Sep 3, 2004 in UNITY 2004

Reaching Back and Bringing Someone Along

by Dawn Withers

Wanda Lloyd, executive editor of Montgomery Advertiser and founding executive director of The Freedom Forum Diversity Institute, sat down with News Watch after the Reporting on Race panel during the recent UNITY convention in Washington, D.C.
Was there a specific event in your life that made you realize the importance of writing about race or being involved with race and journalism?
I donít recall that there was any particular time except that it comes from my own experience of having been in newsrooms that donít have diversity and donít cover it very well. I really started working with this in my first newsroom job, so Iíve been in the business for 35 years. I was asked to go talk to a high school class that was in a black neighborhood and I realized it was really incumbent upon me to bring people along. That evolved into a passion for making sure that I reach back and bring someone along with me. On the staffing side that's what that is. On the content side it came when I went to USA Today. I started at USA Today as deputy managing editor for cover stories in 1986. USA Today was, I think, the very first newspaper that got it in terms of the need for content reflecting the entire nation. That understanding came from Al Neuharth, who was chairman of Gannett at the time, making sure that USA Today reflected the company both visually and in words. I learned a lot from that experience and Iíve carried it on from there.
It seems that these experiences have been insights into the importance of bringing in people of color to the newsroom, of having publications that get it. How do you hope to see newspapers change as a result of having diversity as a priority?

Newspapers are changing already. Most of the large papers and the papers in communities where there are large minority populations know that it's good business sense to have diversity in content. They also know in order to have that diversity in content you have to have diversity in staff. That is not to say that those of us who are people of color are only there to cover issues of race or diversity.

Do you think that's a common misconception?

I think it is. Part of my career has been as a trainer and a teacher of journalism, and I tell the people that I train Iím not training them just to cover their own communities. We want them to bring their perspectives, their life experiences and their cultural experiences to the newsroom so that if one of them were to become a business reporter, for example, and happens to be sitting around people who are trying to find an expert on some aspect of business, that reporter may say, ĎI know someone who is a CPA who happens to be African American." That helps the other reporter and that newspaper. That's not to say the other reporter is going to call the African American CPA, but at least the information was shared. Early in my career I sat on the copy deck and heard people people talk about teenagers who are pregnant and assume that most teenagers who are pregnant are African American, when in fact the majority of teenagers who are pregnant are not African American. The numbers just donít hold up because African Americans are a small part of the population. I bring my perspective because I am aware of the fact that while teenage pregnancy may be a problem in my community, or was at that time, the assumptions were factually incorrect. Diversity is a factor of accuracy and if youíre not diverse and not correct in your diversity then youíre inaccurate in your reporting. And we all want accuracy in our reporting.

What has kept you in this field for over 30 years and what has kept you in the focus of diversity?

As for the field, it's the only thing I know how to do. I canít do anything else. I was trained to do this and it's what I wanted to do. In terms of diversity, I think it's the need. If the need had gone away then I would have shifted over to think about something else that's passion for me but as long as the need is there, then it's something I am dedicated to. I am dedicated to helping educate others and speaking about the importance of diversity, and how to bring about good diversity.

Have you been able to see the impact of 35 years of working towards this?

Oh yeah. The impact is there. If you think about it in terms of staffing and you look at the numbers, the American Society of Newspaper Editors has been keeping track of diversity in newsrooms since in 1978. Those numbers have gone up. They are not even half way to where they need to be so it's easy to see it from that standpoint, but we also know that retention is a big issue and we know that people of color are leaving the business faster than their white counterparts. That's what I know I will be working on because the need is there. In terms of content, USA Today led the way for diversity in content, it led the way for helping newspapers understand that they need to reflect their communities and that people who are in the growing minority populations are not going to read their product if they donít see themselves in the pages of the newspaper. There still is a great need ahead for newspapers to do that.