Holding the Record accountable: reckoning with race and its intersections with journalism

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In our June 6 statement “In solidarity with Black Lives Matter,” our editorial board expressed support for the Black Lives Matter movement and called on the College, its students and its alumni to make monetary donations. We made a donation as well, giving to three organizations that support grassroots journalism and journalists of color: the Marshall Project, the National Association of Black Journalists and Unicorn Riot.

But as the board met over Zoom to belatedly discuss these issues, it became clear that we, the Record, along with many predominantly-white journalistic organizations, need to hold ourselves accountable as well. For far too long, the Record has operated under institutional values, cultures and practices that illustrate that the Record benefits from and perpetuates white supremacy. 

We owe it to the Williams community to work toward a reality in which the Record accurately, truthfully and faithfully represents all voices on campus, especially the ones it has failed too often, particularly Black and Brown students. Knowing that we inherit and perpetuate an institution with longstanding biases and gaps, we want to hold ourselves accountable. With this goal of justice and equity in mind, we have been conducting an internal audit this summer for the first time in recent memory that will address pervasive issues that often prevent us from producing meaningful journalism for the Williams community. 

Our work towards rectifying our failures must include members of the student body and the campus community. Our failure to expand our coverage of Black and Brown students’ perspectives and experiences is evidence that we haven’t produced issues that reflect our entire campus body. If a paper is meant to serve its community, we have failed in faithfully living up to that responsibility and instead have created a sense of distrust between the Record and minoritized groups.

At present, newsrooms across the country are assessing their reliance on faulty and overly simplistic journalistic values. We at the Record are not exempt from this and are in the process of critically examining practices and reporting methods we had previously left unquestioned. 

In particular, we are considering how, in striving for ‘objective’ journalism, we have failed to fully acknowledge the inherent positionalities and biases that every editor and reporter brings to the table. Perfect journalistic objectivity is both unachievable and counter-productive, as it often comes at the cost of accurate and reflective journalism. We remain committed to providing fair reporting and faithfully representing a wide range of perspectives, but we must also recognize how the positionalities of our majority-white board impact our coverage. During our audit, we will seek ways to integrate this knowledge into our everyday process. 

We will also consider how our reliance on precedent and emphasis on the administration’s perspective breeds complacency, as well as how we determine what is “newsworthy”.  Our pursuit, as a majority-white board, of misguided and oversimplified journalistic ideals has left broad swaths of the campus community feeling underrepresented and unheard by our newspaper. While this is long overdue, we are committed to revising our journalistic practices in order to produce more equitable, representative and comprehensive coverage.

A significant issue we face is our institutional culture –– a leadership structure that is an implicit and explicit social hierarchy based on students’ years of involvement in the Record, and one that is simultaneously isolating for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) board members. Ultimately, our work culture is one in which newer board members feel excluded and their voices underappreciated, sentiments that are exacerbated for BIPOC students, who make up a small proportion of individuals in a predominantly-white board. This exclusion is intensified for contributors and staff writers., The board has not only failed to provide them with an effective, comprehensive training program but has also failed to recognize our inherent bias when evaluating pitches from staff writers and the student community at large. As a result, our coverage is not comprehensive and does not represent nor address the concerns of the entire student body, especially BIPOC students. Furthermore, we acknowledge that working on the Record in any form, and especially on our board, is a substantial unpaid time commitment. This fact alone can exclude students who cannot afford to dedicate so much time to an activity without any compensation; it can also place strains on those who commit time to the Record

The internal audit, which has already begun, is helping us identify how these pre-existing issues coincide with other problems in the Record. Board members have volunteered for six groups that will explore key areas of the hiring, editing and writing processes. These areas are:

  • Social dynamics and board culture
  • Building trust with the campus community 
  • Race as it affects board dynamics and journalistic coverage 
  • The production process
  • The hiring and recruiting process for board members and staff writers 
  • The leadership structure

To account for the differences in topics and varying availability of board members, the groups have decided individually on their method and frequency of meeting. However, each group will seek community feedback specific to their area of concern and engage in honest conversation and internal reflection about questions of equity and inclusion. The groups have collectively opened opportunities for Record alums and people who have departed from the board to share their experiences. 

Each group, after pinpointing problems, will list actionable solutions and steps the board can take to increase equity within our board while better serving the entire campus community. In addition, the board will decide on a system for some or all groups to continue into the academic year and give self-assessments, in recognition that we are embarking upon a continuous process that requires regular evaluation and is never complete.

We are taking a close look at our history as a newspaper as it pertains to each group’s area of focus and analyzing it in order to interrogate where and why we have gone wrong in the past and create a list of steps we can take to make the Record a more inclusive and accepting space. Our audit is not an analysis of numerical data, but more an in-depth look at decisions we have made in the past and who we have left out from our team and our coverage. It is a first step in the long process of redefining what our paper stands for.

We do not have all the answers, but as a newspaper that aims to reflect growth and change, we hope that in this audit process, we will do the growing and changing that has been delayed for too long. We pledge to put forth our best effort to make the audit translate into real change: a more just, inclusive, representative and equitable Record that serves the entire campus community and slowly but surely earns its trust through tackling difficult and often uncomfortable issues. The work begins.

Part of our work is to gain input from our readership as well. Those interested can fill out this anonymous Google Form to share more thoughts on our past coverage, where we have fallen short, or other thoughts on the Record

Focus groups for the summer/fall 2020 audit are listed below. Please feel free to reach out to the listed unixes with any thoughts you have. 

Social dynamics and board culture: jkh2

Building trust with the Williams community: jkh2

How race affects board dynamics and our coverage: all4

Pitching, editing, layout, photo, social media: a review of our production process: jmf5

Hiring, recruiting and staff writers: bcr1

Leadership structure: stw5