Toolkit for Implementing Systematic Changes Towards Equitable Representation in Food Media Companies
Last Updated: July 23, 2021
Written By: Jenny Dorsey, Edric Huang
Edited By: Emily Chen, Osayi Endolyn, Priya Krishna, Karen Kumaki, Ximena N. Larkin, Korsha Wilson
This document is meant to be a resource for food media companies committed to remedying imbalanced systems of power and representation within their organization. This toolkit addresses both equitable representation within external-facing content and the need for internal pathways to leadership for folks with marginalized identities.
This toolkit builds off the learnings of our Toolkit for Recognizing, Disrupting, and Preventing Tokenization in Food Media.
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Table of Contents
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Ways to resist the white gaze and encourage inclusive storytelling
Ways to cultivate more pathways toward power for those with marginalized identities
Considerations for sustainable, long-term, industry-wide solutions for achieving equity
The Genesis of This Document
Studio ATAO is a 501(c)3 nonprofit community think tank that creates tools and resources to empower individuals and organizations to integrate social impact in their everyday lives. For organizations and policy centers, we synthesize insights from the communities most impacted by social, organizational, and political challenges into publicly available toolkits and resources that can be used to implement action-oriented change toward equity.
This toolkit was compiled by Studio ATAO using learnings from small, facilitated discussions we call Experimental Salons, bi-monthly accountability groups, 1:1 interviews, and industry town halls over the course of 2020 and 2021.
The central question we posed for the events that contributed to this document was: How Can Food Media Organizations Implement Programs of Change to Combat Tokenization and Move Towards More Equitable Representation?
As defined by Merriam Webster, tokenization is: the policy or practice of making only a symbolic effort (as to desegregate).
To us, equity is the reallocation or redistribution of power, opportunities, and resources that adjusts and corrects for current and historical injustices. We were particularly drawn to the following definitions:
“Developing, strengthening, and supporting policies and procedures that distribute and prioritize resources to those who have been historically and currently marginalized, including tribes. Equity requires the elimination of systemic barriers that have been deeply entrenched in systems of inequality and oppression. Equity achieves procedural and outcome fairness, promoting dignity, honor, and respect for all people.” (Equity Office Task Force - Washington)
“Equity as an outcome: when everyone has full access to the opportunities, power, and resources they need to flourish and achieve their full potential. Equity as a process: centering those who are most marginalized in the context.” (Center for Social Inclusion)
For the Experimental Salons and bi-monthly accountability groups, participants occupied editorial positions across a wide range of food media organizations, with insight into both external content strategy and internal policy. Our goals for these sessions were to:
Candidly discuss what challenges each person is facing when addressing equitable representation within their organization
Unpack the details of internal structures that need to be changed, so that change becomes integrated into the organization instead of relying on one or few people
Cultivate group accountability to spearhead long-term commitments to better representation within their respective organizations
This free resource is the result of tremendous emotional labor from all parties involved. We hope you will find it useful in your work and encourage you to disseminate this toolkit widely in your circles. If you would like to reference this during industry conversations or events, please provide a backlink to the original document to provide full context and credit Studio ATAO.
This is a living, evolving document as we continue to learn from each other and the industry at large. We will include more quotes and learnings as we host more Salons and town halls on this topic. If you have additional insights and suggestions on ways we can improve this document, we want to hear from you at email@example.com.
We are also concurrently working on two public whitepapers that document the step-by-step process of change at The Kitchn and Well+Good over the course of 2021 as they commit to a DEI overhaul. With these whitepapers, we hope to provide a comprehensive framework of change for other media organizations to implement. You can stay updated on that via our Resources Library.
Finally, if you have found this useful and are interested in supporting us and our future endeavors so we can continue to bring content like this to everyone for free, please consider backing us on Patreon or sending us a one-time donation via GiveLively.
Introduction: Food Media’s 2020 “Reckoning”
Some have referred to 2020 as a time of “reckoning” within the food media industry. After the murder of George Floyd prompted the largest movement in U.S. history with the Black Lives Matter protests, food media outlets small and large released public statements denouncing racism and promising to stand in solidarity with BIPOC. Many were immediately criticized for the performative nature of these words, as discrimination remained rampant within the organizations themselves. Most notably, Bon Appetit Magazine came under fire for a culture of toxicity and pay discrimination against BIPOC employees, leading to a public dissolution of the existing Test Kitchen team and the departure of long-time Editor-in-Chief Adam Rapoport.
