NPR staffers of color call out news chief on comments on race coverage

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A group of NPR staffers of color called comments by NPR news chief Nancy Barnes about race coverage at the network “baffling and insulting” in an email sent to Barnes Thursday.

Barnes was discussing newsroom priorities during a session at the Public Radio Program Directors Association conference Aug. 28 when she said NPR is “more lacking than we realized” in “disciplined, direct coverage of race relations and the culture wars.” 

The letter signed by 86 staffers and reviewed by Current said that staffers of color have been advocating for decades “for stronger and more robust coverage of our communities. Many of us and our colleagues have also been part of past efforts to bring insightful coverage about race to our audiences, including the daily programs Tell Me More and News & Notes.”

The letter pointed out that the network has been producing “robust coverage of the issues you want to expand” on shows like It’s Been a Minute, Alt.Latino and others.

“Your comments not only seem to ignore that, but also erase the more than six years of thoughtful, deliberate and nuanced work of NPR’s Code Switch team, which has provided a compelling center of gravity for these topics,” the letter said.

“Your words so far leave us feeling uncertain about the direction of this newsroom,” the staffers wrote.

The letter further called on Barnes to “acknowledge the effects” of her “public comments about race coverage widely” and provide “specific justification” for her PRPD comments.

It also asked Barnes to hold an all-staff town hall meeting to address the newsroom reorganization she announced last month.

NPR’s staff is “struggling to understand where you want to go, based on quotes in the media,” the letter said. “We seek a constructive conversation, focused on devoting institutional support and additional resources to race and identity coverage.”

The staff also wants Barnes to make “hiring Latinx people in editorial decision-making positions a priority,” the letter said.

“NPR’s newsroom has been largely ignoring the elephant in the room — the population growth of Latinx people, Afro-Latinx people and other minorities in the country,” the letter said. “This is the story of our times. If NPR is truly committed to nuanced, network-wide coverage, it has to diversify its management and VP tier immediately.”

In a brief email response to the letter Thursday, Barnes thanked the staffers for sharing their concerns and said “I want you to know that I take them seriously.” She said she would not be in the office next week “but I will set up a meeting as soon as I return and would welcome the opportunity to talk through these important issues with you.”

Then, in a longer email response to the staffers on Friday, she acknowledged the Code Switch team and other journalists who “have produced groundbreaking journalism, well ahead of many other national organizations.”

“In my remarks however, I did not credit that work,” she wrote. “What I intended to convey was that I was looking for more resources to augment this important work on a daily basis. I regret that I didn’t speak to what we’re already doing and have done in the past. I am grateful to the Code Switch team for the conversation we had this week, and I am looking forward to talking more with you as we design the direction of our coverage.”

The full text of the letter is as follows:

Dear Nancy,

We, staffers of color from across NPR, write as one voice in response to the comments you made at the Public Radio Program Directors Association conference on Aug. 28 regarding your vision for the NPR newsroom.

Specifically, your remarks that “disciplined, direct coverage of race relations and the culture wars” is “more lacking than we realized” were baffling and insulting.

For decades, staffers of color at NPR have advocated for stronger and more robust coverage of our communities. Many of us and our colleagues have also been part of past efforts to bring insightful coverage about race to our audiences, including the daily programs Tell Me More and News & Notes.

We should add that robust coverage of the issues you want to expand has been alive and well on the shows — especially WATC, WESUN, It’s Been A Minute, and Alt.Latino — as well as at Newscast, the National and Arts desks, and NPR Music.

Your comments not only seem to ignore that, but also erase the more than six years of thoughtful, deliberate and nuanced work of NPR’s Code Switch team, which has provided a compelling center of gravity for these topics.

Seven years ago, in the lead-up to our cross-platform launch of Code Switch, dozens of people of color from all over the organization, representing a variety of ethnic and cultural backgrounds, came together to talk about what we wanted to do and the ideas around reporting efforts for different cultural communities. 

These words travel and not only are they hurtful, they further marginalize people of color in an organization with historic problems of under-representing and/or dismissing the voices, creativity and work of non-white journalists. 

