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The Newsroom Guide: A living document shapes inclusive language, coverage

By Lynn Jacobson, The Seattle Times

Between December 2015 and June 2017, The Seattle Times had several opportunities to practice the art of the apology.

In that period, the newspaper made a number of high-profile missteps. Among them: a headline that portrayed the black victim of a police shooting in a negative light, and a front-page photo that failed to capture the historic moment when Hillary Clinton became the first-ever woman to be nominated for the U.S. presidency by a major party.

After a few tone-deaf attempts, editors gradually improved at issuing swift and nondefensive mea culpas. But for many journalists inside the newsroom, the amount of time and effort that went into saying “sorry” was frustrating and dispiriting. Wouldn’t it be better to put our energies into creating more inclusive coverage from the get-go?

While The Seattle Times historically had been a leader in promoting diversity in the industry, it was clear that we’d taken our eyes off the ball. This was the moment when The Times’ Guidelines for Inclusive Journalism were born.

“We were hearing our colleagues ask for resources that could help mitigate some of the mistakes before they happen,” recalled lead video journalist Lauren Frohne. The result was a living document designed to help journalists frame and produce culturally sensitive stories.

Seattle Times staffers helped draft the guidelines and continue to update them.

Prime drivers of the change included a group of journalists who had created The Seattle Times’ award-winning “Under Our Skin” video project and the newsroom’s Diversity and Inclusion Task Force, led by senior video journalist Corinne Chin and then-assistant sports editor Ed Guzman. In the mix were veteran assigning editors who had worked on earlier diversity initiatives and some copy editors, long the keepers of journalistic standards.

As Chin recalled, former education editor Linda Shaw brought a diversity checklist used in the ’90s to one early meeting. It served as a jumping-off point for today’s guidelines, which urge staffers in various roles to approach their work with an inclusive mindset:

• Reporters are encouraged to question their assumptions, diversify sources and listen deeply.

• Designers, producers and photo editors are reminded to avoid stereotypes, consider play and context, and represent vulnerable populations with care.

• Editors are challenged to broaden their exposure to diverse communities and viewpoints and think in new ways about what constitutes “news.”

The guidelines are supported by other documents and tools designed to help move coverage in a more inclusive direction: the newsroom’s diversity statement, its style guide and a #sensitive-news-help Slack channel that journalists can turn to for peer advice.

Those resources are in turn supported by the newsroom’s broader diversity and inclusion efforts, including recruitment and hiring practices, training and mentorship opportunities, and discussion groups.

Frohne said one of the goals of the guidelines is to bring conversations about diversity and racism out into the open. Another, according to Chin, is to get the newsroom to think more deeply about impact — and especially how coverage affects vulnerable communities.

“If we’re going to keep focusing on subscribers and audience and the people we serve, we need to think about how we’re serving them and if we’re doing a disservice to them,” Chin said.

Newsrooms looking to craft their own guidelines can learn from The Seattle Times’ experiences.

“Make sure you have a lot of support from the top, and be intentional about the rollout,” Chin said, “instead of letting it be another mass email that people never open.” At the Times, the guidelines were introduced to staff at an open meeting of the Diversity and Inclusion Task Force and are now required reading for all new employees.

Also, involve the copy desk. “The guidelines aren’t just about word choice and usage,” Frohne said, “but getting the insights of people who have a lot of experience working in that space is important.”

Finally, smaller news organizations without a lot of resources are welcome to adopt and adapt the Times’ guidelines.

Documents alone can’t make a news organization more inclusive. But they can help journalists become more comfortable examining their own blind spots when it comes to bias, race and racism.

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