Spartans Combat Bias in Reporting with 'Sourcing for Diversity Project'

MSU Students and Faculty Create Award-Winning Technique for Better Representation in News Coverage

As the media faces higher scrutiny for bias, the MSU School of Journalism is working to ensure voices from every corner of the community are represented in reporting. Students and faculty designed a "Sourcing for Diversity Project" to help journalists write more balanced news reports, creating technology the Detroit Free Press and MLive are interested in.

“We have had a long problem with diversity in journalism,” said Editor in Residence Joe Grimm. He said diversity has historically not been emphasized enough in how newspapers and networks report the news. “In journalism, we don’t hire diverse staffs. We don’t cover communities that are marginalized, and in fact, we don’t know who we talk to. We don’t keep track of our sources.”

To address this problem, students in JRN 300 — a public affairs reporting course at MSU — developed an open-source tool that can be used in real time to analyze patterns and improve reporting. The tool shows newsrooms whom is being referenced in their reporting and how well they have represented both majority and marginalized groups.

A Project with Inclusivity at its Heart

“The very heart of this project and research is for students to deliberately think about inclusive journalism,” said Professor Lucinda Davenport, Ph.D. “This project is a combination of creativity, research, class project, and community engagement, with a goal of helping students think in new ways and improving inclusiveness in news coverage.”

The sourcing tool gives students real-world experience in what it takes to provide representative news coverage for their communities and some newsrooms are paying attention.

“This overall project is a great example of closely connecting classroom activities to the industry,” said Davenport. “Students see the relevance of its goals to their lives.”

The project has garnered many awards, including the national Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC) Standing Committee on Teaching Award for 2020 Best Practices and the MSU AT&T Award for Instructional Technology. It received an Online News Association Challenge Innovation in Journalism Grant and a Mass Communication Newspaper and Online News Division Faculty Research Grant.

“We wanted to create a tool that is both diagnostic and prescriptive,” said Grimm. “We also wanted to find out if the students we send out express an attitude about reporting based on the sources they are interviewing to be more inclusive.”

Combating Unintentional Bias in News Coverage

“When news appears to be off balance, it gets that way unintentionally,” said Grimm. “Nobody starts out wanting to go write a biased news report. However, to be balanced you have to be intentional.”

Many journalists track their reporting using a source list, but Grimm said these often cover the basics of name and contact information. Students in his courses maintained source lists, but he wanted to take this a step further by compiling the information in a database and identifying areas to improve.

In addition to ethnicity and race, students collected details like the source’s age, gender, and political affiliation. They came across sources who were uncomfortable answering certain questions, such as gender, but recording these responses allowed them to be more inclusive, for example, by interviewing people who identify as LGBTQ.

“On every story, the students are thinking about who they are talking to,” said Grimm. “They’re looking at this database, and they’re comparing our database to the Census Bureau numbers. Then they’re having conversations about what this means and what we need to change.”

When those interviewed for stories differ from those who reside in a community, it can lead to gaps in coverage.

“If a reporter covers a community that is 51 percent female, and the sourcing is only 41 percent female, that’s a significant difference,” said Grimm. “There are some strategies you might try to vary your sourcing.”

Jayna Bardahl, a student majoring in journalism with a minor in sports journalism and public relations, wrote many articles when she took JRN 300 last spring. For each interview, she recorded responses using the sourcing tool.

“At first, it was a little intimidating,” said Bardahl. “I wasn’t sure how I would transition from an interview to asking these kinds of questions, such as political affiliation. Throughout the semester, I think I got more comfortable with it. In one of our last classes on Zoom, we went through and looked at the different data.”

The sourcing tool presented a learning curve, but students noticed a change in their reporting over time.

“I had never really tracked the sources I used. I could have easily gone to people I was more comfortable talking to, but I made a point to talk to some people of different ages and different genders,” said Bardahl. “My stories were more representative of the community than they would’ve been if I wasn’t asking the questions. I also felt more confident in my reporting.”

Obstacles to Fair Representation in the Media

Spartans are not only using this digital tool, which functions as a website, database and app, but they are also researching the effectiveness of the technology. Davenport is working with Grimm to find out if the sourcing project works and how it affects the approach of student reporters.

“Research on newsrooms has illustrated theories that individual and organizational characteristics unintentionally influence news coverage,” said Davenport. “For example, researchers have concluded that the gender of the reporter was a good predictor of the gender of the source who received the attention and emphasis in the story.”

Davenport said one outcome of the project is that reporters become more socialized to diverse concepts of news. This could, in turn, produce more comprehensive and accurate coverage of issues and events.

“Implicit bias is unintentional; however, fair, total community coverage requires intentional action,” said Davenport. “When refined, this instrument will enable any journalist and newsroom to evaluate data on source diversity when compared to community Census demographics, brainstorm improvements, and make instant changes.”

Journalists seldom have time to conduct content audits to identify gaps in coverage, but this new technology could make it easier for them to analyze their work.

“This real-time tool will provide more actionable data than the content audits that news organizations use,” said Davenport. “Newsrooms have not examined source inclusiveness, unless it is to audit content later, often using reporters' memories about their sources—after a story has already been published. The current project is novel, in that it can be used in real-time to improve coverage.”

Research for More Representative News Coverage

To demonstrate the importance of the research, Davenport pointed to the Social Responsibility Theory. Offered by the Hutchins Commission on Freedom of the Press, the theory maintains that the media have a responsibility to hold high standards of truth and accuracy and reflect the diversity of communities in order to fulfill their obligations within a democratic society.

“The Commission declared that people have a duty and a right to information,” said Davenport. “How citizens choose to become informed is their own choice, but their approval or disapproval of media content is an effective control on news outlets.”

If journalists want to write articles that represent their communities well, they need to pay attention to the demographics and differences of opinion that are held within the community.

“A lack of diversity weakens news content and news judgment and undermines news media credibility and survival within an increasingly diverse population,” said Davenport. “Homogeneity in newsrooms has led to uniformity in choosing stories and selecting sources who are most like the journalists themselves.”

Better sourcing could lead to better reporting, by providing a more holistic view of what’s happening in local communities. The resulting coverage could also engage more people, leading to higher circulation and improving the bottom line.

“The hope is that as journalists make intentional decisions to interview representatives of diverse groups, then various audiences will feel included in the coverage of community issues and events as their voices are heard, and they would see the relevance of news stories to their own lives,” said Davenport. “A possible result is that comprehensive, credible journalism would attract more audiences to the news product.”

By Melissa Priebe

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