Equitable Representation in Media
Creating Systems to Uplift BIPOC Voices & Talents
Our award-winning work within the food & beverage media industry was guided by these two overarching questions:
How can media better present BIPOC cultures and foodways without tokenizing or appropriating them?
How can media organizations implement systems-based change to build equitable processes to represent BIPOC food cultures and treat BIPOC contributors in a respectful manner?
Food media in the U.S. — or, media organizations that specifically cover the food (and relatedly, the beverage, health/wellness, and hospitality) industries — is, and has always been, overwhelmingly white. Most media organizations continue to be headed by almost all-white leadership teams, and their coverage often takes a white, affluent (upper-middle-class), suburban, heteronormative, female perspective on food — the assumed 'typical' consumer.
How food is represented in mainstream media has important implications beyond just cooking or eating. Food is inherently political, and can be a source of power, freedom, or deprivation depending on the context. How BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) food cultures are written or discussed, holds far-reaching implications for the people behind these foods. For example, only featuring "ethnic" (non-white) restaurants in the Cheap Eats section of a food publication furthers stereotypes about worthiness and pay equity for BIPOC workers; the systematic erasure of Indigenous genocide behind the family-friendly image of Thanksgiving undermines the ongoing fight for Indigenous food and land sovereignty; the proliferation of the racism-tinged coverage of ingredients from MSG to palm oil emboldens problematic stereotypes. In all, whiteness is upheld as the ultimate arbiter of goodness.
Before, throughout, and after media's "reckoning" in 2020, food-focused publications have attempted to diversify their white-centric viewpoints. Some have published BIPOC-authored personal essays; others covered new global ideas in food. However, many of these actions are performative in nature and continue to cause harm to the BIPOC food industry professionals and consumers. In particular, the tokenism of BIPOC to deflect criticism has remained a major obstacle to true accountability. Additionally, as media puts renewed energy towards DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) efforts, many difficult changes still lack commitment from senior leadership teams, and are not rooted in the necessary systems to ensure long-term implementation.
"Consumers do not produce these flattened, generic [ideas about food] in a vacuum. It’s a result of centuries of blurring and erasure of geographic, historical, and cultural nuance, socialized into an idea that 'other' places are more homogenous and less important."
in early 2020, we gathered a group of food media professionals via our Experimental Salons small-group discussion model to understand the obstacles they face when it came to equitable representation. Our participants ranged from freelance writers and video producers, to podcast hosts and editorial staffers. Our goal was to gather a diverse cross-section of the food media industry that often does not have their voices heard in editorial boardrooms.
BIPOC-centric foods and foodways shine only as “trends”, or novelties that require additional explanation because they are different from the “status quo”
BIPOC food professionals (writers, chefs, makers, etc.) are pitted against each other, vying for limited opportunities to be featured. The few who "make it" are too often made to be tokens — standing in for entire countries or cultures
BIPOC writers are expected to cover stories about their background/ethnicity, regardless of familiarity or interest
BIPOC food stories can be styled in ways that are misleading and prop up a white perspective. Ingredients or accompaniments may be added that would usually not appear; people, objects, even patterns may be utilized as racialized concepts
The complete Toolkit for Recognizing, Disrupting, and Preventing Tokenism in Food Media is available here, complete with definitions of tokenism and individual solutions that gatekeepers and new media professionals alike can adopt.
After our first toolkit, we realized that our initial solutions focused primarily on the individual. While we were excited to see our solutions adopted by leaders everywhere, we realized that what the food media industry lacked were systems and processes that can sustainably build equitable representation. Thus, we convened another series of Accountability Salons with senior-level editors and leaders at food media publications to understand the challenges (and successes) they faced during the implementation of DEI initiatives at their respective publications. Below are some high-level considerations:
Create Processes, Not Just Metrics. When DEI work becomes a series of numerical targets or one-off goals, the onus falls onto a few people instead of becoming fully integrated into the company’s regular operations. In lieu of this, organizations need to create processes and thorough documentation (e.g. handbooks, playbooks).
