Andrea Wenzel is an associate professor in Temple University’s Department of Journalism. In 2020, she wrote Community-Centered Journalism: Engaging People, Exploring Solutions, and Building Trust.

In Antiracist Journalism, Wenzel spent five years researching how local media organizations in the Philadelphia area are attempting to address structural racism: the Philadelphia Inquirer and public radio station WHYY — a majority of the staff in these newsrooms identify as white — and Resolve Philly and Kensington Voice, two start-ups where at least half of the staff identify as Black, Indigenous or people of color. She also discusses the formation of the Germantown Info Hub, which she co-founded with Crittenden.

This conversation was written by Antoinette Isama. It has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.


Q: How has the response towards your book, Antiracist Journalism, been so far?

A: I’ve had a pretty positive response from folks who I’ve connected with about it, in terms of both people working in journalism and from the academic side, and I hope that it will help start some conversations at some organizations.

What I appreciate from the [American Press Institute] Inclusion Index is that not every newsroom is going to have the same starting point, and what comes next is going to look different in different places.

Q: What were some challenges you faced along the way as the research you conducted with newsrooms evolved into your book?

A: I didn’t set out saying to myself, “I’m going to write a book.” It was something that kind of evolved over a period of time where I was collaborating on a number of different research studies and they congealed into what became the book. But I was trying to approach the work that I was doing in a collaborative and an engaged way. And that’s inherently a little challenging in trying to do research where you’re interacting with people in the community, or in the industry in this instance, and have open lines of communication where I might be looking at things that are not always super comfortable for anyone.

Collaborating with newsrooms on research projects is work that I find meaningful because I’m interested not only in just observing what’s problematic, but also encouraging folks to move things in the right direction. So when I’ve had the opportunity to collaborate with news organizations, I welcome that. But sometimes there are challenging dynamics to, first of all, building trust enough where they’ll be open to working with an external researcher.

When working with them as a researcher, having open lines of communication where it sometimes involves sharing difficult home truths like, “I know you’re trying to work on this thing, but, maybe there are some things that aren’t quite going well.” Or there are some ways your staff are having some challenges or who are maybe seeing things in a different way than you were kind of hoping. So that can be challenging just to do that in the spirit of wanting people to do better and not just in a “gotcha” kind of way.

Q: What are some approaches you’ve seen these newsrooms implement to address systemic racism? Have they worked?

A: In the cases I looked at, there have been different approaches. At the Philadelphia Inquirer, they’ve come under a lot of criticism for trying to do a reactive DEI push, not necessarily following through on everything, and not being very transparent about what they were and weren’t doing.

At the same time, they did do a pretty massive program where they tried to think of it as a structural change that involved 80 different people at one point in time — a series of different committees looking at different aspects of the organization. They were pretty thoughtful about including not just journalists of color, who often get shouldered [with] all the labor of this sort of work, and included senior white editors and people who could be contributing in different ways.

However, they weren’t very transparent about what was and wasn’t getting accomplished. There might be things that we should be giving them more credit for than we are because they’re not sharing in the spirit of being open and transparent. One of the things I think is so important about the work the Inclusion Index does is requiring people to have some sort of transparency and requiring these organizations to commit to that upfront. So that’s something that I think was a big limitation of their work. They also have limitations in terms of their board not really [being held] accountable to the community in a meaningful way. Their publisher, therefore, is not. And so there’s sort of a gap and lack of infrastructure in that regard.

Some of the cases that I looked at included smaller start-up organizations such as Kensington Voice and Resolve Philly. Kensington Voice offered a really interesting example, because they did and do have a community-led board where their governing board is [made up of] all residents of [North Philly’s] Kensington neighborhood. That comes with challenges of its own, but it means that the community members actually have oversight over their budget, and over their leadership. It’s led to a lot of ways of working that I think are quite different, including participatory budgeting and even participatory budgeting of salaries.

That process led to things like creating a bilingual pay rate for the Spanish speaking reporters who were doing a lot of uncompensated, invisible labor. This is a result of a very deliberate approach to looking at equity issues within their organization. I think having this sort of accountability to the community is one of the reasons why that’s been impossible. There are people and there are organizations that are trying to do this, it’s just often not happening at large, majority white news organizations.

Q: Touching on your community work, tell us more about your involvement in the Germantown Info Hub.

A: The Germantown Info Hub grew out of a research study that I did with some colleagues where we looked at what the information needs in a community are, and what do people want a better relationship with local journalism to look like.

In the instance of Germantown, this is a neighborhood in the Philadelphia region where it’s a majority black neighborhood, and socioeconomically very diverse. It’s a place where a lot of people we spoke with shared their frustrations with feeling like the coverage was just disproportionately negative and disproportionately covering crime. And so there’s a lot of frustration that people’s only encounter with journalists, if ever, was on their worst day and on their community’s worst day, and they didn’t really understand their community when looking at the mainstream news coverage of it.

People likewise were sharing, “We have a lot going on here. We have a lot of organizations doing really valuable work. We have a lot of great people, but we don’t really hear about that from our media. We’re not necessarily all connected to each other.” And so, the Germantown Info Hub set out to serve those two main goals — one being how to distribute and circulate information within the community. The other is looking at the narrative circulating about the community and trying to develop better, more constructive relationships with media that could address some of that.

We did the study, the project got refined after that, and then we piloted it for a few years as a project without a formal organization. Now it’s part of Resolve Philly, and one thing I think they’re thinking about and exploring is an opportunity to create more hubs similar to this, or even hyperlocally connecting to communities so they can provide different sorts of supports and resources to each other, and then also be able to circulate narratives they’re creating with larger, metro level folks.

Editor’s note: Letrell Crittenden is a co-founder of the Germantown Info Hub.

Q: There’s been a shift in today’s social climate and it can be felt in journalism, such as publications shuttering, DEI initiatives being discontinued, and polarizing election coverage, for example. Why is it even more important for folks to engage in solutions journalism now?

A: This is a rough time, on many levels. The reaction to the DEI term, all of the firings going on, and all of the pushing back to DEI work is a big problem. But I think not just my book, but anybody doing work trying to make journalism more equitable and inclusive, is not a special kind of journalism. It should just be good journalism.

If you’re not sharing the stories of a significant portion of your society and your community, you’re not doing good journalism. If your newsroom does not look like your community, you’re probably not doing good journalism. If you’re not thinking about reporting for people who have a lot of different demographic backgrounds in your community, you’re probably not doing good journalism. And so it’s not only doing a disservice to BIPOC communities, it’s doing a disservice to white members of the community too, because they’re going to get a distorted understanding of their world. It’s a problem for everyone.

That’s one way of attempting to counter and push back on this work, in that it doesn’t really matter what you call it, but you need to do work that is better journalism, that is more connected and reflects your whole community. I think the solutions journalism network folks have done a pretty good job with that messaging of, “it’s just more complete to look not just at the problems at all, so look at the solutions.” Likewise, I think there’s a similar argument to be made about doing journalism that’s more equitable and community centered, that it’s just better journalism to do it that way. I think we can’t not try.

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