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How one NPR host is changing the way we hear the news

For Lulu Garcia-Navarro, improving gender and racial diversity on the radio sometimes involves “retraining” the audience.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro, host of NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday
Lulu Garcia-Navarro, host of NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday.
Stephen Voss for NPR
Anna North is a senior correspondent for Vox, where she covers American family life, work, and education. Previously, she was an editor and writer at the New York Times. She is also the author of three novels, including the New York Times bestseller Outlawed.

A thousand journalists lost their jobs in January.

The news of layoffs at BuzzFeed, HuffPost, Gannett newspapers, and elsewhere roiled the media industry. But job losses in journalism affect not just the reporters, editors, photographers, and producers who make the news, but also the people who consume it — and Lulu Garcia-Navarro, the host of NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday, has spent a lot of time thinking about both sides.

In a period of uncertainty for the media, Garcia-Navarro has emerged as an important commentator on both the economics of the industry and the importance of representing people whose stories have historically been ignored.

A longtime foreign correspondent who spent most of her career in the Middle East and Latin America, she took over Weekend Edition Sunday two years ago, and began trying to, as she puts it, “bring the outside in” — her goal is to put more people on the air who have direct experience with the issues she’s covering, whether that’s a Midwestern farmer or a recent immigrant from Nigeria.

As newspapers and websites cut jobs, representation can suffer. Journalists of color have been disproportionately affected by layoffs in recent years, according to Courtland Milloy of the Washington Post — between 1997 and 2013, the number of black newspaper journalists around the country dropped 40 percent, compared to a 34 percent drop among white journalists. More recently, those laid off at BuzzFeed included many journalists of color.

For Garcia-Navarro, representation of people of color and women is an “existential” issue for media — something that’s necessary for media outlets to survive. But even in the #MeToo era, which has brought greater attention to the importance of gender equity, “we’re not there yet,” she says.

I spoke to Garcia-Navarro by phone about how she approaches representation on her show, what newsrooms need to do to fight harassment in the #MeToo era, and how individual consumers can influence the news ecosystem for the better. Our conversation has been condensed and edited.

Anna North

You recently tweeted that media layoffs aren’t about the economy. What do you think they are about?

Lulu Garcia-Navarro

Let me preface this by saying I’m not a media analyst. I’m just a member of the media.

First, I’ll say that broadcast has been pretty stable. We tend to forget that when we’re talking about the media writ large.

Leaving that aside, obviously there’s a huge problem that we’re having right now in terms of employment. And I think it comes down to a bunch of different things. First of all, we’re seeing local news being decimated, and that is having a real effect, as studies have shown, on our democracy.

But there was this sense that the digital space was going to sort of open up and we were going to have this brand new way of doing our jobs. And it was really exciting, I think, for a lot of us in the media space.

I saw so many talented reporters at BuzzFeed; they were hiring great people, they still have great people. And so I think it was a blow to see all these newsrooms sort of be decimated off the back of their readjustments.

Leaving aside the digital space for a moment, I think it’s great that the New York Times is doing great. It’s great that the Washington Post is doing great. I think that is not the sign of a healthy ecosystem. We’re seeing a system that is becoming the haves and the have-nots of journalism, where you have a lot of money and resources and name recognition going to a few premier brands and everything else sort of falling by the wayside.

Anna North

A lot of people have pointed out that women, people of color, and people who are underrepresented in general can be disproportionately affected by media layoffs. What do you think about that issue?

Lulu Garcia-Navarro

We need to rethink the way we talk about representation in media. The way I like to discuss it is people getting on the air who have direct experience of what it is that they’re talking about. We’ve become so accustomed to the pundit class just glibly talking about everything under the sun. Those are opinions, but they’re often not informed by direct experience.

If we bring people on who can actually speak to the subject at hand because they have experienced something directly relevant to the conversation, I think we naturally widen the field of the voices that we hear. If it’s a farmer in the Midwest or a person who has immigrated from Nigeria, they’re both going to be speaking to their direct experience.

One of the things I’ve really tried to do on my show is try and retrain the audience about what to expect. For so long, we’ve been taught that a certain type of person has authority, and that person has to speak in a certain way; they have to have a certain pedigree, a certain background. And that’s because that’s all we’ve been given.

I’ve been really intentional on trying to get gender parity on the show, getting different voices on the show. And we track that. And it’s about trying to move away from this very static idea of who should be telling us the news, and trying to amplify people with stories to tell who will expand our understanding of an issue.

The feedback from the listeners, often it’s uncomfortable because they are used to getting information in a certain way and from a certain group of people. And so it’s about expanding that audience.