Since then, food media organizations have rallied around new goals of diversity, equity, and inclusion, such as crediting recipe sources, distributing open calls for pitches from BIPOC writers, creating diversity task forces, and greenlighting more “political” food content. However, a great deal of this change has fallen on individuals within each organization, without programmatic, systematic, and institutional processes that align organizational goals with DEI initiatives.
Still untouched is the necessary unraveling of incentivization and revenue structures that reward discriminatory practices and systemically limit BIPOC access and power. To date, most national food media outlets have almost-exclusively white leadership teams; only a small handful of exceptions exist, typically as independent publications like Whetstone Magazine, LA Taco, Peddler Journal, and For the Culture Magazine.
Ultimately, our intention with this toolkit is to:
Identify common challenges food media organizations face in their ongoing efforts to move toward a more sustainably equitable future.
Offer potential ideas for systematic overhaul of existing organizational structures, drawing from the ideas of Salon participants, public event panelists and guests, and individuals within the food media industry.
We have divided these challenges and opportunities into three main arcs: content, people, and organizational change. The organizational change section proposes larger processes and frameworks to build across the industry, such that the changes in the Content and People sections are not one-off forms of reactionary crisis management but steps toward sustainable change management. We hope that these sections offer enough detail for short-term execution, long-term implementation, and immediate action.
1/ Reevaluating Analytics
For digital publications, analytics often drive content decisions. Traditionally, content success is defined through the quantity of engagement: page views, link clicks, and social shares. As one participant at a digital-only publication said: “We are traffic obsessive...so it’s easy to go into muscle memory and ‘play the hits’.” In fact, as the readership at most major publications has largely skewed white, using analytics to drive engagement encourages a continuous stream of white-centric and apolitical food content — in other words, the hits. It also encourages companies to build content based on popular keywords, which are typically already biased and/or eurocentric. A vicious cycle begins: more white-centered content draws in more white readers — while potentially alienating non-white audiences — and generates data reflecting the substantial success of white-focused content over others.
This problem is further complicated when organizations lack historical data to gauge the potential for success. When the emphasis is on driving traffic that generates revenue via advertising dollars and sponsorships, the stories, features, and sections that feel potentially “risky” to leadership are scrutinized with far more analytical vigor than other content. In this way, calls for equitable representation are perceived to be in opposition to business goals. For example, several digital publication participants noted that although the summertime is always a low-traffic period, the ensuing worry about poor analytics leads to a de-emphasis on DEI-related initiatives during that same time of year.
This lack of data in support of more diverse content can be used to delay or deny opportunities for representation and create a negative cycle where not giving the content a chance ensures it can never generate any data. In these scenarios, when BIPOC-centric content is approved, it is often given only “one shot” to prove itself worthy of continued investment. After a poor showing, leadership may use these very analytics to axe future content without seeming discriminatory. One participant offered as an example: “If shellfish recipes don't seem to do well, when these recipes are proposed the response is, ‘Oh, people will not cook that’ — and that can lead to discounting entire cuisines.”
This lens of content analysis ignores many underlying conditions, such as a pre-existing white audience unaccustomed to certain recipes, ingredients, or faces. As one participant explained, “Our YouTube presence is 90% white men and they are looking for a specific kind of video...so we’ve been trying to train that audience [to be closer to the on-site audience, which is more diverse].” However, this audience education requires dedicated dollars and commitment from upper management, especially because some attrition should be expected when shifting content focus. As one participant asked of their team:
“Are we willing to sacrifice traffic for a better story that our readership might not have heard of?”
The underlying assumption by white-majority leadership that diverse content doesn't perform is also proven to not be true. As one BIPOC participant explained, “POC have a lot of pride. When they see themselves reflected [in the publication], they will come out and support. But even with past success, I still have to prove it every time. Even if it made crazy numbers last time, I have to prove I can do it again.”
(It is worth noting that participants from digital publications with a paywall or subscription model expressed less concern or attention to these analytics because of existing, recurring revenue streams. However, they did note audience sentiment and feedback - generally collected via surveys - factored into content decisions. Participants from print media outlets, on the other hand, explained that “sales and ads dictate the issue themes.”)
Opportunities for Change
1/ Shift to engagement-based analytics.
Instead of focusing solely on quantity-based analytics, participants suggested also incorporating statistics that highlight the extent of the audience’s engagement with the content, such as:
Time spent on page
Channels of shares (e.g., content was shared on channels where the publication is not as active)
Content viewed per session (e.g., watching 5 videos on the same channel)
These reports are most helpful when paired with qualitative feedback; one participant explained how it is useful when the insights team includes instances when “a story started a conversation here, or helped draw in these people who never read [our publication].” With these metrics in mind, participants still suggested that editorial takes a “data-informed, but not data-driven, approach” when it comes to assigning or prioritizing content. In particular, organizations should set aside a budget for pieces that are clearly non-SEO, non-social content because not every single piece is meant for virality.
