ESPN’s Adam Schefter’s email seeking feedback from former NFL executive Bruce Allen on an unpublished story is no surprise to me. I quit my job as a local journalist because of power imbalances similar to this.
I worked for a news station that served the Hudson Valley region. Our work provided news for people in diverse cities like Kingston, Newburgh, and Poughkeepsie. As a journalist, I took it as my role to bring the diverse reality of the Hudson Valley into our day-to-day news coverage.
Our newsroom did not have strong relationships with historically excluded communities throughout the Hudson Valley. This made it so our coverage did not represent their realities, not in the way our coverage did for communities that were predominantly white and middle to upper class. We shared police accounts, but rarely the account of the victim abused by the police. We gave more time to the Kingston mayor than we ever did to grassroots organizers, and on most days covered more stories in communities of color on crime than joy.
As I read Schefter’s email, and how he dismissed the ethics of journalism, I was reminded of the inequities I saw in the local newsroom I worked in, particularly when it comes to the relationships reporters have with powerful sources.
There is an unspoken, mutually beneficial relationship between journalists and people in positions of power. These relationships are the foundation to the news we know today.
A journalist’s relationship with powerful sources allows journalists access to exclusive interviews and timely quotes and soundbites. Public relations representatives working for prominent people benefit by having power over their clients’ news stories. They tell journalists where to meet their clients for an interview and what questions their client will or will not answer.
My experience in seeing the disparities that exist in local news has made me an advocate for opening up one of journalism’s most important processes: editing. Here I mean the decisions that go into publishing a piece of journalism. The editing process goes beyond grammar and punctuation. It includes story assignments and framing, quotes used, and, of course, headline writing.
We can see how this process is something a newsroom would want to protect. I mean, can you imagine trying to publish a piece of breaking news only to have every source provide a different idea of how to change the story? News would never be told. There is, after all, a thing about too many cooks in the kitchen.
But what happens when the only people to have their feedback respected by the news media are the ones who sit at the top of society’s hierarchical structures? People like Bruce Allen.
The reality of our current news system is that not everyone has received an invitation to participate in the process of the news. There are a whole lot of demographics being excluded from the historical documentation of our nation: people of color, people living in poverty, people with disabilities, people who are queer, non-binary, and transgender. These demographics have been consistently excluded from news coverage in order for media outlets to prioritize a “white audience who will pay.”
What I am trying to shine light on here is the importance of inviting historically excluded communities into our editing process. While ethical journalists may choose to keep an unpublished story from their sources, there are ways people with the right resources gain access to journalism’s highly protected processes.
As a journalist with a background in local print and TV news, I’ve seen PR reps for politicians debate the details of a story, and I’ve seen people in the newsroom listen, value the relationship with the source, and have open conversation around whether the change is appropriate.
In these moments of critical newsroom discussion, inequities in our media system are exposed. If one powerful person has resources to impact the editing process, then I think historically excluded communities should have access to those resources, too.
One way to provide this opportunity to communities of color and other historically excluded groups is to invite them into the entire process of creating a news story: story identification, story production, story editing, and post-production critiques.
Engaging historically excluded communities throughout the entire news process, including that crucial editing part, acknowledges the inequities of our industry and provides a means to address them. It elevates perspectives and critiques newsrooms would otherwise overlook due to a lack of diversity, representation, and opportunity for equal access.
In a white-dominated industry, I think we’d be remiss to think our straight, white, able-bodied editors are able to make critical editing decisions without hearing from people who have different lived experiences from them.
It is within the continuous cycle of engagement with historically excluded communities that we open up our ability to transform who our media industry is for.
Let’s label Adam Schefter’s email to Bruce Allen exactly what it is: a clear case of unequal influence over our news. People like Bruce Allen have always had a way into the journalistic editing process. Now it’s time historically excluded communities do, too.