When The Force Awakens…in Journalism

Jenny Choi
4 min readOct 14, 2019
art by Sam Gibley

The first film I ever saw in a movie theater was Return of the Jedi. It was such a treat, as my folks couldn’t often afford to take us kids out, and beyond being completely traumatized by the Emperor, the story of a scrappy, motley crew coming together to save the world from evil really inspired me as a kid.

Heroes are Everyday People

Sometimes it’s easy to become overwhelmed by complex, longstanding systemic issues, but it’s important to remember that seemingly ordinary people every day are capable of extraordinary things when they come together for a unified cause. And this is the thread I’m introducing as part of addressing the structural issues that get in the way of a new kind of journalism that supports newsrooms for a healthy democracy.

Y’all already know I’m a part of a collective of funders who are working on improving equitable access to capital for people-of-color-led news organizations. Not everyone could join the fund we co-created, but many of us are trying to use the agency we have at our respective institutions to move a collective agenda forward. One day I’ll write more on this, but I’m hoping you’ll see some of the fruits of this labor beyond the Racial Equity in Journalism Fund soon.

Everyday Heroes are Hard to Find When Your Circles are Small and Boringly Predictable

Truth be told, there’s a lot of research that shows funders tend to listen to one another to vet ideas and people, which at times can be closed to a very insular social network, shutting out new perspectives and thereby innovation (read: new solutions to age-old problems).

So another thread I had to explore on addressing the diversity, inclusion and equity (DEI) deficit in today’s newsrooms was to identify from a practitioner’s level, who were the emerging leaders in the journalists of color community. This wasn’t easy — I couldn’t be lazy about collecting data and had to take the time to thoroughly audit credibility on these issues. Often times the most reliable sources were the folks with the least power in newsrooms… so building trust with these practitioners also took time.

The Journey Begins

After identifying key folks and convincing them to get on board to address DEI in their respective newsrooms, in April we hosted a meeting at the Newmark J-School with a group of journalists whose names continued to surface as leaders in the journalists of color community.

From that meeting, a subset of the participants (our motley crew of heroes) developed project and research ideas to address issues raised during the meeting. This was after a few email exchanges, a few in-person meetings and calls, and quite frankly also some pushback (I thought NII could fund a few ideas that were shut down and vice versa).

One of these projects, launched today, is The Journalists of Color Resource Guide created by and for journalists of color, to easily make accessible relevant tools online for journalists to thrive as freelancers or full-time employees in their workplaces and careers. The guide was organized around the key challenges journalists of color experience in the workplace, and makes available support for journalists who often feel isolated and struggle in silence at work.

Lam Thuy Vo, Disha Raychaudhuri and Moiz Syed designed this online guide through multi-layered research. With seed funding from NII, they disseminated a survey through various networks and evaluated the more than 260 responses they received. They took in anecdotes from meetups and sessions they organized at national conferences around the country and considered the needs voiced in their networks, including the Journalists of Color Slack. Mazin Sidahmed has been the glue of this work — quietly showing leadership in all sorts of spaces as a bridger and navigating all the colorful personalities at play (including mine).

Applying the Data to Create Systemic Change: A Brave Conversation

Tomorrow we’re presenting some of the takeaways from the findings to a group of decision-makers and influencers who can hire/advance talent and set editorial strategy. Many of the journalists who participated in our April meeting are bringing their managers to create change in a brave space. (Shout-out to Josh Stearns and Democracy Fund’s Public Square program for supporting the event.)

We’re asking managers to take some of this burden off of their employees, so we don’t have to keep creating tools for resilience — if we can reform some of our policies and decision-making protocols to adapt to an evolving newsroom and talent pipeline, the hope is that guides like The Journalists of Color Resource Guide will no longer be needed.

I’m a little nervous about it all, but this is to uplift the efforts of our journalists who are risking their own personal and professional capital because they love their work and care about what journalism really means for a healthy democracy and civic discourse, and I don’t want to let them down. I know they may not think of themselves in this way, but to me they are the true jedis who hold the keys to renewing trust between newsrooms and changing communities.

About NII: The News Integrity Initiative (NII) at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism (CUNY) aims to address the root causes of the decline of trust between news organizations and communities. A key strategy is to ensure newsrooms are where journalists of diverse lived experiences can thrive and do their best work for diverse communities, despite the business and social pressures we face in today’s democracy. We accomplish this through convenings, applied research and relevant grantmaking.

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Jenny Choi

OG on diversity/equity/inclusion, philanthropy and journalism. Adept at seeing the magic in the tragically ignored. Retired punk rock musician.