On the first day of my journalism class about Chicago's ethnic diversity, my professor stuck large sheets of paper on the walls and got us to scribble on them the first thing we associated with the South Side, West Side and North Side of Chicago.
The results? Broad, sweeping generalizations -- including my own -- that made me cringe. The North Side was "affluent," the West Side "Latino." I knew I should know more about the Windy City next door to my university, especially after three years of journalism school. I couldn't help but ponder why, despite my expensive education at one of the nation's best journalism schools, I was not even able to describe Chicago's diversity in greater detail than I did that day.
Journalism claims to "afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted." During freshman year, many of my peers chattered idealistically about how they saw journalism as a way to enact social change. But journalism is also about constructing narratives -- and the journalist wielding the pen is often the one with the power to describe disadvantaged communities and shape perceptions of them.
I became most aware of this when I spent winter quarter this year on my journalism school's Medill on the Hill program, which allows students to work out of its Washington D.C. news bureau to cover events on Capitol Hill. Working on a story on guest farmworker visas, I realized that the mere act of omission and inclusion of sources and facts could completely shape my reader's perceptions of communities. For instance, I focused my story on the practical difficulties associated with the system and never investigated properly claims by farmworker advocates that the current system allows labor rights violations to go unchecked. Although I came up with a story I was proud of, I still wish I had taken chances to explain how the current immigration system as it stands might promote malpractices in the industry.
Journalism on Capitol Hill also humbled me as I quickly realized that I knew less than I thought I did about issues related to communities not my own. When I attempted to write a story about the Boycott Divest and Sanctions movement, I found myself stepping on the toes of some of my Israeli or Palestinian expert sources who thought I was not treating the thorny issue with enough consideration for its nuances or its understanding. I was ashamed of myself, because up until then I had considered myself relatively conscious about social issues and had taken a class on the conflict.
These several instances in my journalistic experience rankle me deeply because I know that sensitivity and consciousness about social inequalities is needed more than ever in journalism. The U.S. is on track to reaching a non-white majority by 2042 and income inequality is growing -- the top 1 percent received about a fifth of the pre-tax income in 2013. But a landmark 1986 study of journalists from leading media organizations like the New York Times and TIME magazine found that they were mostly white, male and college-educated. In 2008, just 13 percent of the daily newspaper staffers in the nation's capital were people of color. Contentious issues about race, gender and class -- from Ferguson to the Occupy movement -- have dominated news headlines in recent years.
Campus publications and journalism students have been scrutinized for their coverage. Just this month, the University of Virginia's The Cavalier Daily came under fire for an April Fool's story titled "ABC agents tackle Native American student outside Bodo's Bagels", which satirized the arrest of African-American student Martese Johnson. Earlier this school year, North by Northwestern, one of Northwestern University's campus publications, acknowledged: "Consistent failures to respect marginalized narratives, accurately report on campus events and remain cognizant of the role that we play in upholding dominant narratives and racist power structures have made many on campus rightfully distrustful of us."
But the humility was refreshing and very welcome to this former staffer who's since branched out to do more independent writing. It was also reflective of the gradual sea change at my journalism school to foster efforts to understand issues of diversity and inclusion. Besides my current class about Chicago's ethnic diversity, Medill also offered an oral storytelling course on Native Americans this year. Among students, more of my classmates are engaging in critical issues in their writing, reflecting on the ways they and those they know have been affected structural problems in society -- such as the racial makeup in Northwestern's theater scene, the difficulty of being an LGBT athlete in our school and the identity politics of being mixed.
As a young person hoping to enter the trade, I have come to realize that the initiative to keep learning and not be complacent about my level of awareness about the inequalities around me has to come from within myself. It's college students like me who will be filling the ranks and file of press corps around the nation -- and it's us who will be shaping the discourse about the increasingly diverse America. It's my responsibility to educate myself. I can't purge myself in an instant of all my biases, or become a walking encyclopedia of knowledge about structural racism. But I know the little everyday efforts will make a difference, such as attending a talk about an aspect of societal injustice I'm not completely familiar with, reading up more about minority representation in the newsroom and thinking about how I can help correct that -- and of course, learning more about the city right next door.