Writers, It’s Time to Talk About Diversifying Our SourcesBy Ruth Terry June 11th, 2020
Despite being a Black and Puerto Rican-American writer based out of Istanbul, most of my sources have been white Americans throughout my career.
I’m not alone. It’s no secret that news media tends to rely on limited perspectives in reporting—namely those of men, many of them white. Chalk it up to factors like systemic inequality, gender bias, ableism, and “in-network” proximity tied to racially segregated cities and workplaces.
But with this spring’s double whammy of a pandemic that disproportionately affected minorities and widespread protests following the murder of George Floyd, the public has just about had it with the centuries-long drone of white, straight, male voices dominating media. People are yearning for more well-rounded reporting. As freelancers, it’s our duty to meet that need by taking a hard look at the sources we turn to when crafting a story.
Here’s how we can do better.
Why diversity in reporting is absolutely critical
I polled roughly 30 freelancers to take the pulse of how people felt about inclusive reporting. All of them said that sources from marginalized backgrounds enriched their reporting in ways that other sources didn’t, from adding alternative viewpoints to lending a deeper understanding of structural inequality.
“[Diverse sources] are necessary for credibility,” wrote Julie, a freelancer in Germany.
They introduce “different networks, different data sets, different outcomes,” wrote Elizabeth, a staff journalist in San Francisco.
“We can’t get a full read on what’s happening in our communities and in our world unless we hear from more than one type of person,” wrote Jen, a freelance writer in Seattle.
These aspects of reporting are particularly salient in 2020. During crises, journalists typically rely on sources known to credible experts they have relationships with, according to one 2016 study, which can leave out important voices.
But the nature of today’s civil and health crises all but require black voices. Some editors at white-majority publications are finding themselves in a bind. They’re clamoring for pitches from black freelancers about race, police, and protests—and getting called out for waiting until now to do it.
Set achievable goals to diversify your sourcing
Transitioning to inclusive sourcing can seem daunting, particularly for freelancers who’ve spent years building up a roster of go-to experts. But you don’t have to toss out the entire list. Start small and focus on practicing inclusivity over time.
Black and Latinx folks aren’t often cast as subject matter experts in the media, so I started by intentionally writing more stories about people who shared my background and sourcing them as experts. For example, when I wrote about how enslaved Africans shaped American foodways, I reached out to black James Beard Award winners Michael Twitty and Adrian Miller for comment.
One approach is to work toward representation that reflects population demographics. Those working in traditional newsrooms or freelancers writing for legacy publications can expect pushback, cautioned Joanne Cleaver, an editor with 40 years of experience. When she advocated for more women and POC sources during her tenure as Milwaukee Journal Sentinel‘s deputy business editor from 2004 to 2008, she told me that higher-ups ignored her or retorted that they were going for the highest quality sources regardless of gender or color.
To those who say they can’t find qualified candidates, Chinese-American disability rights activist Lydia X. Z. Brown calls bullshit. “You can’t find ‘qualified candidates’ because you only talk to other rich white people,” Brown said. “If you didn’t talk to only the people that you already knew, then you might have a chance to be introduced to others.”
How to connect with new and diverse sources
Until those introductions start happening organically, the pool of diverse sources may seem tiny compared to the sea of white, cis-het male experts. But you can find them by searching:
- Databases like JSTOR for diverse social scientists, psychologists, and other subject matter experts.
- For nonprofits and advocacy groups working around themes of equity and inclusion in the fields you’re writing about and reach out.
- Platforms like 500 Women Scientists, Equity at the Table, and, the mother of them all, the Database of Diverse Databases
- Twitter and Instagram. I’ve used both to connect with everyone from Afrogoth kitchen witch and artist Nnaus O. Feratu to gender fluid fashion industry decolonizer Alok V. Menon.
Writers responding to my survey offered additional tips:
- More databases: Diverse Sources, Expert Women Database by BBC, SheSource, and POC Experts.
- Add “social justice” or “advocacy” to topical search terms to find inclusive organizations working in the field you’re writing about.
- Tap minority associations. OCA National, for example, represents Asian Pacific Americans. When writing about industries lacking of diversity, you may be able to find minority associations within those fields like Latinos in Finance and Association of Black Psychologists.
Consider tapping citizen scientists, community organizers, and advocates who may not have major media credits but have expertise in specific subject areas and lived experience from which to draw.
Sources add nuance, you can add respect
Across all my interviews, the main benefit of inclusive sourcing was summed up in a single word by mental health advocate, writer, and editor Sam Dylan Finch: nuance.
“Marginalized folks are able to hold a lot of complexities at once,” he explained. “They’ve had to negotiate their own experiences AND comprehend those of the privileged majority to adapt to a world that wasn’t built for them. There is a depth of insight that comes from that and a tremendous amount of empathy.”
With that in mind, it’s important to keep the relationship mutually beneficial. Avoid tokenism by vetting sources and understanding that one individual does not speak for everyone who shares a particular aspect of their identity.
Using appropriate identity markers and pronouns, and intentionally listing titles and accolades can help. As Brown put it: “What might seem like labels to a person with a lot of privilege are in fact markers of identity, of community, of pride and of power.
Photo Credit: Lyubov Ivanova