Cultured Convos: Media Diversity w/ Kenya Downs

After attending Freedom of Expression in a Multicultural World at the National Endowment of Democracy (NED) hosted by NED's Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA) and the Media and Diversity Institute (MDI) in early June I felt it was imperative to have a follow-up conversation on diversity in the media.

The media is a powerful tool for both informing and shaping the opinions of the public. We often follow the media's lead as we develop opinions about groups of people and issue areas. This makes having a diverse representation of demographics and point of views key to the fair, accurate and appropriate portrayal of individuals, communities and events.

Kenya Downs (@livefromkenya) an extremely talented and passionate freelance journalist who has written for some of the top media outlets in the world has experienced the challenges posed by a lack of diversity in journalism first hand.

I caught up with Kenya to chat about her perspective on media diversity, her experiences as a  journalist and what we can do next to create a more representative media.

Sabrina K. Garba (SKG): When you began working in the field, did you have a shocking moment in regard to the diversity of journalist and perspectives. If so, what was it?
Kenya Downs (KD): There wasn’t one specific “ah-ha” moment but there have definitely been numerous micro-aggressions over the years. From the discomfort of knowing you’re the only intern of color while all the others are staff’s family members, to always being looked to for the black perspective on anything and everything, to having your pitches on Africa and the Caribbean be ignored but see the same Europe stories over and over, it happens. It’s subtle, but still equally frustrating.

SKG: Have you faced any obstacles in the field because of your race or your professional interest in communities of African descent?
KD: Absolutely. It’s an unfortunate part of this business that many journalists, including myself, are working hard to change. I always say: you can gage the sincerity of a network’s commitment to diversity by its distribution of reporters and correspondents. If you have eight correspondents covering Europe, but only two for all of South America or Africa, that’s a problem. If you have to send an uninformed, white producer to Los Angeles to cover issues for people of color because the two minority journalists you have are already in Chicago and Baltimore, you’ve got a problem.

SKG: Do journalist receive diversity training? Is it a common practice?
KD: Diversity training depends on the organization. For some, diversity training [is] just learning to be sensitive to cultures and people different from you in the newsroom. For others, the training can be more in-depth such as offering diverse sources and interview subjects or training to learn how to navigate communities that are different from you. Each place is unique.

SKG: Why should people care about media diversity? What is the impact of media diversity on society?
KD: With globalization and technology, we’re no longer afforded the ability to be isolated within our own communities and mindsets. So it’s imperative that what we see on TV, what we read in the newspaper or online and what we hear on the radio are actually reflective of the world in which we live. With a current focus on racial tension in this country, a lot of media entities were forced to recognize that they don’t have enough journalists of color, and only report on people of color when a controversy happens. A lot of companies don’t want to admit that it’s reflected in the quality of their coverage, but it is. It’s evident when you have Joe Everyman, who’s had few interactions with minorities his whole life, suddenly reporting on racial justice in Ferguson, Baltimore or New York. It shows when white college students trashing a city after a championship win are “revelers” but black youth trashing a city over police killings are “rioters.” It showed when outlets spent weeks reporting on a burning CVS in Baltimore but are quiet about eight black churches burning within two weeks. Luckily, with the prominence of social media, more outlets are being called out for it. But recognizing a problem is one thing, doing something about it is another.

SKG: What do you believe is the first step to improving Media Diversity with established journalist and aspiring journalist?
KD: A diverse newsroom is ineffective if it doesn’t equate to a diversity in coverage. The same old stories reported by new, colorful faces is still a disservice to under-reported, disenfranchised communities both domestically and internationally. The demographics at the decision-making level plays a large role. The first step to improving media diversity is incorporating people of color into executive and senior level positions. Another critical step, in my opinion, is a complete overhaul in the way journalists are recruited and hired. Right now there isn’t enough appreciation for lived experiences which is often why you see experienced journalists looking like complete novices while reporting from communities about which they know nothing. So many vacancies require years of experience, a full Rolodex of contacts without regard to whether the person there is genuinely knowledgeable about their beat, especially when it comes to race, racial justice and international news. It’s a particular disadvantage to minority journalists who are less likely to be able to afford those unpaid internships and minimum-wage, entry-level jobs that are the gateway to acquiring that professional experience. But their lived experiences as minorities, as immigrants, as followers of global regions, etc., are equally valuable to their potential as journalists. Many times, it’s not about what big name you can pull up in your cell phone but how you can connect and relate with people in the field. Media outlets should appreciate that skill set more. That would do more for newsroom diversity than just hiring a bunch of black and brown faces.

Kenya's vibrant approach to journalism and passion for equal representation in the media is exactly what we need to move toward a more humane and inclusive society. Thank you for your honest and intelligent insight!

You can find Kenya on twitter at @livefromkenya