CLEVELAND — In the fall of 2019, the staff at News 5 Cleveland underwent a weeklong training course on Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI), led by experts, journalists and industry leaders, as part of a company-wide commitment to consider how these values are reflected in the news.
This intensive program challenged us to think about our news coverage, the sources we talk to and how we represent ourselves to our audience. It led to some difficult conversations -- and some ongoing initiatives that shape our efforts today.
Kevin Benz, a veteran broadcast journalist who now coaches and professionally trains media companies and related organizations, was one of the trainers. Over a year later, we checked back in with Benz.
“I like to call myself a recovering news director," he said. "I was a news director for 14 years here in Austin before starting my company, KevinBenz.News, working with stations like yours in order to coach newsrooms, help journalists do their jobs more efficiently, better, and keep working on better journalism as we go forward.”
News 5 was part of the first wave of Scripps news stations to partake in this EDI training. Since that time, he’s visited dozens of other Scripps stations, both in-person and virtually.
“I really need to give Scripps credit for this,” Benz said. “Scripps has made a unique commitment to try to touch every station in their group…And it does my heart good to know that something that we've been working on for so long touches the newsrooms and has helped people like you think about how inclusion is reflected inside of the news that you're producing.”
Benz said that the values central to the training he provides – equity, diversion and inclusion – can mean different things, depending on where you are.
“It can be talking about each individual and how we recognize the biases, the unconscious biases, that we carry around with us,” Benz said. “And it can also be reflected in the news that is being produced by journalists around the country. And so what we're trying to do is help journalists recognize their own biases, particularly because as journalists, we need to recognize those biases in order to mitigate them.”
Benz said everyone, journalists included, has their own view of the world.
“A big part of the journalism that we produce involves us understanding that we come to the world with a very specific perspective on it, the perspective that is only shared by us, no one else,” he said. “And so as journalists, we want to be able to identify those things so that we can mitigate them and fairly portray people in in the news that we produce.”
Diversity and inclusion in the newsroom
“Newsroom diversity has been a topic of conversation for many years, thank goodness, because for a long time it wasn't something that was really recognized as being important,” Benz said. “And it is important. It is important not just because a newsroom, the look, the optics of the newsroom should be a reflection of the community itself, but it's also important because each individual brings very specific ideas and perspectives to the table, and those perspectives can be shared with the entire group in order to make our news and content more indicative of the thoughts, the many thoughts, the many ideas, the many perspectives that exist in the community.”
If a newsroom is comprised of a diverse array of people, then we’ll get more ideas coming from different people, and different perspectives on those ideas, Benz said.
“Let's be really clear here,” Benz said. “We're not just talking about a diversity by race, although that's incredibly important, and it's the thing we see the most. But we also need to be talking about diversity by gender diversity, by sexual orientation, diversity by age, diversity by geography, diversity by disability, and diversity, particularly in affiliation, whether that's putting political affiliations, religious beliefs, all of that diversity should be included in the way a newsroom reflects the people that it's covering.”
Since that training, News 5 has embraced this idea by making sure that a diverse range of staff members are included in more of the station's decision-making, from the stories we cover to the guiding principles that inform how we cover those stories.
Portraying our community through the news we cover
Another focus of the EDI training was consideration not just of our makeup, but the makeup of the community that we cover, and how our news reflects that.
“One of the things that we believe in, and the reason I think a lot of journalists go into this businesses, is because we want to make the communities we serve better places to live,” Benz said. “It's why we do journalism, and we can't do that well if we don't know and understand all the various communities that we are serving.”
He said that too often, the only thing that brings our reporters into communities is when bad things happen.
“That's what leads us in there,” Benz said. “Somebody gets shot, somebody gets robbed, a business gets robbed, a drug deal is broken up and arrests are made. And we do a good job covering crime in those communities. The trouble is that we don't do a great job covering life in those communities.”
If we don’t take the time to understand what life is like in these communities, what’s actually happening, then our news won’t reflect the real concerns of those that live in them.
“We'll never be able to understand not just the good things, but also the pressure points,” Benz said. “You know, those areas where people are working hard to overcome. It could be like a grocery store. You know, it's difficult to get good food for your family. It could be because there are too many liquor stores. It could be pressure points about infrastructure. We don't have good sidewalks or education, but we have to get into those communities and learn what those pressure points are not just visit them when bad things are happening, because then we don't understand the response and reaction that people in those communities have.”
Highlighting the positive stories in our community was the impetus for our franchise “A Better Land,” which highlights both the problems plaguing our area, as well as the people and groups championing change.
Inclusion and equity in our sources
Benz said a big part of inclusion and equity is diversity of thought, ideas and people in the news we produce.
“We need to remember that we need to cover people not because they are under-served or disenfranchised, not because they're Black or Asian or disabled, we need to cover people because they’re people,” Benz said. “Because they're doing things in their community, because they're regular folks, and looking for great expert sources, not experts because they're Black, (but) experts because they're experts. And systemically in our newsrooms, there have been situations set up that have happened that keep us from finding those folks.”
Benz said a University of Illinois study found that when people of color are presented on the news, most of the time they are portrayed as being poor, on welfare or involved in crime.
“Most of the time that's the way they seem, which is terrible, right? We know that that's not everyday life for people of color or those communities. And as bad as that is, what's even worse, according to this research, is the lack of positive portrayals of under-served communities, people of color in particular, because there's no aspiration, there's no inspiration.
“If you're a young Black man watching the news and you don't see people who look like you doing great things as accountants or as lawyers or doctors or vice presidents, if you don't see that, there's nothing to inspire you, there's nothing to aspire to, and so one of our jobs is to make sure that our diversity is shown not just in holding people up who are doing great things, but also in the everyday stories of life in the communities we serve.”
Benz said that since he’s begun training newsrooms, he’s seen some significant positive changes in coverage.
“Many of the stations in the group have come up with clear guidelines about how they're going to use mug shots, how they're going to cover crime,” he said. “Are we covering crimes that are meaningful, or are we simply covering crimes because it's easy? And most of the stations that I have worked with and in your group are really reflecting on how much crime is covered and how they are covering that crime instead of covering crime. Many stations now are covering criminal justice, which is a much larger and more important issue that really is meaningful to the community. How are people treated in the courts? How are decisions made about arrests? Who gets arrested and who doesn't? That's criminal justice coverage and that is made a real difference in a lot of communities in your group.”
The ultimate goal of the training sessions, Benz said, was to not just influence our ongoing coverage or daily stories, but the work of our newsroom as a whole.
“If I was going to say there's one thing that we see on the air from all of these television stations, it is that we see effort being made to show the whole community in its wonderful diversity. Everyone we serve is reflected accurately. That effort is worthwhile, and it's worth celebrating.”
To learn more about how this training has influenced our staff and our approach to covering the news in Northeast Ohio, listen to Danita Harris’ Voices for Change podcast interview with several members of our news team: