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Editor's Note: Owning Up To St. Louis Public Radio's Racist Past

The air control studio at St. Louis Public Radio
David Kovaluk
St. Louis Public Radio

To help explain how systemic racism seeps into people’s brains, I like to refer people to Isabel Wilkerson’s analogy.

“When people live in an old house, they come to adjust to the idiosyncrasies and outright dangers skulking in an old structure,” she writes in "Caste," her recently published book. “The awkward becomes acceptable, and the unacceptable becomes merely inconvenient. Lie with it long enough, and the unthinkable becomes normal. Exposed over the generations, we learn to believe that the incomprehensible is the way that life is supposed to be.”

I love that analogy. It helps explain the deeply entrenched problem of systemic racism in our society. It explains how systemic racism has been part of the structure of our country for so long that white people don’t see the inherent disparities that exist around us. What’s more, many people don’t recognize the assumptions and systems that work to prevent Black people and people of color from being equal. Journalism and news organizations that have historically been run by white people aren’t immune.

For the past half-year or so, white-run news organizations around the country have come under fire. Some are calling it a “moment of reckoning” journalism is facing for its part in systemic racism. But to me, I don’t think reckoning is enough. White editors and newsroom leaders need to recognize the role that we’ve played in that systemic racism and actively work to dismantle it.

Though long overdue, it is now time for St. Louis Public Radio to recognize its racist history and talk about how we can begin to undo the system.

I know there are people who will decry the fact that I’m writing this. Some will call me a hypocrite and a fraud. They will point to errors I’ve made, things I’ve said, decisions I’ve come to as proof that I am not qualified to be talking about systemic racism.

Maybe. But I’m the person in charge of the St. Louis Public Radio newsroom and, because of that, I’m the one who has to take ownership for what has happened in the past and commit to changing how we do things in the future.

Let me explain how systemic racism and its partner, white supremacy, have shown up in St. Louis Public Radio:

  • We’ve written articles that take anthropological approaches to reporting on communities of color. Our stories have sounded akin to David Attenborough observing the behavior of blue whales rather than actually allowing people from those communities to talk about their experiences from their perspectives.
  • We’ve catered our coverage to our traditional audience of white, upper-middle-class, well-educated, middle-age people. We have done this by seeking out stories that won’t rattle their worldview or venture out of the “mainstream” culture, because we have feared those are stories that audience won’t understand or appreciate.
  • We’ve neglected to include the perspective of people of color when reporting on issues that affect everyone in this St. Louis region, not just white people. Too often, when we have included the perspective of people of color, we’ve treated those individuals as if they represent the entirety of their community and ignored the subtleties of opinions that exist across any ethnic or racial group.
  • We have overlooked journalists of color when hiring because they don’t “have the right sound.” We’ve made the excuse that those same reporters — especially Black reporters — don’t have enough experience, even though we’ve given white reporters with equivalent experience the benefit of the doubt.
  • Over the past six years, we’ve made the push to hire journalists of color, but we haven’t made the organization uniformly welcoming. We said we wanted to hear what they think of how we are doing, but didn’t listen when they told us about the inhospitable conditions.
  • We’ve inadvertently forced the reporters of color on our staff to filter their story pitches and reporting through a white lens. In other words, we’ve put the burden on our Black, Latino and Asian journalists to only propose stories that will be palatable to the aforementioned white audience.

These are just a few ways in which we, as a journalism organization, have been complicit with the systemic racism that pervades our society. As a result, we've failed to live up to our aspirations as journalists: holding the powerful to account, illuminating complex issues and accurately reflecting the diversity of our community in our work.

I will pause here to give St. Louis Public Radio a bit of credit. Since covering the killing of Michael Brown Jr. in 2014, and the Black Lives Matter protests that followed, we did get better at seeing race is part of the stories we cover. We’ve worked harder to make sure that our sources include people of color. We became more deliberate about how we represent various communities, which topics we cover and whom we hire. We started tracking our sources to make sure we were including voices of people who reflect the larger community.

But those are just the first steps.

Moving forward, we are committing to practicing journalism that is anti-racism at its core. This means that we will tell stories about communities adversely affected by systemic racism from their perspectives. It means we will be more mindful of recognizing and calling out racism in ourselves and others. It means we won’t indulge in a misleading sense of balance by including perspectives that are patently disproven, false or biased. It also means that we will continue to expand whom we talk to for our stories and whom we consider our audience.

Within our newsroom, it means we are committed to hiring more journalists of color so that, at a minimum, our newsroom reflects the population of the St. Louis area.

It means that part of our onboarding and review process will include learning individual journalists’ goals and working with them so that we can support their career paths either within our station or in other organizations. It means we will provide training and opportunities to all of our reporters to help people develop the skills they need to achieve their professional aspirations.

As a station, we are already exploring how to hold ourselves accountable on our promise to become an anti-racism news organization. We’ve created a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion committee and are taking direction from its members to address station-wide policies. The Friends of St. Louis Public Radio board has created its own Diversity, Equity and Inclusion committee, and we are hoping to work with it. We will regularly publish the results of our diversity source surveys. The newsroom has just started to rewrite its social media ethics policy and will turn to an overall journalism ethics policy that uses the benchmarks laid out in An Anti-Racist Future: A Vision and Plan for the Transformation of Public Media.

We are at the beginning of this journey. I wish I could promise a linear and swift progression to fulfilling our vision. But I recognize that change never comes that easily. My hope is that publishing this article, owning up to our mistakes and talking publicly about how we can do better as a newsroom will keep the station on track toward instituting systemic change.

Shula Neuman is the executive editor at St. Louis Public Radio.

Shula is the executive editor at St. Louis Public Radio.