Wheel Lacks Black Student Voices: The Need for Diversity in the Newsroom

I walk into a room, glance at every face and realize that I am the only black person and often the only person of color. That is a daily ritual. There is no feeling I am more familiar with than the burden of representing a large group of people in conversation, in class or more recently in The Emory Wheel newsroom.

A campus newspaper is a valuable space at any university. Although the most basic function of a student newspaper is to report on and tell stories about its campus, a newspaper should be more than an outlet for information — it should represent the community’s voices.

The Wheel masthead features 20 people, none of whom are black. This is at a school where 9 percent of the student body is black or African American. The Wheel staff includes several non-white editors and writers, including the editor-in-chief and executive editor, but there is still a lack of black editors and writers who would help the paper accurately represent the varied black populace on Emory’s campus.

Since the school year began, the news section has published only one black writer — once a as a contributor to the reporting of an article and once with her own byline. The opinion section has had two columnists in the past two years, both white males. Since the start of the semester, only three pieces have been attributed to black writers in the Wheel; this one will be the fourth. I am also a member of the Editorial Board. My name is at the bottom of every editorial and I have a bio on the Wheel website, but my contributions do not make up for the void of black writers across sections.

Unfortunately, this problem is much larger than the Wheel.

According to a 2017 study conducted by student reporters in the Asian American Journalists Association, national newsrooms are disproportionately white and male and are falling woefully behind their stated diversity goals.

The study found that The New York Times newsroom is composed of 78 percent white and 22 percent minority writers. The Washington Post masthead only features one person of color out of 11 editors. While the minority population in the United States is at 40 percent and still growing, American newsrooms are lagging behind at 15 percent.

Those disappointing but expected statistics show that even two of the most prized newspapers in the world are failing to represent their communities and, by extension, failing to represent the voices of the American people.

I am not here to talk about the importance of diversity from an economic standpoint; there are numerous studies showing that a diverse staff almost always materially benefits a company. The reason that diversity is important in newsrooms is simply this: a wide breadth of viewpoints from different backgrounds creates better stories.

“Those Blobs in Your Tea? They’re Supposed to Be There” sounds like an awful headline from an “Odyssey Online”-type blog, but, in fact is from a Times article published this August. The piece was meant to be an exposé on bubble tea becoming mainstream. Instead it shows that the Times’ business section is desperately in need of a writer or editor with an informed understanding of Asian culture.

The original article used language like “Far East” and “exotic” to describe the popular Taiwanese drink. The writer referred to tapioca balls as “blobs,” further signifying how strange and foreign they believed Asian food choices are.

After fervent criticism, the original article was edited dramatically and the Times’ Business Editor Ellen Pollock published a commentary on the now infamous “bubble tea” piece.

Pollock’s commentary focuses on a comment made by a reader, Bo Hee Kim, who pointed out that the article “highlights otherness rather than uniqueness, defines familiarity through a non-diverse lens, and for me evokes the unpleasant feelings of being the kid in a non-diverse neighborhood bringing ‘weird’ lunches to school.”

Kim’s words reflect exactly how I feel walking into the Wheel’s newsroom: an otherness that becomes increasingly frustrating every time I have to re-explain how white supremacy is part of America’s source code or what “Hotep” means.

On the other hand, I am proud to work on a newspaper where the majority of editors is a diverse group of women. Unfortunately, staffing demographics at college newspapers are hard to find, so I cannot empirically say this is a rare sight, but it certainly is much more representative of the population than U.S. media, where men dominate the industry and women only receive 38 percent of bylines and other credits in print, online, TV and wire news.

A 2017 study commissioned by the Women’s Media Center found that women covered only 31 percent of stories about sexual assault. This is where an undiverse staff becomes problematic; a serious issue that primarily affects women nationwide is being covered at high school and colleges by male student journalists who “spotlighted alleged perpetrators more often than alleged victims.”

As the Wheel seeks new staff members this semester, pursuing diverse voices that strengthen the paper’s power as a voice for the Emory community should be a priority. For a college newspaper, this is a win-win endeavor. With more minority perspectives in the newsroom — particularly in editor roles — fewer important stories will be missed and fewer will be misconstrued. A more diverse staff would also increase readership. First, non-white writers would share their stories with segments of the student population that don’t often read the Wheel. Second, writers from marginalized communities have a unique angle on matters of race, gender and identity — they can and should write stories that minorities want to read.

Further, it is not the responsibility of marginalized groups to seek approval from institutions that historically have slighted them or once completely kept them out. The Wheel needs to come up with creative solutions in advertising, outreach and retention to make their newsroom feel like a space where a diverse group of writers and reporters are welcome to be a voice for the voiceless.

One of the rare articles in the Wheel written by a black student was Deandre Miles’ (18C) op-ed, “Facing a Complacent Campus: A Lesson in Discomfort.” In it they propose that Emory students “get outside of [themselves].”

Getting outside of yourself is a hard task. It is a choice that involves being uncomfortable, asking for help and sometimes getting rejected despite your best efforts. But for the Wheel, “get outside of yourself” is overdue advice that will lead to the only thing a newspaper ever wants — better stories.

Boris Niyonzima is a College sophomore from New Milford, N.J. 

0 comments