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As It Stands

Student stories and a tumultuous summer reveal a culture of exclusion and discrimination in journalism education and in the profession itself

As It Stands

Student stories and a tumultuous summer reveal a culture of exclusion and discrimination in journalism education and in the profession itself

A photo of the Cronkite School in Phoenix, Arizona. Home of Arizona State University's Journalism program.
Photos by Noah Glynn

The data could not show the time her professor made light of Black Lives Matter in front of an entire class. 

The data could not show the time her professor insinuated Indigenous communities were not worth covering. 

The data could not show the many times they saw their white peers score higher on their writing assignments in their first reporting classes. 

The data could not show the air of displacement students of color feel within a predominantly white institution. 

In the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, some say reliance on outdated principles has created a hostile environment for students from marginalized communities. 

So when Rosaura Wardsworth, a recent graduate of Cronkite, started her master's thesis, she knew it had to say what the numbers could not. 

"None of these stories were making it into the data," Wardsworth said. "If you don't hear why they're not enjoying (Cronkite), if you don't feel it like they're feeling it, it makes it harder to make change."

Wardsworth's project, entitled "I, Too Am Cronkite," gave voice to the all-too-often-unheard voices of BIPOC student journalists. 

In a series of podcasts, Wardsworth sat down and discussed the experiences of four undergraduate students: Susan Wong, president of ASU's chapter of the Asian American Journalists Association; Kiarra Spottsville, president of ASU's National Association of Black Journalists; Noah Huerta, president of ASU's Native American Journalists Association; and Marco Peralta, president of ASU's National Association for Hispanic Journalists.

And she did so while keeping specific context in mind. 

Against the backdrop of last summer's revival of the national Black Lives Matter movement after the murder of George Floyd, students across and adjacent to the Cronkite School followed multiple controversies on social media this summer. 

Sonya Duhé

One tweet in particular peeled back another layer of conflict at Cronkite School, and at other journalism institutions across the U.S. 

Sonya Duhé, the then-incoming dean at the Cronkite School, tweeted from her personal account, "For the family of George Floyd, the good police officers who keep us safe, my students, faculty and staff. Praying for peace on this #BlackOutTuesday."

Duhé, previously the director of the School of Communication and Design at Loyola University New Orleans, saw near-immediate backlash from both her future and former student body. 

Whitney Woods, a Loyola alumna and former student of Duhé's, replied to Duhé's tweet with a thread — and a damning one at that. 

She wrote in her initial tweet, "There is no way in HELL that BLACK LIVES matter to you." She continued, "You are one of, if not, THE most racist human that I have ever encountered in a professional setting."

In the next seven tweets, Woods listed multiple occasions where Duhé made racist comments both in and out of the classroom. She specifically recalled Duhé calling her natural hair "messy" and "inappropriate for on-air."

Woods filed six complaints with human resources against Duhé, but saw no change in her time at Loyola.  

And beyond Woods's tweets, Loyola's student-run publication The Maroon and The State Press compiled stories from 23 students who complained about similar comments regarding appearances, each marked by racist or homophobic undertones. 

A petition not to confirm Duhé's position circulated on Twitter, garnering over 4,000 signatures. Faculty members at Cronkite also signed and sent a letter raising heavy questions about Duhé's ability to lead. 

Duhé's job offer was rescinded by the Cronkite School shortly after, but the near-miss floated around the Cronkite sphere with some heavy sense of reckoning.  

Kristin Gilger, former assistant and associate dean, was named interim dean shortly after.

Renewed Argument for Objectivity vs. Identity

Last summer's string of events revealed more than a few missteps by administrators. What shone through was a commonplace culture in journalism schools, and journalism in general. One driven by a news ethic considered outdated by many. 

"It did prompt us to take a look at the whole culture of the school," Gilger said. 

The Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics, considered a cornerstone of journalism itself nearly universally in the United States, previously placed a heavy emphasis on objectivity.

The emphasis seemed to stick even after SPJ revised the code in 1996. It is now widely taught in journalism schools that reporting, and by proxy, the reporter must first and foremost be objective and unbiased.

Though this is still a driving factor in the reporting and writing process, it is now coming into conflict with another undeniable aspect of journalism: the identity and experiences of the reporter. 

Sharon Bramlett-Solomon, an associate professor at the Cronkite School, veteran journalist and scholar of race, gender and society issues, believes there is plenty of room for both as long as there is balance. 

"As journalists, we cut our teeth on understanding that we should be neutral, unattached to a story, not partisan, not biased," Bramlett-Solomon said. "However, we also know that it is impossible not to be subjective in reporting because you see through your own eyes."

