November 12, 2018

We need more diverse voices in journalism, literally


A few months ago we suggested that when we say “poet voice” you knew what we were talking about: a white-washed set of conventions that have come to seem like the natural way to read poetry, despite being heavily constructed. It’s sort of like the lyric equivalent of Hollywood’s Mid-Atlantic accent.

So now let’s explore what a journalist sounds like, a crucial question as audio reporting formats grow in popularity.

In a recent article for the Columbia Journalism Review, Gisele Regatao writes about how a reported piece of hers was declined by NPR, partially due to her accent.

Regatao is an assistant professor of journalism at Baruch College, City University of New York who came to the United States from Brazil 20 years ago. She describes her accent as “mild” and says that “Americans can tell right away that I am not a native English speaker, but foreigners can’t.” In short, she’s a great candidate to report on and voice a piece about the Brazilian artist Tarsila do Amaral, whose work was appearing in New York and Chicago for the first time. But it was not to be.

Regatao writes about how a specific idea of authority–the voice of a white man–has influenced the tone of radio and TV reportage over the years, but the time has come to chip away at that alabaster monument.

She writes:

accents are an important part of representation. Ultimately, they reflect who belongs and who doesn’t—and what the voice of our country sounds like. Thirteen percent of the US population is foreign-born—the highest proportion since 1910—and many more people have regional accents. Amy Caples, a former TV and radio news anchor who teaches voice classes at Temple University in Philadelphia, says that local television stations in her city now feature journalists with different backgrounds who don’t speak what’s considered the “standard broadcasting voice.” But if you watch the national news, she adds, the “measured” voice still reigns. “That authoritative vocal quality, that’s what people expect.” Virtually no anchors speak with accents from non-English speaking countries. (Foreigners who sound British get a pass.)

If our corporate overlords aren’t likely to change overnight, we can appreciate that podcasting might represent one independent space to address some of these imbalances. At the moment, though, podcasting remains pretty white, male, and slow to change. And we all need to examine our biases about what counts as authoritative or effective vocal communication.

Regatao did receive an apology from NPR, which noted that discrimination against accents is harmful rather than hurtful to journalistic practice.

As Regatao concludes her must-read piece:

In my piece that never aired, Stephanie D’Alessandro, cocurator of the exhibit, says: “I am at a point in my career and as an American that I think in 2018 we really need to be open to many other stories besides the stories that we know.” It now seems ironic that I ended that piece saying: “Sometimes it can take a while to get those stories told.”



Ryan Harrington is a senior editor at Melville House.