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Gwen Ifill, one of the nation's most recognizable and seasoned television journalists, said Monday that diversity is not only important in newsrooms it is what makes society strong.
"I embrace it because it is good and necessary for journalism, for politics, for society and for our general, national health," Ifill told a crowd of more than 250 students, faculty and members of the general public who packed the First Amendment Forum at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.
The free public lecture was sponsored by the Cronkite School as part of an ASU award given to the school last year in recognition of its efforts to advance diversity and inclusion. The inaugural Institutional Inclusion Award included a grant to fund the visit under the university’s Diversity Scholar Series, a biannual event designed to stimulate conversations about diversity, social justice and policy making.
Americans are too often reluctant to talk openly about race, Ifill said, and the media isn’t doing enough to make sure that honest conversations happen.
"Journalists who make a living by telling other people's stories have a special responsibility to get this right and to bring voices to our newsrooms whose backgrounds help us all see the world differently,” she said.
Ifill said she has seen the consequences of a lack of diversity in newsrooms throughout a career that has taken her from newspapers to national television. After starting as an intern at the Boston Herald-American, she reported for the Baltimore Evening Sun, the Washington Post and The New York Times before transitioning to television news. She was chief congressional and political correspondent for NBC News and then joined PBS in 1999 as moderator of the “Washington Week” program, hosting a roundtable discussion each week with journalists who dissect the news coming out of Washington. "Washington Week" is the longest-running prime time news and public affairs program on television. Ifill also is a senior correspondent for the "PBS NewsHour."
The intersection of race and politics has always been an undercurrent in the national dialogue, Ifill told the Cronkite audience. But it's not always negative.
"For me, covering race was not always about covering grievance,” she said. “It's also about opportunity and pride and empathy and humanity and understanding the value of difference. And it's something every journalist should be able to do, not just journalists of color.”
Diverse voices in newsrooms and diverse coverage of communities help ensure that news organizations ask the right questions and approach issues in a more comprehensive way, she said.
"Too often we sit in our newsrooms and our lives complacent, and we react. The world races by us and we strain to catch up, and guess what happens when that happens? We get left behind," Ifill said. "We can fix this. We must fix this. The best way to start doing it is by opening our doors wider, listening harder and knowing that (this) is not only the right thing to do as journalists, it’s our salvation."
Peter Haden, a graduate student at the Cronkite School, said he appreciated Ifill's advice that more diverse voices produce better journalism. He also liked her call for more measured public discourse.
"The country is in need of more inclusive, less polarizing news media," Haden said. "There is a lot of pressure to be loud and be first. But we should remember we are in the information business, not the entertainment business."
Arthur Mobley, a longtime Phoenix-area resident and broadcaster, said he hoped Ifill's talk would prompt students to think more about what being a journalist means, especially when covering sensitive issues such as race and diversity.
"It gets everybody out of their comfort zones, their little cocoons, their little ideas of what a journalist is," said Mobley, a member of the Cronkite School's Endowment Board of Trustees.
Students need to continually ask themselves if they’re living up to journalistic values, Mobley said. "I think if they do that, the rest is going to be easy. They're going to get what they're supposed to do and they're going to fall into those roles much more readily and easily and with much more value to audiences."