Veteran radio journalist Marianne Combs noticed a lack of inclusivity for people of color in newsrooms. And the data backs her observations: According to a 2020 study by The Radio Television Digital News Foundation, 15.4% of those employed in local radio newsrooms are people of color.
Combs, who worked at Minnesota Public Radio for 23 years before resigning in September 2020, believes the solution starts with newsrooms doing more training and supporting young reporters. She wants to be part of that.
And that’s exactly what she’s doing working with Ampers, KMOJ and the Minnesota Humanities Center. Combs is a leader in the groundbreaking project Racial Reckoning: The Arc of Justice, which is centered around supporting and training young reporters.
When Combs was approached about being part of project, an independent community journalism initiative, she was told they “wanted to create this space for young women of color to learn how to do journalism.”
Racial Reckoning started as a short-term project, created for the purpose of covering the court trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who was eventually convicted of murdering George Floyd, as well as the trials of the three other officers involved in Floyd’s death. Combs did her part in helping.
“I started training these young women, or women of color, to do their own radio stories and produce their own stories,” she said.
However, incidents of other injustices against people of color continued to transpire, such as the case of Daunte Wright, who was shot by a Brooklyn Center police officer during a traffic stop. What was intended to be an eight-month project just keeps growing.
While working with the project, Combs wanted to use the skills she learned in mainstream media to mentor people of color.
Although she’s their managing news editor, she doesn’t assign stories. She says she trusts their expertise about what needs to be covered. She gives them the knowledge and resources to tell their own narratives but never tells them what stories to cover.
“It’s about recognizing that, because of their lived experience and their cultural background, they have expertise that I will never have. I can help them to become a better reporter, but I’m trusting their editorial judgment from the start,” she said.
Her confidence in the journalists brings out the best in them. She said she had been amazed by the stories her reporters have come up with and doesn’t think those stories would necessarily have been covered in a mainstream newsroom.
But Combs wants more than to simply assist BIPOC youth in writing great stories. “Their experience to me is more important than the finished product of what we put on the air,” she said. “It’s more important to me that they feel supported and valued. … Their gut instinct is strong, and they are worthy of working in great big newsrooms across the country.”
More newsrooms are looking to hire BIPOC journalists, but experience is essential. It’s leading to crisis in mainstream news right now.
According to Combs, the concept of unbiased is controlled by white male perspectives, and “to anybody outside of that community … it’s pretty obvious that there is a bias in the reporting.” She added, “It’s no longer about saying I’m unbiased, but being transparent about what you stand for.”
As Combs continues to work with Racial Reckoning on bringing forth the voices of young journalists of color, she finds hope in doing journalism a different way.
“We’ve decided just to keep telling stories, as long as there are stories to tell and there’s an appetite for them.”