"I Have an Extra Level of Context That Some Reporters Don't Have": Journalistic Perspectives on the Role of Identity and Experience in the Production of More Equitable News Coverage

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In the summer of 2020, Alexis Johnson and Miguel Santiago, Black reporters at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, were removed from covering ongoing racial justice protests. The following year, Felicia Sonmez, a Washington Post reporter who had publicly identified herself as a survivor of sexual assault, was barred from covering stories about sexual misconduct. In both cases, management at their news organizations invoked a safeguard against bias as the reason behind the removal of the reporters from covering certain stories or beats. In other words, management feared that these reporters would not be able to perform basic journalistic duties because their proximity to the subject matter, whether through similar lived experiences or certain identity markers, would render them unable to relay a suitable and accurate account of events. However, the journalists in question protested their coverage bans by arguing that their identity- or experience-based connection to the issue would have been advantageous to their journalism. For example, Johnson said: “as a [B]lack woman, as a Pittsburgh native, as the daughter of a retired state trooper and a retired probation officer, it was a shame I wasn’t able to bring my background to cover this story.” In essence, the journalists argued that, rather than their proximity to the stories rendering them unable to produce proper accounts of events, their personal identities and lived experiences made them more capable of capturing the nuances required for adequate coverage. The purpose of this dissertation is thus threefold: first, it investigates journalists’ perceptions about the relationship between, and impact of, their personal identities and lived experiences and the reporting they produce. Second, it examines best practices journalists recommend to other journalists about covering issues or groups with which they don’t share an identity- or experience-based connection. Finally, it describes best practices journalists recommend to newsroom leaders for supporting journalists in producing more equitable and inclusive coverage. Through a textual analysis of 186 metajournalistic articles and 93 Twitter posts (“tweets”), this study found that journalists pinpoint a myriad of specific advantages they perceive reporting with an identity- or experience-based connection provides. As such, this dissertation advances literature on journalistic identity and role conception by demonstrating how journalists’ personal identities and experiences shape their professional values. It also argues that, by positioning this form of newsmaking as more equitable and legitimate than traditional “objective” reporting, journalists are constructing new conceptions of journalistic identity. This dissertation also contributes to literature on journalistic authority by showing that many journalists claim reporting with identity- or experience-based connections in fact makes them more authoritative interpreters of news. By asserting their roles as professionals who ultimately aim to produce accurate, factual reporting and resisting accusations of being activists rather than journalists, reporters also engaged in boundary work by increasingly placing reporting which embraces the subjectivity of the journalist within the bounds of professional journalistic practice. When making recommendations to fellow reporters for producing more equitable and inclusive reporting, the journalists featured in this dissertation called for a reconsideration of normative journalistic practices and recommended that their colleagues place equity at the forefront of every decision they make during the reporting process. The journalists’ recommendations to newsroom leaders demonstrate that producing equitable coverage goes beyond individual strategies that journalists can implement; change must also occur at the structural level. Establishing and enforcing new sets of journalistic policies at the newsroom level is a vital component of providing coverage that is fair and accountable to all communities. In describing how journalists are harnessing the tenet that knowledge is socially situated to advocate for new standards of news production, I also suggest feminist standpoint epistemology (FSE) as an operational framework of journalistic practice.This dissertation is a timely intervention into the ways journalists say their industry needs to change in order to better serve the needs of American audiences in the twenty-first century. The findings in this study have relevant implications for journalistic practice: they provide a clear roadmap for journalism scholars and practitioners for engaging in efforts to make journalism more equitable and inclusive.