The argument for a balance between identity and objectivity was widely borne through the experience of journalists of color in newsrooms across the country. And it only grew more intense amid the Black Lives Matter demonstrations across the country. 

Journalists covering protests found themselves a part of the news as they were pepper sprayed, shot at and physically assaulted by police. 

"Black journalists and other journalists of color were immersed in the news story," Bramlett-Solomon said. "I'm going to report something different if I'm just writing down the facts compared to if I was beat down by a police officer and taken to jail."

Forbes reported the summer resulted in over 328 press freedom violations. There were 208 documented assaults on reporters with 47 journalists physically attacked by police and 83 hit by rubber bullets or projectiles. 

"When you become part of the news, you most certainly can see that you have to relinquish the idea of trying to be neutral or unbiased because you're hiding what you experience," Bramlett-Solomon said.   

Intersection with Social Media

This issue also crossed over into social media as it persisted as a home to many modes of activism and journalism. 

During the height of the civil unrest, the Black Lives Matter hashtag was tweeted an average of 3.7 million times per day according to Pew Research Center. 

Journalists participated too, against an old head school of thought. For those doused in traditional journalism ethics, this advocacy on social media seemed to run counter to journalism itself. 

Multiple journalism schools across the country implement social media policies warding students against sharing anything they deem partisan.

In the Cronkite School social media guidelines, the school implores students to avoid expressing anything political online, and to "recognize even hashtags can imply support" and to "take care to avoid those instances."

Student journalists took stances against injustices this summer anyway, even against the very real and looming threat of disciplinary action from the school.

When Wardsworth chose the students for her project, she made sure to choose those who refused to sit idly by in both the Black Lives Matter movement and Duhé's shocking, but somehow oh so predictable, exposé.

"To me, that's what a real journalist is, standing up for those who can't stand up for themselves," Wardsworth said. "So I knew I wanted to interview those four students."

The Cronkite School launched the Cronkite experience initiative in early July. Gilger announced the project, asking for "thoughts about how journalism is practiced both at the school and in the profession, and ideas for ways we can be a more inclusive community," in an email to students.  

According to Gilger and Vanessa Ruiz, the inaugural director for diversity initiatives and community engagement, the school heard from students, alumni and current and former faculty and staff immediately. 

"It came to things such as harassment or discrimination and leadership quickly recognized that there are areas that needed to be immediately tackled," Ruiz said. 

The Next Steps

Some problems saw immediate action. The school created Ruiz's diversity director position and changed the Must-See Mondays schedule to include a heavy focus on diversity and inclusion. 

Another major focus was the hiring of a new dean for the school. In the search for a new candidate, leadership is requiring a diversity statement, and receiving training on how exactly to best approach hiring. 

Other issues, however, would take more time. 

The plan for the Cronkite Initiative was to hold listening sessions, form working groups and hopefully address problems like negative student experience, skewed curriculum and low retention and recruitment rates among faculty and staff of color.

Wardsworth took part in a working group looking to address retention rates among students of color, and a lack of diverse faculty and staff.

It was in the working groups where Wardsworth heard the stories of her peers. She also recognized agents for change.

The main objective of Wardsworth's thesis project was to give students a space to speak truth to their experiences. Within the working group and with her thesis, she hopes to enact wider change at the school.

All of the proposals and ideas from the working groups just recently landed on Gilger's desk, with their topics ranging from faculty cohesion to curriculum. 

Overall, the project is a work in progress, but Gilger sees that as a strength, not a weakness. 

"There's a temptation to rush this process and announce a whole bunch of stuff that you're doing and then sort of lose momentum," Gilger said. "It's better to do this seriously, and deliberately and thoroughly. We may not be doing 22 things at once, but we'll be doing things that we think will be most impactful."

Until then, students are waiting. 

Wardsworth said she expects transparency from administration throughout the process.

"We want dates. We want actionable items. We want transparency," Wardsworth said. "I want to be able to say I'm proud of Cronkite. I want to be able to say this is what's changing next year, this is what's changing three years from now."

In the meantime, Wardsworth hopes to continue to provide some type of life raft to journalists of color, especially those in training. 

"Even if things within universities are not going to change very quickly, there's still students of color entering the journalism field," Wardsworth said. "I want them to know, you're not alone."

Reach the reporter at or follow @kiera_riley on Twitter.

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Kiera RileyMagazine Managing Editor

Kiera Riley is a managing editor at State Press Magazine. She also interns at the politics desk for the Arizona Republic

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