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Diversity In An Unconventional Sense: Covering America’s Hidden HIV Epidemic

Although it is a topic that is indeed familiar to our daily lives in 2018, racism in the United States has become a heated debate for decades without any inclination of dying down. The connections between racism and diversity are not lost within society though. In 2015, Nieman Reports said diverse editorial leadership as well as a focus on racial issues results in good things for coverage and readers alike. This study was echoed across news organizations when asking a critical question: Who is writing news?

Separately that same year, the Women’s Media Center looked at diversity from a different angle including both race and gender. They show that women of color (and minorities in general) are virtually absent from political commentary and investigative journalism.

According to the 2016 data from the American Society of News Editors, Hispanic, black and Asian women make up less than 5 percent of newsroom personnel at traditional print and online news publications. Yet the bigger picture needs to be seen when approaching the topic of diversity: the implications of generalizations are manifold, and begin at the storytelling level.


In Brown’s “Journalism Ethics: A Casebook for Professional Conduct for News Media”, he makes it clear that it is only recently that “news media codes of ethics and books on journalism ethics begun to mention issues related to diversity,” (122). While Brown goes through a checklist of putting diversity to work in a news organization within his Diversity chapter, there are so many more necessary nuances to incorporate for diversity and inclusion. Take for example, Johns Hopkins Diversity Leadership Council diversity wheel:

The center of the wheel represents internal dimensions that are usually most permanent or visible (Ades), allowing for a reader or viewer to make assumptions about a story based on the visuals provided or about the journalist based on their appearance. However, “the outside of the wheel represents dimensions that are acquired and change over the course of a lifetime,” (Ades). The combinations of all of these dimensions influence values, beliefs, behaviors, experiences and expectations that comprise of our individuality. This introduction of intersectionality is a recent adaptation of society, and the newsroom is no exception.

For instance, CNN reported the numbers released by the American Society of News Editors, et al. in 2015 that:

Of the 32,900 people employed in newspaper newsrooms around the country, only about 12.76%, or 4,200, are racial minorities. And that number has remained relatively steady for the past few years (11.85% in 2000, 13.73% in 2006 and 12.76% in 2014).

Yet throwing numbers at a reader or researcher does not necessarily define the problem at hand or improvements being made.

In Brown’s “Putting diversity to work in your news organization” section of chapter 8, he quotes Diversity Director Kenneth Irby, from The Poynter Institute. Running a short list of four points, Irby emphasizes that inclusion (who is on the staff), combating prejudice (how readers/viewers/listeners are learning about the world), improving craft (increase truth-telling), and leading change (increase diversity of people reported on, heard, and seen) are the key components to begin the path towards a diverse and inclusive news staff. Meanwhile, similar guidelines are given by Brown about racial identification.

In The New York Times Magazine, reporter Linda Villarosa has worked on health coverage and wrote a magnificent article about America’s hidden H.I.V. epidemic affecting black gay and bisexual men. As a woman of color, Villarosa already “beat” the statistics set before her about being a journalist. While correlation doesn't equal causation and greater gender and ethnic diversity in corporate leadership doesn’t automatically translate into more profit, the correlation does indicate that when news organizations commit themselves to diverse leadership, they are more “successful.” However, measuring “success,” the difficulty is that within diversity quotas are hard to fill, numbers don’t give the full story, and goals are set and measured by those in power. Therefore, in regards to a newfound measurement for “success”can be seen in the relative power seen within journalists and the impact it leaves on the reader. Hence, Villarosa’s piece on HIV in a specific community within the United States needs to be measured as success based on the sources she utilized and the narrative she wove on behalf of that community.

Opening with an anecdotal segway into the issue, Villarosa utilized 52-year-old Cedric Sturdevant from Mississippi to be the ‘mule’ for her story. Leading the reader down Sturdevant’s experience as a gay black man in the deep south, it was critical for the story to include sources from within the niche community that was being covered. In fact, Villarosa also addresses the necessity of using those most impacted within the gay/bisexual community of black men in the south to tell the story properly. “Including gay black men in the literature and understanding of the origins of the disease and its treatment could have meant earlier outreach, more of a voice and a standing in H.I.V./AIDS advocacy organizations, and access to the cultural and financial power of the L.G.B.T. community that would rise up to demand government action,” Villarosa said. Due to 35 years of neglect, in conjunction with poverty and inadequate local health care infrastructure, has left many black gay and bisexual men falling through the systematic cracks (Villarosa).

Cedric Sturdevant at home in Jackson.Credit: Ruddy Roye for The New York Times

Nonetheless, anecdotes from individuals personally affecting by this issue is not the only source that Villarosa uses in the story. In typical journalistic fashion, she also includes the voices of experts which in this case means doctors and health care professionals. For example, she quotes Dr. Jonathan Mermin, the director of the C.D.C.’s National