We note this is not the first time you have delved into issues of identity in public. In your March interview with NPR’s public editor, you acknowledged a commitment “to making sure that we have Latino representation in our 2020 election coverage.” We are concerned, however, that your comments about focusing on a broader definition of “diversity” did not acknowledge NPR’s longstanding imbalance in news coverage that hasn’t given equal weight specifically to the perspectives and experiences of people of color.

Your words so far leave us feeling uncertain about the direction of this newsroom. 

In an effort to heal the damage, we ask that you:

Acknowledge the effects of your public comments about race coverage widely. We understand you’ve met with the staff of our race, identity and culture team in the wake of the remarks, but those sentiments demoralized people of color across desks and divisions. 

Provide specific justification for why you think that race coverage at NPR is “more lacking than we realized,” and that it needs to be more “disciplined.”

Hold an all-staff town hall to discuss the broader reorganization, jump-started with layoffs in August. An all-staff would avoid a clear problem that’s emerged in recent weeks — the staff struggling to understand where you want to go, based on quotes in the media. We seek a constructive conversation, focused on devoting institutional support and additional resources to race and identity coverage. 

Include and consult your own internal experts, the Code Switch team, along with others in the newsroom assigned and dedicated to the coverage of race and diversity. Robust and bold coverage does not come from closed-door meetings with a handful of people who do not spend their days immersed in these topics, or who lack the lived experience of being non-white. 

Make hiring Latinx people in editorial decision-making positions a priority. NPR’s newsroom has been largely ignoring the elephant in the room — the population growth of Latinx people, Afro-Latinx people and other minorities in the country. This is the story of our times. If NPR is truly committed to nuanced, network-wide coverage, it has to diversify its management and VP tier immediately. 

In solidarity,

Rund Abdelfatah, Host/Producer, Throughline 

Hannah Allam, Correspondent, National Desk

Sophia Alvarez Boyd, Production Assistant, Weekend Edition

Ramtin Arablouei, Host/Producer, Throughline

Tanya Ballard Brown, Digital Editor, National Desk

Karen Grigsby Bates, Senior Correspondent, Code Switch

Ryan Benk, Assistant Producer, Morning Edition

Tsering Bista, Video Producer, Video

Ashley Brown, Editor, Morning Edition

Christina Cala, Associate Producer, All Things Considered

Rodney Carmichael, Hip-Hop Writer, NPR Music

Rhitu Chatterjee, Correspondent, Health Desk

Korva Coleman, Anchor, Newscast

Felix Contreras, Host/Alt.Latino

Cheryl Corley, Correspondent, National Desk

Audie Cornish, Host, All Things Considered

Ben de la Cruz, Visuals Editor, Science Desk

Mandalit del Barco, Correspondent, Arts and Culture Desk

Gene Demby, Host/Correspondent Code Switch

Dustin DeSoto, Producer, WATC

Kumari Devarajan, Production Assistant, Code Switch

Leah Donnella, Assistant Editor, Code Switch

Tinbete Ermyas, Editor, Weekend All Things Considered 

Leila Fadel, Correspondent, National Desk

Adrian Florido, Reporter, Code Switch

Jason Fuller, Assistant Producer, Programming

Julia Furlan, Host/Reporter, Programming 

Cardiff Garcia, Host, Planet Money Indicator

Lulu Garcia-Navarro, Host, Weekend Edition Sunday 

Jenny Gathright, Assistant Producer, NPR One

Malaka Gharib, Deputy Editor and Digital Strategist, Global Health and Development

Denise Guerra, Production Assistant, Weekend Edition 

Maria Paz Gutierrez, Assistant Producer, Code Switch

Mito Habe-Evans, Supervising Producer, Video

Sydney Harper, News Assistant, Morning Edition and Up First

J.C. Howard, Production Assistant, Programming

Andrea Hsu, Senior Producer, All Things Considered 

Elise Hu, Host/Correspondent, Video

Patrick Jarenwattananon, Assistant Producer, Arts Desk

Kaivon Jones, Software Engineer, Digital Media

Kristen Kagei, Software Engineer, Digital Media

Diamond Kennedy, Production Assistant, News Operations

Irene Kim, Product Designer, Digital Media

Michael King, Assistant Producer, Programming 

Noel King, Host, Morning Edition and Up First

Candice Vo Kortkamp, Research, Archives & Data Strategy (RAD)

