Journalists and media experts discussed the challenges confronting newsrooms across the country at a Penn event on Tuesday.
The panel, titled “Truth Telling, The Media, & Social Equity,” featured professional and student journalists, as well as Annenberg School for Communication Dean John L. Jackson, Jr. During the event, NBC News' Chief Washington Correspondent and Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent Andrea Mitchell said limited newsroom diversity and the spread of misinformation by the former Trump administration have presented obstacles to accurate storytelling.
Newsroom employees are not as diverse as United States workers overall, which panelists said makes it difficult to properly cover diverse stories. According to a 2018 Pew Research Center study, 77% of newsroom employees are non-Hispanic white and 61% are male.
Senior writer at Rolling Stone Jamil Smith, a 1997 College graduate, said that outlets need to have both racial and geographic diversity.
“It pays to have people who have lived experience in these areas. It pays to have people who understand what it’s like to be harassed by a police officer, who know what it’s like to see their family evicted, who know what it’s like to live in a community where the water is poisoned by lead and other contaminants,” Smith said.
Freelance journalist and author David Freedlander, a 2000 College graduate, recognized that coverage of Black Lives Matter protests during summer 2020 demonstrated the imbalance in newsroom representation.
“It seems really damning that [police brutality and racial injustice] is a surprise to many hyper-aware news consumers and even journalists. It didn’t just happen,” Freedlander said. “As journalists, we shouldn’t be reading stories that shake us to our core. We should be talking to people, and having those stories shake us to our core.”
Wharton sophomore Kayla Padilla, who founded the online student athletics publication The Sideline Post, emphasized the importance of using journalistic platforms to highlight stories about diversity. Padilla, a Penn women’s basketball player, has used her platform to share student athletes' stories of racial discrimination, mental health, and other challenges.
“Any chance to talk about overlooked topics or issues not in the mainstream media is really valuable,” Padilla said.
Padilla also challenged her fellow panelists to consider the socioeconomic hurdles to receiving trustworthy information, mentioning how people are increasingly turning to social media for news because many reliable sources put up online paywalls.
“A part of that is, ‘How are people going to become literate consumers of the news, to the extent of being able to disaggregate fact from fiction and conspiracy theories,” Mitchell responded. “The information that people are absorbing by their own selection tends to be feeding whatever their perceptions, their biases are.”
Annenberg Dean John L. Jackson, Jr. said separating fact and fiction requires the public to find shared expectations of fact and reality.
“One clear and dangerous implication of all this is the inability to have a conversation. Folks aren’t sharing some of the most basic, fundamental ideas about what the world is that we’re inhabiting together,” Jackson said. “It’s almost existential.”
Mitchell, a 1967 College graduate, said that her experience covering the past two election cycles has made her concerned with social media’s accessibility and its power to spread falsehoods propagated by the White House under former President Donald Trump.
Freedlander added that the president's failure to believe in the free press placed the media in an undesirable situation “of being a central character in the national drama.”
This put many journalists, including Smith and Mitchell, in situations where they were confronted with physical threats and fear of danger during the recent administration and on the campaign trail.
“It has reached a point in Washington where you work for one network or another, and you are then viewed as the enemy or a friend," Mitchell said. "I don’t want to be an enemy, but I don’t want to be anyone’s friend either. I’m a journalist.”
The livestreamed panel was the first event hosted by the Office of Social Equity & Community, which was established last summer. The event was introduced by President Amy Gutmann and moderated by former journalist and Chief of Staff and Chief Communications Officer of the University Life Division Monica Yant Kinney.
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