Journalists warned: ‘We cannot be ignorant of our privilege’

By Bob Brown | Oct. 28, 2017

Journalist Heather Bryant, the John S. Knight Fellow, talks about journalists' privilege Saturday at the LION Summit 2017 — Bob Brown of The Swellesley Report for LION Publishers

Journalism and truck driving have a lot in common: Both professions have had requirements for hiring that make it tough to break in if you haven’t followed a traditional path. LION Summit speaker Heather Bryant made the comparison in recalling a widely read and discussed column/rant she wrote and posted over the summer.

That column captured her frustration with the disapproving reaction fellow journalists have had over the years to the fact that her husband is a truck driver.

“He gets anxious about the idea of someone I work with judging me because of what he does for a living, and the fact that he’s been given reason to feel that way infuriates me,” she said, while speeding through a Lightning Talk at the LION conference on Friday.

What Bryant learned in the wake of publishing that column, which piled up 60,000 views in the first month, is that many journalists themselves have come to hide their non-traditional work backgrounds or sidelines out of fear that they won’t be fully accepted by peers.

“I got messages about editors who straight up told applicants they would never hire someone who hadn’t had an internship or two internships first,” she said. Bryant said she hears regularly from local journalists looked down on by national ones.

“Journalism cannot survive like this, and if it does, it won’t be the kind of journalism we need,” she said. “We cannot be ignorant of our privilege,” the John S. Knight Fellow added.

Doing so perpetuates a kind of journalism that ignores stories important to people of varied backgrounds and it damages the overall credibility of the profession, Bryant said.

She’s begun researching the issue to back up the anecdotes with data, such as that nearly 90 percent of journalists have college degrees vs. 25 percent of the overall U.S. population. Another data point: In the past 10 years of major journalism conferences, more than 30 states have never hosted one.

Bryant is working on a survey about how well journalists reflect the common experiences of those in their area and beyond. While newsrooms have contracted, they’ve also concentrated in metro areas.

“Let’s figure out what we’re missing and what we’re not, and be open with our audiences about it,” she said. “Because the distrust we’re facing is not always without cause.”

Bryant and teammates are also collecting guides and resources that can be used to build an open source curriculum that she hopes will be used by new and existing reporters and editors to help each other deliver a better brand of journalism going forward.

Though the big remaining question is whether Bryant, who titled her viral post “So this one time at a journalism conference…” will come away from this LION Summit with another attention-grabbing piece.

Bob Brown is publisher of The Swellesley Report.

Check out more entries in our 2017 conference blog »