Anna North

It’s interesting that you mention retraining the audience. How does that work? And how does that dovetail with expanding and building a new audience?

Lulu Garcia-Navarro

We’re kind of in a living experiment, right? We’re in a particular moment where all of a sudden we’re having these conversations in a way that I don’t think we’ve had them before. The #MeToo movement ushered in a lot of discussion about representation that had been living out there for a long time. There has always been this discussion about diversity and women’s voices. But I don’t think there was a really effective or concerted effort to really think about who has power, who doesn’t have power, what voices do we hear, why do we gravitate toward certain voices, what are our own internal biases.

When I say retrain the audience, I simply mean that it takes time for people to get used to hearing different kinds of people.

I remember in the UK, the BBC went through a huge transformation about accents in the early ’90s. When I worked for the BBC, I had to take elocution lessons so I would sound less American. There was this real sense that you had to sound a certain way because that was the BBC brand and that was what conferred your authority.

And I think that they opened up and said, well, that means that you can’t have an accent from Cornwall, and that means you can’t have an East London accent — does that mean that you’re not a person with brains and smarts? Why do those accents confer authority?

That debate is a microcosm of a wider debate about all sorts of different things: regional accents, accents to do with your race and ethnicity, and the kinds of perspectives that you’re bringing to the table.

That’s the conversation that at least I, and certainly I know people here at NPR, are trying to bring to the table, which is let’s widen out, let’s talk to as many people as we can, let’s try and bring the outside in. I spent all of my career outside, talking to people, going to where the stories are. And I find myself now sitting in a studio, and I’m like, how do I bring those voices here?

Anna North

You mentioned the #MeToo movement. I’ve been curious about whether we will see systemic changes in workplaces and in industries as a result of that movement, beyond individual people getting fired. Do you feel like we are seeing those systemic changes in the media yet?

Lulu Garcia-Navarro

We get tweets saying, why are there so many women on your show? Have you become women’s hour? Or if I have one Latino story, it’s like, oh, are you Latino USA? Not to say that one email or one reaction is indicative of a wider sense of things, but I think that we are not used to hearing what gender parity sounds like.

And so I just feel like, no, we’re not there yet. And I don’t think we’re close to being there yet. And I think the minute that we say we are, then I think there is a natural — you become complacent.

Anna North

Looking specifically at the issues of harassment and sexual misconduct — NPR has dealt with this, Vox Media has dealt with this, a ton of media outlets have dealt with this. What do you think news outlets need to do to make sure that their employees are safe?

Lulu Garcia-Navarro

I think women need to feel that their voices are heard. I think you need pay equity. I think you need to make sure that managers are trained to recognize their own biases.

The thing I have seen in my limited scope that’s worked the best is that you have buy-in from every single level that this is something that has to happen. That this isn’t just lip service. We’re not just doing this because we’ve had a bad news cycle; it is about being moral and fair and good. And it makes us better journalists and it makes us a better news organization.

And for me personally and just in my role, I just feel like you need to talk about it. You just need to talk about it all the time and be open to having really uncomfortable conversations.

Anna North

What advice do you have, if any, for people who are considering journalism today? I’m thinking specifically of the people you talked about who might feel that their voices have been on the outside or haven’t been included.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro

I talk a lot to students. I think the young people I have seen are very excited and into it. And I would say that this is an important time to come in. I think the door has never been more open if you come from communities that traditionally are not the communities that the media brings in.

It’s no longer like, “Oh, wouldn’t it be great if we had people of color,” or, “Oh, wouldn’t it be great if we had more women?” It is actually existential now for the media. And I think they have recognized that. Because we can no longer just pretend that the changes that are happening in wider society don’t affect and influence us. We have to reflect that.

Anna North

What advice do you have for readers, listeners, and consumers of media in this particular moment in time?

Lulu Garcia-Navarro

I love talking about this. What I would tell people consuming media is that you may not realize it, but you are an editor. Every single decision you make through social media, when you click on a story and you decide to share it, or you like somebody or you follow somebody, you are making these editorial decisions, and you have to assume the responsibility for that. You can no longer be a passive receptacle for the news. You make decisions that frame how things are being reported, that frame people’s understanding, because we in the media no longer control the platforms where this stuff is delivered.

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram — they are the people that control the way we deliver the news in many ways. And then on the other side, there’s the actual consumer who’s making decisions about what news they choose to consume. And so everyone needs to take responsibility for the content they read and the content they share.

So what I would say is be discerning. Support good journalism. Make sure the journalism and the stuff that you’re sharing is actually from credible news sources. And if you can afford it, make sure that you pay for your news.