Keynoting GW’s fourth annual Diversity Summit, The Atlantic staff writer said limited perspectives prevent newsrooms from doing their job.
By Ruth Steinhardt
Jemele Hill, a former reporter and anchor with ESPN and now a staff writer for The Atlantic, discussed voting, the purpose of journalism, the cultural context of sports and her own experience as an outspoken black female sportswriter Thursday at the George Washington University’s fourth annual Diversity Summit.
Introducing Ms. Hill, GW President Thomas J. LeBlanc said he had been “a big fan of hers for years” and “couldn’t believe it” when he found out she would visit GW. But more importantly, he said, he hoped her keynote—and the many Diversity Summit panels and events surrounding it—would be a safe space for critical conversations in a difficult historical moment.
“What we are witnessing is, in many places, a crisis of intolerance and ignorance, hateful rhetoric and horrific violence, that runs counter to the values we at GW seek to uphold every day” he said. “We stand for building a strong community in service of our shared service and mission…and we stand for treating others with courtesy, dignity and respect.”
Ms. Hill got into journalism “to find the truth and to tell stories,” she said, and many of the stories that interested her were in sports. Athletes and athletic narratives were often “at the forefront of certain societal issues before society caught up,” she said, citing as an example Jackie Robinson’s integration of Major League Baseball decades before the passage of the Civil Rights Act.
“Sports is always giving us the opportunity to become the society that we want to be—to have the things we thought our society should represent, being as close to a meritocracy as we thought we could get,” she said.
But sports journalism doesn’t always reflect society, she said, particularly as regards the racial and gender composition of newsrooms. As of 2017, just one in six newsroom employees is non-white. And in sports media, the numbers look even worse: 85 percent of sports editors are white, and 90 percent are male.
“I’m not sure that journalism today is equipped to cover some of the stories that have become so integral to our lives,” she said. “If you’re going to cover underrepresented communities, your newsroom should look a lot different.”
In order for journalists to effectively cover socially relevant stories across a variety of demographics, Ms. Hill said, they have to face two problems facing their own field. “One is our ability to tell the truth, which is being compromised on an hourly basis, and [the other is] our problems when it comes to diversity.”
The lack of diverse perspectives leads to flawed narratives, Ms. Hill said, like the implication that black athletes are physically predetermined for greatness or have merely “hit the genetic lottery” while white athletes are framed first as intellectual or hardworking. Black players’ intellectual achievements, like LeBron James’ photographic memory, are ignored.
That limited perspective also means members of the media struggle with “calling things what they are,” Ms. Hill said. Words like “white supremacist” and “Nazi sympathizer” rarely appear even in articles about people who espouse those views, she said.
“The whole basis of our profession is to tell the truth,” she said. “If we can’t tell the truth, we have not only lost our credibility, we have lost your trust. The bottom line is, you can’t serve the people and protect the establishment.”
Ms. Hill had been working at ESPN for 11 years as a columnist and anchor when she made national headlines in 2017. After a member of a white supremacist rally killed a protester in Charlottesville, Va., President Donald Trump blamed “many sides” for the violence. In response, Ms. Hill wrote on Twitter, “Donald Trump is a white supremacist who has largely surrounded himself w/ other white supremacists.” The Tweet drew an angry response from the White House and brought Ms. Hill to the hostile attention of right-wing harassers online.
But her social media use may have had graver, stranger consequences involving her rights as a citizen, Ms. Hill said. When she returned to her Florida residence, where she has voted since 2005, to vote early in this year’s midterms, Ms. Hill found that she had been removed from the rolls. Surprised, she filed a provisional ballot and asked her poll workers to investigate. Later, an apologetic call from the county supervisor of elections explained that her name had been flagged as potentially fraudulent—due to an Instagram post in which she discussed leaving Los Angeles and her support for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum.
“I found it to be…interesting that we’re now using Instagram posts to determine whether or not somebody is eligible to vote,” she said. “I do wonder, had I written a post where I said that I was supporting [Republican candidate] Ron DeSantis, if indeed I would have been kicked off the Florida voter rolls. My guess is no, and it brought into focus not only how much my life has changed….but exactly what’s at stake out here.”
Despite her struggles and the “glacial” pace of progress in media, however, Ms. Hill encouraged young people interested in the profession—especially women, particularly women of color—to be persistent.
“Despite what the newsroom looks like right now, I need you to stay in it,” she said. “We can’t afford to have stories told by people who don’t have the understanding or the bandwidth to tell those stories.”
And Ms. Hill admitted that, in spite of everything, she still has a starry-eyed view of what her field can achieve.
“Superman was a journalist,” she said. “There is a nobility about this profession that still means something, whether in the fictional world or the real world.”
Besides Ms. Hill’s keynote, the two-day summit also included 22 educational sessions and panels presented by GW students, faculty and staff on topics including bias, religion, faith, spirituality, disability awareness, sexuality and gender, mental health stigma and more.
“These sessions offered opportunities for students, faculty and staff to come together, dialogue and gain new information and—hopefully—the skills to build a stronger, more inclusive campus community,” said Helen Cannaday Saulny, associate provost for diversity, equity and community engagement.
A lunchtime panel Friday on academic freedom, hate speech and inclusion in the classroom was moderated by CNN reporter Devan Cole, B.A. ’18, and featured University of Georgia Professor Bettina Love, ACE Vice President of Research Lorelle Espinosa, Concerned Student 1950 founder Maxwell Little and Nadine Strossen, the first woman and youngest president of the ACLU.
“The discussion provided great insight and diverse perspectives about the tension around free expression, political polarization and inclusion in the classroom,” Ms. Saulny said.
At the closing session, award-winning poets and educators Anthony “Tony” R. Keith, Jr., and Crystal Leigh Endsley, assistant professor of Africana Studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, discussed the intersection of poetry and the academy and performed several spoken world pieces and poems. (William Atkins/GW Today)