November 15, 2023
Journalism students at Michigan State University aren’t just asking questions and reporting on the diverse communities around them — they are looking inward, gauging their efforts to make their reporting more inclusive.
A class offered at the university in East Lansing pushes its journalism students to document the demographics of the sources they interview for stories so they can track how closely they match the demographics of the communities they cover.
The goal of the initiative, called Fair Chance Reporting, is for young reporters to identify who’s missing or underrepresented in their reporting over the course of the class.
“We know that sometimes marginalized communities don’t talk to reporters unless something bad happens,” said Joe Grimm, an editor in residence at Michigan State who created and teaches the course. “So, we’ve been hearing for decades all these signs that we are missing stories. And we thought, ‘Well, we can find out how well our reporting reflects our community.’ ”
College journalism departments, news organizations and journalism organizations, such as the News Leaders Association and Maynard Institute, have long stressed the need for news coverage to include the voices and images of all segments of society. News outlets have tried, some successfully. But much of today’s news coverage still falls short of consistently reflecting the nation’s rich diversity.
Programs like Fair Chance are helping aspiring journalists keep diversity top of mind during their reporting.
During the 15-week class, students are assigned stories in different communities around East Lansing. As part of their interviews, they ask their sources for demographic information, such as their age, race, political leaning and level of education.
Students input the data into a Google form that can generate a spreadsheet. Once the data is organized, Grimm said, it’s pretty easy to analyze.
“We look at how our data compares to those living in our town. When we notice differences, we talk about them,” said Grimm, who has been running the program for more than four years.
Students analyze the data halfway through the semester, make adjustments in source selection based on the findings and make a final assessment near the end to see if their reporting better reflects the communities they covered.
During one class, Grimm said students noticed they weren’t talking to many Hispanic people. By looking at census data, they noticed that Hispanic residents in town were young and that the students usually spoke to older people.
“Their problem may have been generational — interviewing the older generation and missing people who are probably taking care of their families and not running businesses or serving on the school board,” Grimm said.
Michigan State students aren’t the only ones looking at how they diversity the voices in their stories. Ben Casselman, an economics reporter at The New York Times, said he often thought about the diversity of his sources long before he began tracking them in a systematic way.
“I kind of realized if I’m writing about the field of economics in this way and the need for better data to track what it looked like, it made sense to turn that lens inward and look at who I’m talking to,” Casselman said.
He began with the basics and started tracking the race and gender of his sources. His findings, he said, were both concerning and unsurprising. In the first year, he found that nearly half of his sources were white men.
“This isn’t a political agenda,” Casselman said. “I want to make sure my stories are reflecting the actual economy as it is experienced by 300-plus million Americans. And I don’t think you can do that if you aren’t conscious about talking to a representative group of people.”
Casselman also found that on breaking news stories with quick turnarounds, his sources were less diverse than in stories he had days or weeks to write.
One takeaway from those findings, he said, was to diversify his group of kitchen cabinet sources — those he relies on for week-to-week reporting.
“The real lesson here is to try to break out of the small group of sources you always talk to, and to go at each story thinking, ‘Who has the most to offer here?’” Casselman said. “I don’t ever want to be quoting someone because of their gender or race. The point is to find people who are experts, but who come from a different perspective.”
Grimm likened omitting certain parts of the community from coverage to erasure.
“We don’t often turn the microscope on ourselves, but you have to include different sources to do a fair job,” he said. “It’s our ethical obligation to make sure we are reflecting our communities. And that begins by noticing where the coverage gaps are.”
Maysoon Khan is a journalist based in New York. She has previously written for The Boston Globe and Los Angeles Business Journal.