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Editor's Note: Racial bias in MPR's work? We want to know

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A coalition of media members discuss how to transform racial narratives.
Laura Yuen, editor for new audiences at MPR News, and to her right, Freddie Bell, general manager of KMOJ 89.9 FM, attend a meeting of the Truth and Transformation: Changing Racial Narratives coalition on Oct. 11, 2018, at Hamline University in St. Paul.
Jayme Halbritter

Minnesota Public Radio is proud to be part of a new coalition called Truth and Transformation: Changing Racial Narratives in Media. The work of this initiative will culminate in a statewide conference March 19-20 at Hamline University in St. Paul.

The goal of the conference and the coalition is to encourage journalists to examine their own racial biases and assumptions. We need to expand the narrative of what it means to be a person of color in our state, and adequately and fairly represent communities of color in our coverage.

Nancy Cassutt
Nancy Cassutt, Executive Director, News & Programming, MPR News
Evan Frost | MPR News

Some might ask: Why MPR News? Doesn't it have issues related to race inside its own newsroom?

Yes. When the coalition was awarded the grant, my newsroom was experiencing some turnover in staffing. Churn is normal, but it was impossible to ignore that a disproportionate number of the departures involved journalists of color. Seven left within the course of about a year.

That's a blow to a newsroom of our size, one that's been nearly all white through its history.

Some of our former reporters and producers built meaningful relationships in our communities. When their voices disappeared from our airwaves and online, people were understandably disappointed.

"What is up with the exit of POC reporters from @MPRNews?" one person tweeted. "MPR has reported on 'why employers struggle to keep employees of color.' Wondering if @MPR has done some internal review as well?"

I was sad, too. I lead this newsroom. It's my job to recruit and retain employees. As I said in a reply to that tweet, I've got work to do.

We are trying to improve the culture of MPR News. We are also working to diversify the sources you hear in our stories, and yes, hire and retain a more diverse staff.

Employees of color comprise about 15 percent of our newsroom. That falls short of reflecting the racial and ethnic diversity of Minnesota, where a fifth of the population are people of color. In the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area, where about a quarter of residents are people of color, the gap is larger.

When a newsroom does not look like the community it serves, its coverage suffers. That's not to say white reporters aren't capable of telling authentic stories about people of color, but they may need to work harder to capture important perspectives or nuances within a story.

Aside from diversifying newsrooms in general, another way to change how people of color in this state are depicted is to train the journalists entrusted with telling their stories.

So, Minnesota Public Radio jumped at the chance last spring to become involved in the racial narrative work. 

A little background: The St. Paul & Minnesota Foundations encouraged Minnesota Public Radio to apply for a grant it had received from the national W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

MPR reached out to other community organizations: KMOJ 89.9 FM, the Minnesota Humanities Center, North News and KRSM Radio, Hamline University, and the ThreeSixty Journalism program at the University of St. Thomas. The coalition was eventually awarded $332,000.

Acknowledging our own blind spots

As a white woman from a Midwestern, middle-class background, I know I have blind spots. I come to this conference in a position of humility, not authority. 

I have lots to learn about how news organizations can tell rich, nuanced and accurate stories about our indigenous people and communities of color; how we can strengthen our relationships in the community; and how our content can better reflect the state we serve.

That all starts with acknowledging our own racial lenses, which shape how we see the world around us. And it requires a lot of listening.

In October and November, the partners conducted a listening tour across Minnesota, meeting with people affected by crime and crime reporting, trauma experts, youth, people of color and indigenous communities, journalists, and other residents. What we learned is helping inform the conference.

Modeled after the Minnesota Humanities Center's Absent Narratives Approach, the two-day workshop will encourage journalism educators, students and media professionals to draw on their own experiences and learn from voices from across the state that have traditionally been left out.

Taking steps toward continuous improvement

I hope news organizations across Minnesota will continue this kind of work well after the conference ends. 

At MPR News, this is what we've started to do:

• We're tracking the diversity of the sources you hear on our station. Our producers and reporters are taking note of the demographic background of every guest who appears on our shows and in our stories. 

While not exhaustive, preliminary data from our most recent reporting period show that our on-air sources skew white, male, middle-aged and highly educated.

• Our newsroom has hired seven people of color since the beginning of last year, including our first African-American host, Angela Davis. 

That said, we are fully aware that our other hosts and newscasters, who are the voices that many listeners associate most with MPR News, are white. We also need to work on diversifying our newsroom leadership, which is almost entirely white.

• We partnered with ThreeSixty Journalism to run an annual summer radio camp for high school students of diverse backgrounds. 

• We are creating a new one-year fellowship for an early- to mid-career professional of color. 

All of these efforts stand separate from some important company initiatives, including unconscious bias training for staff, rolling out a tool to measure cultural competency across the organization, and an employee-led resource group for people of color.

Some may ask, given our challenges with workplace culture and retention, why is MPR "leading" this conference?

My answer is: We are not.

We've simply committed to start a journey that's long overdue, and we're inviting every other media outlet in Minnesota to join us.

Tell MPR: How are we doing?