Jess Kung, News Assistant, Code Switch

Hazel Leung, Design Technologist, Digital Media

Erica Liao, Digital Analyst, Audience Insights

Andrew Limbong, Reporter, Arts Desk

Sidney Madden, Assistant Editor, NPR Music

Shereen Marisol Meraji, Host, Senior Producer, Code Switch

Lauren Migaki, Senior Producer, Education Desk

Jessica Millete, Graphic Designer, Development and Donor Communications

Suraya Mohamed, Producer, NPR Music

Diba Mohtasham, Production Assistant, TED Radio Hour

Dalia Mortada, Editor, Morning Edition

Yuki Noguchi, Correspondent, Business Desk

Maureen Pao, Producer, Digital News

Marisa Peñaloza, Senior Producer, National Desk

Eyder Peralta, Correspondent, International Desk

Maquita Peters, Digital Editor, Digital Content/News

Jeffrey Pierre, Assistant Producer, Education

Kiarra Powell, Production Assistant, Ask Me Another

Loren Pritchett, Director, Development/Donor Communications 

Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, Correspondent, International Desk

Rebecca Ramirez, Production Assistant, Short Wave

Ayesha Rascoe, White House Reporter, Washington Desk

CJ Riculan, Video Producer, Video

Vanessa Romo, Reporter, Newsdesk

Anjuli Sastry, Associate Producer, It’s Been A Minute

Gabriela Saldivia, Producer, NPR One

Sam Sanders, Correspondent and Host, It’s Been A Minute

Michael Seifollahi, Lead Mobile Engineer, Digital Media

Parth Shah, Associate Producer, Hidden Brain

Aarti Shahani, Silicon Valley Correspondent, Business Desk

Yowei Shaw, Senior Reporter/Producer, Invisibilia

Lakshmi Singh, Anchor, Newscast

Shay Stevens, Anchor, Newscast

Lindsay Totty, Associate Producer/Director, Morning Edition

Hansi Lo Wang, Correspondent, National Desk

Chloee Weiner, Production Assistant, Life Kit

Ashley Westerman, Producer I, Morning Edition

Trina Williams, Associate Producer, Newscast

Lawrence Wu, Production Assistant, Throughline

Mallory Yu, Associate Producer/Editor, All Things Considered

Barnes’ Thursday email response:

Hello all, 

Thank you for sharing your concerns with me; I want you to know that I take them seriously. I am out of the office next week, but I will set up a meeting as soon as I return and would welcome the opportunity to talk through these important issues with you.

Respectfully, 

Nancy

Barnes’ Friday response:

All —

Last week I attended a public radio conference, where I shared thoughts on a wide range of issues during a Q&A. At one point, in describing priorities, I talked about the importance of coverage of race relations and the culture wars. The coverage of racism, anti-Semitism and hate-driven violence consuming this country could not be more essential than it is today. For years, many journalists across NPR, including the Code Switch team, have produced groundbreaking journalism, well ahead of many other national organizations.

In my remarks however, I did not credit that work. What I intended to convey was that I was looking for more resources to augment this important work on a daily basis. I regret that I didn’t speak to what we’re already doing and have done in the past. I am grateful to the Code Switch team for the conversation we had this week, and I am looking forward to talking more with you as we design the direction of our coverage. 

Nancy

Friday NPR statement credited to Barnes below:

The coverage of racism, anti-Semitism and hate-driven violence consuming this country could not be more essential than it is today. For years, many journalists across NPR, including the Code Switch team, have produced groundbreaking journalism, well ahead of many other national organizations. In my remarks at a recent public radio conference, I shared some thoughts on how we will tackle critical issues, including race and racism. What I intended to convey was that I was looking for more resources to augment this important work on a daily basis. I regret that I didn’t speak to what we’re already doing and have done in the past. I am grateful to the Code Switch team for this week’s constructive conversation, and I am looking forward to talking more with our staff as we design the direction of our coverage.

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