The human impact of the lack of diversity in Brazilian newsrooms

REUTERS/Nacho Doce

Journalists of Folha de S. Paulo newspaper, work inside the editorial office of the newspaper in Sao Paulo, Brazil October 31, 2018. REUTERS/Nacho Doce

In Brazil, where 43.2% of the population identifies as White, and 55.7% as Afro-Brazilian, newsrooms are still staffed by 77% White employees. 

To measure the human impact of racial representation in Brazilian newsrooms, I created a questionnaire, asking basic biographical details and inviting journalists to indicate if they would like to talk further about their experiences. 

I received 61 responses to my questionnaire, and conducted 32 long-form interviews in April 2022. The sample of 61 included 27 men and 34 women working for TV stations, radio stations, newspapers, websites and magazines – mostly as reporters, some freelancers and a few in management positions. 

The racial breakdown included 52.5% White, 41% Afro-Brazilian, and 6.6% Yellow. Unfortunately, no Indigenous reporters responded to my query. 

Two major themes emerged during interviews: the effect of a lack of diversity on news production, and the effect of a lack of diversity on the journalists themselves.

Production impact

We know from gatekeeping theory that newsrooms are mediators of information – filtering it through their own views and lived experiences. Employing editors and journalists from the same background will result in coverage reflective of what one demographic group thinks. My interviewees said:

“Diversity is pretty much non-existent, not only racial. The newsrooms here are composed predominantly of white cisgender heterosexual men, usually upper-class, and those in management roles are [just] older version of them.” 
“People in Brazilian newsrooms simply do not understand why movements like Black Lives Matter are newsworthy, for example.”
“I believe that we are always reproducing some kind of racist stereotype and that people don’t actually mean to change it inside the newsroom.”

Stuart Hall studied the effects of representation in media in The Spectacle of the ‘Other’: “Stereotyping reduces, essentializes, naturalises and fixes ‘difference’,” he wrote. This has been the subject of Brazilian-specific study for years: researcher Solange de Couceiro found: “journalists [...] are socialised in a way to [...] absorb, believe and defend the idea of racial democracy. Therefore, the manifestations of prejudice and racism that they transmit [...] act efficiently in the production of Brazilian racism.”

Journalists I spoke to felt that things could be different if there was more racially diversity in leadership positions: 

“I once wrote an article that only gained attention because my editor, a black woman, personally said that the proper angle should be about race and not only put that on the front cover of the newspaper but also pushed for a headline that didn’t mince words. I had never seen anything like that in the media before”.

My questionnaire asked journalists to record how many non-White editors they had worked for. The majority (57.1%) had never had one, 22.9% had worked for one, 14.3% had worked for two, and 5.7% had worked for three. 

How did working for majority White editors materially impact the work of journalists in newsrooms? My interviewees reported:

“There was an occasion on which my boss – a White woman – threatened to quit her job because her own boss wanted to shut down an entire article that featured four Afro-Brazilians that was labelled ‘too activist’ to be published. Months later, my team and I received a warning that we were publishing too many stories ‘about minorities’.”
“I pitched a multimedia special about racism in the workplace and I basically had to do everything by myself because my bosses wouldn’t give me resources to go to places in person or let me have a cameraman to record the interviews. They thought that it wasn’t that important. However, after it was released and had major positive reviews and recognition, it was sold as a company effort, which was a lie.”
“My boss apparently never noticed that almost all of the sources we used were old white men, and was confused when we pointed this out to him. He seemingly did not think it was an issue because ‘we should not choose our sources’, but complained to us when we used quotes not from sources that he already knew.”

My interviewees mentioned an impact of under-representation in newsrooms was the development of tokenism in assignments, wherein Afro-Brazilian journalists became responsible for all stories about race by default, because “they were the only ones there”. Speaking about coverage during the month of November, when Brazil marks Black Awareness Day on the 20th in honour of the death of Zumbi, journalists told me:

“Every year in November they approach me and ask to do something special even though I cover Economics and I’m not comfortable with this subject.”
“There was a particular year in which our newsroom had absolutely nothing prepared for the Black Awareness Day. However, our main competitor ran a special about it the day before, and our editors panicked. So, it was me – literally the only non-white person in the newsroom – that had the responsability to do something (anything) with a day’s notice, just because they didn’t want to look bad.”

Human impact

“It is frustrating to work in an environment with mostly White people.” You won't be surprised to read that one of my interviewees said this. You might be surprised that the interviewee who said it was White. Yes, the human impact of under-representation affects White journalists, too. Although the impact I recorded on Afro-Brazilians and Yellow people was far beyond mere frustration. 

Interviewees related stories about micro-aggressions and limited access that had far-reaching mental health impacts.

