The Communication and Media Undergraduate Research Fellows, with support from the Judith Reinhart Thoyer Fund, hosted the first part of a two-day virtual symposium on journalism in the digital era Monday evening. Monday’s conference featured a panel of female professional journalists to discuss the symposium’s theme, “Unmuted: Discussions with diverse voices on journalism in a digital era.”

Monday’s panel included Alissa Figueroa, senior editor and producer at Type Investigations; Pavni Mittal, producer and reporter for PBS Newshour Weekend, CNN International and NBC’s “Nightline with Lester Holt”; Jenn Schanz, reporter at 7 Action News (WXYZ Detroit); and Robin Murdoch, a reporter at Fox 2 News (Detroit).

In an interview with The Daily, University alum Benjamin Pearson, fellows program coordinator, said the conference is a culmination of a year-long project put together by the fellows.

“It’s really a mix of the students’ interests,” Pearson said. “They selected most of the speakers and reached out to them on their own. In previous years, the symposium has focused on print journalism, but because of the interest of the fellows this year … it’s dedicated to digital journalism.”

LSA senior Rachel Van Gelder, one of the fellows, said in an interview with The Daily before the event that planning the conference was a way to give back to the department and connect with professionals in the journalism field. Van Gelder also said the event was a way to discuss diversity, which she said is a pressing issue in the journalism world.

“I just wanted to give back to the department because I’ve enjoyed communications and media so much,” Van Gelder said. “I also wanted to, especially in a virtual setting, connect with other students in communications and media … and talk about an issue that we all think is important. I think that it is really important to talk about more diverse voices that are not often given the attention they deserve.”

The conference focused on several points that emphasized the theme, including the impact of social media on diversity considerations. Mittal, originally from New Delhi, India, explained how journalism has changed in two major ways in recent years: by journalists introducing new technologies and advocating for greater diversity within newsrooms. 

 “The two big things that I’ve really seen in terms of journalism, and I think they both feed into each other, is technological advancement and how newsrooms have become more open to different ways of storytelling,” Mittal said. “There’s one piece that really sticks with me and that’s a Ted Talk by Chimamanda Adiche, ‘The Danger of a Single Story.’ She talked about how having one kind of person or one kind of narrative about certain people and certain issues is a big disservice … we are in the business of shaping perceptions, and we are at a time when people are open to a lot more different perspectives.”

Mittal also shared the struggles she faced early in her career navigating the lack of diversity in American newsrooms.

“The insolent nature of the American newsroom really became more apparent when I would meet people … there was a lack of understanding,” Mittal said. “I got very strange questions like ‘Who are you?’ and ‘Where is New Dehli?’ and I was like ‘Oh my God, this is a bit of a shock.’”

In contrast, Schanz discussed  how social media and an increase in digital journalism can sometimes take away from accurate and nuanced coverage.

“I see instances of that newsroom culture not effectively pushing against that desire to shape the narrative (for the readers),” Schanz said. “I really started to think about how this tool (social media) is being used in the capacity of storytelling. I think that is a conversation that is even more essential to have when we are talking more about journalism in a digital age … think about the videos that go viral the quickest. They aren’t always contextualized, (and) an important skill as a journalist is to decipher what is clickbait and what is essential storytelling.”

Following the speakers, the conference opened up to the audience for questions. The conversation shifted to the role of women in journalism, specifically the challenges female-identifying journalists face.

“There have been challenges as a woman in this field,” Schanz said. “I think particularly, as a younger woman in this field … there’s a desire to want to be really friendly and to reach people where they’re at and to respond to every message and to be available. But you will get weird requests, and I have gotten weird requests. My advice would be that you never need to feel sad or embarrassed to not respond to something that makes you uncomfortable.”

Figueroa said women who have “public-facing” roles, such as news anchors, have different experiences than those who work in producing or editing like she does.

“I think the folks who are public facing … (have) a totally different experience,” Figueroa said. “That kind of public facing role and what women experience in that role I think in the last four years … is a digital kind of harassment. That’s something that should for sure be taken seriously. But I do think that the culture within newsrooms has changed a lot … it’s only because of the younger generation of women who are speaking out because people who dealt with this everyday before us, didn’t because they were just lucky to be there.”  

Toward the end of the event, Mittal said she is anxious to see how digital journalism will continue to shape the industry in the future.

“I think we’re in a time of big cultural awakening,” Mittal said. “I think what media companies are going to be grappling with is also just the physical way in which we do journalism. I think work from home sets up the ability to do Zoom interviews and things like that. I think that’s going to change a lot of things. And of course, I just think that there’s a lot of conversation in newsrooms …  about how to diversify our own newsrooms and our stories. What I think is going to be really interesting to see is some really serious questions being asked and people actually demanding answers to how things have been run and how things should and will be run in the future.”

Daily Staff Reporter Lara Janosz can be reached at ljanosz@umich.edu

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