Equity in Journalism

It’s always great to land the job of your dreams, but you should always keep at the forefront of your mind the benefit of your work to others. Check out the posts for this week to see what we mean. 

By Ron Menchaca, ’98

This past summer, as the Black Lives Matter movement took hold across the nation, I reflected on my former career as a newspaper journalist and the responsibility of reporters to know and cover their communities.

As people took to the streets to protest centuries of subjugation and discrimination toward African Americans and the killing of George Floyd and others at the hands of police, some journalists descended on these mass assemblies with a sense of shock and alarm – as if the anger and frustration boiling over in so many U.S. communities had simply manifested itself overnight.

In fact, the tension and the pleas for equality had always been there for anyone who cared to look or listen. After all, isn’t that the job of a journalist – to seek out the truth and to give voice to the voiceless? Sadly, I suspect the dismay among some journalists covering the protests stemmed from their unfamiliarity with some of the communities in their own backyards.

I can remember being told as a young reporter at The Post and Courier in the late 1990s to avoid certain Charleston neighborhoods because they were thought to be unsafe. I visited these areas anyway because I wanted my stories to include as many voices as possible, especially those from underrepresented and marginalized communities. While I occasionally drew curious looks, I was usually met with kindness. Most of the people I talked to were delighted to share their thoughts and opinions with me. They often seemed surprised I was there at all, let alone that I was asking to quote them in their local newspaper.

I loved being a reporter, and I credit my professors at the College of Charleston for preparing me to become one. The profession appealed to my passion for storytelling, insatiable sense of curiosity and dogged determination. No matter what the story was, I would always go the extra distance to make sure my reporting was thorough. If that meant repeatedly getting hung-up on over the phone, staking out the house of a source I desperately needed or asking complete strangers to answer probing questions, I did whatever it took to get the full story.

Back then, I had the luxury of working on a story all day to make sure there were no glaring holes and no important voices left out. The stories I worked on each day were written for the next day’s print edition; the current practice of writing stories for immediate publication online had not yet transformed the industry.

You’d think that in today’s media landscape, with all the communication tools and information resources available to reporters, that it would be easier than ever for news organizations to ensure that their stories accurately reflect the diversity of the communities they cover. The truth is, most reporters are spread thin trying to juggle multiple beats and competing deadlines while also trying to fulfill social media quotas. The pressure to write and push out news in real-time is extraordinary. I worry that in the rush to be fast and first, some news organizations, in the interest of expediency, will overlook certain voices and communities.

I’m hopeful that the systemic issues around race and social justice brought to light by this year’s protests will continue to receive news coverage. Sunlight, as I was taught as a journalism student, is the ultimate disinfectant. But journalists must be willing to shine that light in places where they may have never been, in unfamiliar communities where they may have been warned not to go. What they will find are people just like themselves. People with stories to share. People whose voices must be heard.

Ron Menchaca, ’98 is the Vice President of University Communications for the College of Charleston. 

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