Comments about physical appearance, and specifically about the hair of Afro-Brazilians, were shared with me repeatedly:

“When I decided to braid my hair I became the joke of the newsroom. Even my boss was comfortable saying things like ‘here comes the real negro’, and everybody laughed. They never respected me.”

“I once was invited to an important meeting with the board. I dressed to impress, head-to-toe, but as soon as the meeting was over they said that I should be more careful about how I looked. It took me some time to understand that the problem was that I decided to wear my naturally curly hair instead of straightening it.”

Another frequent issue related was that they were mistaken for someone that worked as a janitor or driver for the company, not as journalists. 

“I don’t have anything against those professions, but I can’t help but
feel humiliated when my colleagues are not capable of seeing me as equal to them.” 

This happens inside the workplace and outside, when they are reporting.

“Whenever I had to go cover something on our local court I had to make sure to be well dressed only to be allowed inside, even with my press credentials. On the other hand, my white colleague walked around wearing a rugged heavy metal T-shirt and jeans with holes and never had to worry about this.”
“A source said to me that I didn’t look like a journalist just because I’m Yellow. There is this stigma that Asian people are only supposed to be good at maths or something and he thought that he was complimenting me because of the way I look and did not take me seriously – I also felt that inside the newsroom.”

My interviewees spoke frequently of the impact of working in a predominantly White space. The concept of “Predominantly White Institutions” (PWIs) was coined to describe the institutions in the United States whose histories, policies, practices, and ideologies centre whiteness. PWIs, by design, tend to marginalise the identities, perspectives, and practices of people of colour.

“You can tell by the looks, by the preferences. I notice that I'm not, let's say, a ‘priority’ for the sources. They generally prefer to talk to those people who are white, even when they are new to coverage and don't have a previous relationship.”

These “looks” and comments can be classified as “microaggressions”: a term coined by African American psychiatrist Chester Pierce to describe the relationship between black and white interactions. “Microaggressions are brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioural, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative slights and insults toward people who are not classified within the ‘normative’ standard. Perpetrators of microaggressions are often unaware that they engage in such communications when they interact with people who differ from themselves.”

Ruchika Tulshyan, writing in the Harvard Business Review, said the term fails to capture the “emotional and material effects or how it impacts [...] career progression”. She added: “Experiencing what we know as microaggressions can be just as harmful, if not more, than more overt forms of racism.”

My interviewees also spoke of struggling to develop a sense of belonging in the workplace. One of my interviewees put it this way:

“I always felt very out of place in the newsroom because I didn't have the same background as them. It was common for my colleagues to talk about trips abroad that I had never taken, for example, or talk about a teacher they all had in college. I could never really blend in.”

In the article A Question of Belonging: Race, Social Fit, and Achievement by Gregory Walton and Geoffrey Cohen (2007), they write: “One of the most important questions that people ask themselves in deciding to enter, continue, or abandon a pursuit is, “Do I belong?” Among socially stigmatised individuals, this question may be visited and revisited. Stigmatisation can create a global uncertainty about the quality of one’s social bonds in academic and professional domains — a state of belonging uncertainty. As a consequence, events that threaten one’s social connectedness, although seen as minor by other individuals, can have big effects on the motivation of those contending with a threatened social identity.”

I have highlighted “big effect on motivation” because this, to me, is key. Some of those I interviewed had given up working in newsrooms because they didn’t feel represented there and had no hope the scenario would change.

“For at least 5 or 6 years I've been saying that I'm leaving the newsroom. I was really getting ready to do something else, you know? To leave Brazil, to change areas, because I had already reached a career level that is my limit; I am already walled in. I'm a senior journalist but I don't feel I have any chance of taking on management positions in big newsrooms.”
“When you are part of a minority and try to claim something, there are no bonuses, only burdens. After 10 years I gave up”.

In her paper Journalists and mental health (2019) Natalee Seely notes that traditional newsroom culture encourages journalists to “check their feelings at the door”. In the Brazilian context, marginalised journalists do not discuss the impact of under-representation with their colleagues. But speaking to me off-the-record, several mentioned depression, anxiety, and even suicidal ideation. 

Are media outlets aware that 98% of Black and Brown-identifying journalists surveyed for the Racial Profile of the Brazilian Press felt they face more difficulties in their careers than their white colleagues? If so, what are they doing about it?

Download the full paper for interviews and analysis of what’s been tried at the three biggest newspapers in Brazil: O Globo, Estadão and Folha de S. Paulo

In summary, I came away with the impression that journalists are not best-suited to leading this sort of change. Instead, there are diversity and inclusion specialists that can be hired to guide newsrooms. 

In the words of 2017 MacArthur fellow, Nikole Hannah-Jones: “If newsroom managers wanted diverse newsrooms, they’d have diverse newsrooms.”