Create Transparency into Power & Capital. It’s difficult to empower change agents and hold people accountable without insight into who has what forms of power, including budgeting power.
Systematize Care and Conflict Mediation. So many DEI-related problems come from a culture of fear; staffers and contributors with less seniority, proximity, or general power are not able to voice their thoughts upward and across, perpetuating cycles without inclusion.
Encourage Long-Term Financial Integration, Not Just Budgeting. DEI can no longer be a checklist it needs to be integrated into an organization, whether in the form of an ERG's operational budget, budget for longer timelines, compensation for sensitivity reviews or other defense mechanisms, etc.
Dive into our Toolkit for Implementing Systematic Changes Towards Equitable Representation in Food Media Companies to learn how these considerations translate to solutions that relate to Editorial, Art, and HR teams, among others.
Pt. 3 Practicing Accountability
In addition to our two toolkits, we followed two media publications — The Kitchn and Well+Good — across the span of a year to document their ongoing DEI efforts as it pertained to their content as well as their internal (and freelance) staff members. These two white papers gave clear, specific details of each publications' successes and challenges faced, with step-by-step actions that other media companies grappling with the same issues can readily utilize. Read the resulting white papers below.
We also launched a year-long series of Accountability Salons with editors across 10+ media publications to capture their journey of implementing the initial suggestions in our first toolkit. These learnings were detailed in our second toolkit above.
"The Studio ATAO toolkits contain real life, actionable advice that is applicable to the day-to-day work of writers, editors, social and video folks, and managers and leaders. They are required reading for our staff when onboarding, and we've included them as essential resources in our DE&I work."
"Working with Studio ATAO on our whitepaper was a great learning experience for me. As an HR professional who is always tackling new DEI iniatives, I found it incredibly helpful to have their team not only as a resource but to hold us accountable for the things we set out to do last year."
VP People Operations, Apartment Therapy Media
In addition to our Salons, we also hosted public Town Halls (loosely based on legislative Town Halls) open to anyone in or interested in the food, beverage, and hospitality industries to interface with, and provide real-time feedback to, editorial leadership on issues surrounding equitable representation in media. We believe that creating proactive scenarios for this type of open discourse is instrumental in disrupting the cycle of gatekeeping within media that has led to many of today's problems.
In order to build on the momentum and engagement we saw from our toolkits, we also hosted group learning opportunities, such as our panel discussions Tokenism in Media: A Case Study In Food and Conversations About Appropriation series (collectively amassing over 1,000+ signups!), and Instagram Live sessions with our white paper stakeholders.
"Studio ATAO’s Accountability Salons have been a tremendous resource for me. They’ve provided a judgement-free space to talk through obstacles—big and small—facing food media, and our group was able to identify real steps—big and small—to create a more inclusive and diverse industry."
Deputy Editor, Bon Appétit
"It was empowering to talk freely and directly to editors about how they can and should do better in addressing the overwhelming whiteness of food media. Meeting other creatives who care about this issue, and brainstorming solutions with them, felt important and necessary. "
Freelance Writer & Editor, Town Hall Participant
Even after years of research, Experimental Salons, and events, our work advocating for equitable representation in the media industry is far from over. In addition to creating infrastructure for our Salon participants to support one another and continue their conversations independently, we are continually updating our two toolkits with new learnings from our networks; providing social justice resources for the industry, hosting more town halls and group learning events; publishing newsletters on related topics within food, beverage, and hospitality; and incorporating media into our upcoming initiatives.
In particular, we see our 2022 initiative, The Neighborhood's Table, as an opportunity to positively involve media organizations in reshaping how we write and talk about the concept of gentrification as it pertains to the hospitality industry. One of our main deliverables will be a publicly available rubric for journalists and award organizations to evaluate hospitality businesses on community investment before coverage.
Using the foundation from our past work, we also work privately with media organizations to host internal seminars and workshops, as well as long-term projects to create new company-wide guidelines, milestones, and documentation on equity for both people and content.
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