Serving underrepresented communities: empathy, awareness and actionability

Publishers Matthew DiMera, Gabe Schneider and Ryan Sorrell share some insights on what it means to effectively serve underrepresented communities.

With traditional journalism continuously making blatant missteps while reporting on marginalized individuals, independent outlets led by underrepresented founders have stepped up to fill these gaps and produce journalism that is empathy-informed, practical and meets communities where they’re at. “[Journalism is] meant to do good, and I think sometimes some of that gets obscured,” said Matthew DiMera, publisher of The Resolve. “I think in our quest for truth, I’d like to see more emphasis on not doing harm.”

Putting readers’ needs first

To better serve marginalized communities, these independent outlets suggest:

  • refocusing journalistic procedures to emphasize reporting with empathy
  • being aware of power dynamics, and
  • understanding what information is actually of value to the diverse communities they cover. 

“It’s not a matter of declaring that this publication serves this community. The answer needs to come from that community,” said DiMera, who founded The Resolve in response to coverage gaps on issues important to Black, Indigenous and racialized communities within Canada. “Is the community better at the end of the day because of the work we’re putting out?”

Gabe Schneider, co-founder at The Objective — a U.S. outlet that holds journalism accountable for past and current system biases in reporting and newsroom practices — said the ever-changing best practices for covering underrepresented communities should be based on, “how can we best get information to those folks.” 

Building trust and belonging

Independent outlets are also taking different approaches on tackling coverage. Such is the case for The Kansas City Defender, a publication that follows the tradition of the Black Press, according to founder Ryan Sorrell. “We are more interested in providing information necessary for the survival and flourishing of Black People,” Sorrell said. “Our mission for our organization is to have a platform that Black people will know will advocate for them and defend them against these harmful narratives that exist.”

The Kansas City Defender doesn’t see themselves as detached from the community they cover, Sorrell said. They are actively a part of the community, hosting events and building trust with the people they’re reporting on. Part of what builds that trust, Sorrell added, is providing necessary context in their coverage and allowing the narrative to be driven by those most affected by an issue. “I would say it’s very important to hear and to allow the people most impacted to be the ones whose voices we hear,” Sorrell said.

Acknowledging power dynamics

Along with putting more consideration into sourcing, Schneider added that it’s important to understand how power dynamics are represented in a story, a critical step regardless of who journalists are reporting on.“Who has traditionally had power? How is that reflected in the story, the questions you ask, the way you’re asking the questions and the frame of the story you’re trying to tell,” he explained.

These power dynamics can also be seen in the language a journalist uses when reporting, DiMera said. This can range from polarizing and dehumanizing language to what is also being omitted. “It comes because of a lack of who the reporter empathizes with,” they said. “Whose humanity is more clearly shown on the page of a story? Who gets more air time and empathetic quotes or imagery? Who gets named and where.”

Switching from diversity to empathy

Having a diverse newsroom helps increase the variety of stories and how stories are written, said Schneider, who added that a lack of diversity is often a symptom of a larger issue, a concern echoed by DiMera: “Adding in diversity doesn’t necessarily stop the problem, because it’s an indicator of how it got that way,” DiMera explained. Although a journalist doesn’t have to have a specific lived-experience to report on a community, moving away from parachute journalism and extractive relationships between journalists and communities will curate more trust between both parties. 

“It’s really about building that relationship,” DiMera said. “It doesn’t mean abandoning journalistic principles, but how much effort are you putting in to know the people you’re writing about?”

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