Amplify New Voices, Cultivate Empathy, Ask and Listen to Ensure Balance and Diversity in Your Coverage

“Amplifying new voices has been key to how we’ve covered both of these storylines,” Stacy Brooks Whatley (pictured right), director of communications and social media for the American Physiological Society, said in a terrific session at AM&P 2020 last fall titled Writing and Editing in the Time of COVID and Black Lives Matter. “Every one of our organizations has those super volunteers we rely on for so much. We tap them repeatedly for interviews, quotes, testimonials. We’ve had to do a lot more work to surface new individuals, new voices, particularly in the diversity space. There are a lot more people out there who we need to find and see what they’re all about.”

I had been meaning to write about this session—which also featured Melanie Padgett Powers, owner of MelEdits and managing editor of The Physiologist Magazine—for a while. Then this week, in the face of the horrific killings in the Atlanta area, I saw an article by Doris Truong, Poynter’s director of training and diversity, focusing on our language and biases. She included this line: “Journalists have the power to shape public perception, so it’s our job to dig deeper…”

That brought me back to this session and this from Padgett Powers: “Words matter. You as writers, editors, content creators have a lot of power. We are often the last ones who have the final say in what goes in the magazine, what the video looks like, what goes out in social media. We decide who to interview, what sources and how we’re going to cover things. But also language evolves. It’s not your job to robotically follow a [style book]. The best copy editors I know are not sticklers for language. They’re paying attention to how people speak and how language is evolving.”

What resonated most about this session is that neither panelist was pushing an agenda or a right or wrong way of doing things. Far from it, they were advocating more listening, outreach and having conversations among staff and members to determine the right language and approaches for your organization.

“As the protests heated up, it was clear that there was new urgency to execute on all of our long-term [diversity] strategies and really to just do a lot more,” Brooks Whatley said. “They’re changing the way and the frequency at which we talk about race, we think about diversity, we build community, we provide member benefits. Where COVID-19 taught us to be nimble, last summer’s reckoning on race is teaching us to stretch and widen the net.”

Padgett Powers emphasized that it also means we need to write with compassion. “We should always be serving the readers, especially at associations. We’re here to serve them, educate them, inform them and entertain them at times.”

It was a moving session that, five or so months later, resonates even louder. Brooks Whatley offered 5 Guiding Principles in dealing with these two huge and ongoing crises.

1. “Cultivate empathy has been a foundational writing and editing strategy for both of these stories,” she said. “In my opinion, this is a member benefit, the way we tell stories and convey point of view and the experience of our members. We really can demonstrate care for them as individuals for their stories and backgrounds.”

2. Embrace nuance. “There’s so much nuance in both of these stories,” Brooks Whatley said. “Both are intrinsically tied to politics and both are potentially tied to life and death. The key is not to be overwhelmed by the nuance but to expect it and embrace it. Maybe you have to ask questions, push boundaries, in order to educate yourself on a lot of these topics. Maybe the stories you were planning need to go in a different direction and that’s okay. The point is seeing value in communicating things differently.”

3. Be flexible. Brooks Whatley said this is huge in this moment. So many of us had to tear up our editorial calendar for the second half of last year and rethink 2021. For APS, the Olympics and an annual meeting were to be focal points. She then added this: “I am no fan of the themed issue. I really feel that for the diversity issue, if you’re doing it right it should be unnecessary; diversity should always be present. You’re going to see that in your stories, topics, sources, your images, your writers, all throughout, diversity should be there.”

4. Amplify new voices. In addition to the above, Brooks Whatley said that social media has been helpful for APS here. “In the science space there’s a #blackin movement, so ours is #blackinphysio,” she said. “Our members have organized this on their own and are doing a roll call and connecting with people in that space that may or may not be our members. That’s been excellent to see people not on our radar. It’s a great time for social media listening.” She also asked to reconsider who sits at your organization’s social media table. Reach out to the entire staff. “They might not be in publishing but might be people who engage with your members and if they’re different from you there’s a good chance they’re meeting members different from the ones you know. So this is a great time to bring them into the fold.”

5. Keep going. That means editorially and in the organizational efforts that you make. “We’re going to have to keep talking about both of these,” she said. “Set a mindset that you’re seeing [these issues] in the long term.”

Padgett Powers urged publications staff to “widen your network and listen and learn,” using social media to “get out of your bubble.” (She’s a big fan of Twitter to learn about varying viewpoints.) She stressed the importance of diversifying the writers you use, even though it “takes work.” She also suggested that if it comes down to a choice, “give up your seat. This is important; we need to represent these underrepresented groups.”

Brooks Whatley encouraged more conversations among your entire organization and members. “It’s important to ask people what they want to be called,” she said. “And to bounce ideas off of them. There are people in your organization who may have already raised their hands to help with these questions.”

APS asked members to update their demographic information because looking at photos isn’t always enough. Brooks Whatley has said they are now keeping track of who they highlight in all of their publications and outreach. “We’ve featured 170 members across our media channels,” she said. “This has been helpful in our diversity efforts. Non-white scientists can start to feel that we’re tokenizing them [if featured too often]. That’s not what we want.”

And lastly, she urged transparency. “We want to let people see the work that we’re doing.” She said the idea even came up to “do some sort of multimedia piece on the discussions we’ve been having. It could be useful for members to take [that] back to their institutions to help pull them along.”

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