their stories on national air. And I said, okay, so how many? Where’s the record of the stories they’ve turned down? And they said we don’t keep a record of the pitches they turn down. And I said, Okay, well, where’s your record of which stories they’ve accepted that were successful versus those that weren’t? And they said we don’t keep a record of that. And I said, Okay, well then how do you know how biased you’re bureau chiefs are? They’re 100% older white people. How do you know if they’re biased or not? And they said I don’t know. And I was like, you have a complaint where a black reporter in Atlanta pitched the story about Kamala Harris’s sorority, and the bureau chief turned it down. And not that long later, a white reporter pitched a similar story, and it was accepted. How do you know if that was biased or not or a fluke? And they don’t have any way of doing so. So when I talk about retention, this is part of it or growth or promotion. As a reporter, growing in this industry has a lot to do with how many stories you get on the network. That’s one of your bragging rights, right? Your news director usually wants you to get stories in the network because then all their listeners and donors hear your call letters. So these portals of power that we don’t give much thought to are not recording what they’re doing. They’re not measuring their efforts. We don’t track whether a bureau chief is good or bad because we don’t know how good they are at their jobs.
TRS – Is it at a management level where we have to start?
Celeste Headlee – I mean, always, but it’s a systemic level that we must start. We’ve approached diversity badly, and I write about this in the book. We have to stop thinking that racism and ageism, and any of the isms are a knowledge problem. For the most part, we approach it as though we have to teach people how bad racism and discrimination are, and we have to show them examples of discrimination and say, see how bad this is; look how much this hurts this other person. Everybody knows that. Everyone knows racism is terrible. Everyone knows sexism is wrong. They just don’t think they’re racist or sexist because the vast majority of discrimination and bias you will encounter is the product of unconscious bias or implicit bias. It’s not so much whether it’s at a management level or not. It’s that we have to create systems that are about behavioral science, that are about either rewarding inclusive behavior or punishing exclusive behavior. We have to create those systems. For example, I was working with a large station where, after a series of surveys, we discovered their news pitching process was a real problem. And I went through the same thing. Okay, who’s accepting the pitches? How do you know if they’re good at their jobs? What are the stories? They’re turned down, etc., etc., etc. They kept no record. And so I said, okay, you have to start. Including other people in the pitching process, you can create a rotating calendar in which literally everybody in the newsroom, including interns, gets to be part of that discussion on what stories get accepted and what don’t. Otherwise, you’re not taking advantage of your diversity, and you must keep a record of which stories with pitches were turned down. And that becomes your system. And that’s yeah, that’s about management, but it’s really about the process.
TRS – I grew up thinking that as a journalist, I need to be objective. But things changed when I came to Miami. I saw Latino journalists who spoke up about immigration issues and people telling them, hey, you’re a journalist, you’re not supposed to take sides. This idea of objectivity, we need to rethink this and how we are approaching our jobs.
Celeste Headlee – For those interested, there’s a great book from Louis Raymond Wallace called “The View from Somewhere: Undoing the Myth of Journalistic Objectivity.” Louis was fired from Marketplace because he wrote blogs about being trans and how the recent debate was affecting his life and Marketplace was like, well, if you have a point of view on these trans issues, then you’re not objective. You’re fired. How do I not have an opinion on my life and my safety? It’s the same thing as Black Lives Matter. How will you go to a Black person and say you can’t have a point of view on Black Lives Matter? What? No. Transparency is the way.
I had to do a bunch of interviews about the Confederate flag after the massacre at the church. And there was a real reconsideration of the Confederate flag in the south. And I was broadcasting out of Atlanta at that point. And I started every time we had an interview like this, I would say, look, I’m black. My family was on a plantation in Georgia. I obviously have strong feelings about the Confederate flag, but I will be fair. And if I’m not – call us. Email us if you hear me being unfair. My goal is not to be objective. My goal is to be fair, and objectivity has got to go.