Diversity in Departments: Journalism seeks underrepresented voices

by Allison Hagan / Beacon Staff • February 11, 2016

Emerson is working toward creating a more inclusive environment, and each department has set goals to improve their curricula. Each week, the Beacon will feature the plans for an academic department. Previous installments include writing, literature, and publishing, and visual and media arts.

The journalism department is focusing on inclusivity by encouraging students to acquire diverse sources and pay attention to underrepresented communities, according to Paul Niwa, associate professor and chair.

Niwa said professors are actively encouraging students to use diverse sources while reporting. He said the truth can only be uncovered through exploring marginalized viewpoints and allowing them to be heard.

“It’s innate in someone who is a journalist to try to seek out a wide variety of sources and perspectives,” he said, “and to think about and analyze those differences.”

Niwa said he thinks students don’t purposefully express bias when choosing sources, but lack of resources and time when working on deadline can hold them back from gathering multiple types of voices.

Jerry Lanson, associate professor and associate chair of the department, said that he believes everyone has bias based on how they were brought up, but journalists have a duty to learn to challenge them.

“If you're doing a story about an emergency room at a city hospital, who's going to be the doctor you interview if you're a white male reporter?” Lanson said. “Are you gonna look for a white male doctor or a [female] Cambodian doctor? Are you going to make a real effort to have different faces and voices in the everyday actions of people?”

Lanson said faculty in the department should promote diversity by building it into the curriculum. In his ethics class, Lanson said, he devotes a portion of the course to “stick figures and stereotypes,” examining language and the way it’s used to represent groups of people in the media. It’s important, he said, for the media to be more representative, so that all people can “see themselves” within it.

Lanson used the example of a study done by a former colleague at Syracuse University about the representation of African Americans in the media during the 1990s. The narrow depiction of an entire race of people, he said, serves as a model for what journalists shouldn’t do.

“The more that journalists look for stories that break convention and look for stories that are not merely covering the powerful, but looking at the impact of policy on people and the impact of people on government, the more interesting the world becomes,” Lanson said.

A focus on civic engagement was incorporated into the graduate program curriculum two years ago, according to Niwa. He said the program requires every graduate student to spend a semester working and reporting on behalf of a marginalized community.

“Traditionally, journalists have been educated from afar, not embedded within,” Niwa said. “It’s a different approach, trying to have students find a community to serve, asking difficult questions to keep that community accountable to itself.”

Outside of the classroom, Niwa said, faculty are working personally to help the profession as well as enrich themselves. Catherine D'Ignazio, assistant professor, and Janet Kolodzy, professor, each received a grant through Emerson’s Office of Internationalization and Global Engagement to systematically look at ethnic media in Boston.

Ethnic media, according to D'Ignazio, is any form of media with a key identity factor that differs from the mainstream. It can be from other countries, languages, or communities with “nondominant voices.”

D’Ignazio and Kolodzy are working to create a large database of ethnic media organizations in Boston. The research program comes from an effort by faculty to be more international, inclusive, and diverse, according to D’Ignazio.  

“We’re establishing relationships long term,” D’Ignazio said. “The goal is to diversify our understanding of who media in Boston are, and to create more relationships and opportunities for students and faculty to learn.”

Kim Wilborn, a freshman journalism major, said she believes that being educated with a diverse curriculum will help her on the path to being an international journalist.

“I want move around and travel places,” Wilborn said. “I’ll meet different people from different walks of life. Being exposed to diversity will help communication with all different types of people, and once you can communicate it’s easier to cooperate.”

Niwa said that the department is not just trying to make small improvements when it comes to inclusivity, but to establish institutional change.

“I believe we should be continually dissatisfied with our own performance,” Niwa said. “That should be the goal—always knowing that you can do more and that we’re never going to reach the so called cultural competency.”