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Independent Media is not safe from journalism's elite problem

This is a post I have wanted to write for quite some time now, but I wasn’t sure I had the numbers (or more accurately, the links) to fully support it. However, the anecdotal evidence was there, and after speaking with this year’s Izzy Award, I feel confident in my ability to openly present this issue.

When it comes down to it, certain independent publications and national public journalism outlets will take the Harvard history major over the Ithaca College journalism major.

You'll notice I have no links for that. Full disclosure, this evidence is still mainly anecdotal, however, I will touch on some of the conversations I have had to support this claim.

Now of course, our journalists should be educated. However, there is a valid question to be raised here about where these journalists are coming from and why.

Let’s examine this a bit. A journalist from an Ivy League or notable school might have the same qualifications as a journalist from a lesser known institution. But we have to consider this issue of access: what factors contributed to that journalist reaching that space?

With the exception of very few students at these institutions on rare full tuition scholarships -- only a recent development that excludes what it's like to actually be low-income in this space -- the people at these Ivy’s are there because they had the support network and the means to get them there. Once there, they engage with professors and other like-minded students in an elite setting. Ultimately, this way of thinking begins to subtly influence the ways in which these reporters think and engage with their own stories. While none of this is intentional, there is a risk here of alienating the very populations at which these stories are aimed, because the reporting methods might seem to distanced from that demographic.

The Izzy Award Winners did address this phenomenon slightly. They talked about empathy for subjects and allowing their stories to lead the way. And they get it, to a certain degree. They have an understanding of the role their own privilege plays in their reporting – primarily privileges of race and gender.

However, I wanted to see more discussion of education privilege.

That is not to imply that intersections do not exist between these elements of privilege – they are all connected. Traditionally, people of color have had less access to Ivy League schools, and in the past, women also had difficulties entering these spaces as equals with men.

These connections apply to something that Lucian Read of the America Divided film crew said rather well: the media had an elite problem, and that’s basically why our current president was elected.

Read admitted, he might be the only one up there out of all of the Izzy Award winners that did not graduate from Columbia, Northwestern, or another big name school. His degree is from San Francisco State, definitely different than the others.

Now, the media need to prove that they do not have this elite problem, and that they can relate to the populations they serve. Outlets like NPR in particular are scrambling to vary up their points-of-view, which have traditionally taken a more intellectual and somewhat elite tone. Yet, the bottom line is that the producers and correspondents in power bring with them a certain privilege of education that must be acknowledged and checked when approaching reporting.

As I mentioned, all of the Izzy Award members addressed somewhat in their reporting this idea of connecting with the communities being covered. However, I think America Divided approached this most effectively. While they did use celebrities, they made sure the individuals they chose had a connection to the content. In a way, these celebrities really were closer to “real people” than any celebrity journalists would have been, since those celebrities were coming from a personal place rather than a strictly professional one. This made the report more relatable than if it had been reported by a veteran correspondent with a Masters from the Columbia Journalism School.

In an era where responsible citizen journalism is increasingly revered through online platforms, I find it ironic that our major independent publications, as well as public radio, is taking a different direction – one that includes graduates of Columbia, Northwester, Harvard and Yale, and seems to exclude anyone else.

Like many of the Izzy Award panelists admitted when I asked them this question of elitism in journalism, I do not have an answer. It is a big issue to tackle – however, it is an issue that needs to be addressed.

Independent and public journalism outlets need to take the commitment to diversity one step further, and actually hire the people that can accurately and empathetically tell the stories of the communities they cover in a way that does not push those communities further from the media.

NOTE: If you read this and know of any reports that exist demonstrating some of these trends, or if you have noticed this in your own experience, please do not hesitate to email me. This is an ongoing exploration of a trend.

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