Embracing Difference: Telling Other People’s Stories Well


As I write this, we are taking note of the 45th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

I am not a fan of ritual anniversaries nor of celebrating death rather than life. But I do believe in the value of memories and history.

Many of us celebrate Dr. King’s life in part because his efforts made life easier for us. I was reminded of that this week when I was invited to speak to journalism students at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

There was so much the students wanted to know. How do you get a job? How do you keep a job? How do you deal with professional setbacks?

And this: How do you prosper in a work environment where so few of your colleagues and bosses look like you?

The word diversity has already become crusty around the edges as overuse has dulled its best, original meaning.

So when I am asked these questions, I speak instead about the value of embracing difference. Especially in America’s newsrooms, how can we hope to tell the whole story if it is always being told by people who share identical or similar backgrounds, cultural heritages and world views?

For me, understanding the value of difference does not always have to be about conflict and grievance, It can also be about opportunity, and pride, and empathy, and humanity.
To express this well, any journalist should possess a measure of sensitivity, a healthy dose of curiosity, and a clear understanding that we do not, in fact, know it all.
Journalists, who make a living by telling other people’s stories, have a special responsibility to get this right … and to bring voices to our newsrooms whose backgrounds help us all to see the world differently.

I grew up reading the newspaper and watching the world unfold through the eyes, and voices of people who looked nothing like me. But there were exceptions — including African-American journalists like Lem Tucker and Melba Tolliver and Simeon Booker, Carole Simpson and Ed Bradley.
When I saw those few black faces on the air, it stuck.

Journalism’s doors were not closed to me, I knew, because someone else had opened them. I just had to walk through.

This is what I have now found on the other side. Journalism is at a crossroads. We have stories to tell, but many of our audiences have stopped listening to us because they can tell we’re not talking about them.

When it comes to diversifying our newsrooms, our multiple platforms and our thinking…we have been slow to grasp that this is not optional. This is about survival.

That’s what I told the young journalism students. It’s also what I tell my colleagues, and what I tell myself.

We’ve got to tell the stories better, more fully, and include more voices — both among the questioners and the questioned — or we can prepare to become obsolete.

I can’t help but think that was what Dr. King knew.