2/ Set longer timelines for results.
Overhauling biased systems requires time and resources, particularly when data is involved. This extends beyond editorial’s purview, into departments like audience development and sales operations. The organization needs more time (several participants recommended a year or longer) to see results from “training” readership on the publication’s point of view and to gather longer-tailed analytics around new types of content.
That means stakeholders who manage budgets must know that acquiring traction takes time and continued support from all departments (e.g., social media, sales, operations). One participant framed this time period as a “double approach of training consumers and getting new ones” — meaning, educating existing consumers and attracting those who support the organization’s overall goals for more representative content.
3/ Experiment with alternative streams of revenue.
For example, branch into eCommerce (e.g., Food52 Provisions) or live events (e.g., Infatuation Eeeeeatscon). Some participants mentioned that because these opportunities are not predicated on advertising revenue, they become less beholden to traditional, numerical-only analytics that are implicitly white-biased.
2/ Implicit or Explicit Content Quotas
To promote diversity in editorial content, executives will create implicit or explicit content quotas. Yet the existence of these quotas can limit how much “diverse” (a term up for interpretation itself) content is allowed. Quotas can “other” this content as distinct from “regular” content and they can fluctuate depending on who oversees the quotas in the first place.
As one participant recounted, the editor for a column proposed a quota that “50% of the content would represent BIPOC — but I pointed out that would mean 50% is still white.” Multiple other participants stated they felt uncomfortable while researching whether a brand or business was BIPOC-owned, as a way to meet quotas. As one participant asked the group, “How are we considering intersectionality when it comes to something like a gift guide?”
However, some saw the use of quotas as an imperfect, but necessary, interim step. One participant expressed, “I don’t think quotas are useless, because they can give us a landing point for our goals.” Others agreed, saying that “numbers are a tangible way of holding ourselves accountable as opposed to just saying ‘we want to do this’.” Yet while one participant pointed out that “numbers are good to see what direction the company is moving in”, they also expressed concern that:
“When diversity is met with a number, the response becomes, ‘We took care of it for the year. Let’s move on.’”
With or without a quota to hit, the final decision-makers defining how much and what qualifies as “diverse content,” are also still predominantly white. This naturally gives rise to certain preferences. As Bon Appetit’s Elyse Inamine wrote in her public letter: “Early on, I noticed how [other BA editors] gravitated toward the same aesthetic, cuisines, and chefs — and how little we had in common.” In the same vein, BIPOC-focused stories tend to be grouped in specific ways — as stories of overcoming hardship or growing up with a specific cultural heritage. As one speaker stated in our public panel about tokenization, “I would have loved to have seen someone who looked like me [a BIPOC] making 30-minute meals or living it up in the Hamptons.”
Correspondingly, even when publications begin to diversify their stories, stories rooted in non-western cultures are often essentialized or categorized through a Eurocentric lens. As one participant explained, “It’s an endless stream of ‘differentiated’ content when it comes to [the south of] France or [individual cities in] Italy...but then it’s like ‘We can’t run this roti recipe from the southern part of India, because we ran a recipe from the northern part of India a month ago.” As a result, certain types of content are designated by leadership as repetitive. Even though no diversity quota is explicitly stated in these types of exchanges, the implication is that certain people, cultures, and cuisines are seen as too niche and/or unimportant to be covered with the level of detail as others.
Ultimately, quotas are an imperfect metric, and are not a means to drive change. Rather, the focus needs to be on the people who decide these quotas and the full process of how content is brought in and nurtured at a publication.
Opportunities for Change
1/ Redistribute the power to greenlight and veto content.
The criteria for evaluating pitches and greenlighting content will always be subjective. Upending existing power dynamics is necessary for change that extends beyond the goodwill of one, or a few, leaders at an organization. To do this, organizations can visibly promote more BIPOC staffers to decision-making positions, give more BIPOC staffers veto or override power, or disperse currently concentrated power by offering more staffers the ability to greenlight content independent of management. (We also discuss other ways to offer more transparency within organizations under the People section.)
2/ Encourage diverse content via pitches (versus assignments).
Participants suggested a bottoms-up approach. Encourage diverse sets of contributors (both staffers and freelancers) to organically pitch stories, rather than allowing management to assign what they believe are diverse stories. However, this still requires the definition, purpose, and intent of “diverse content” to be made clear. Otherwise, as one participant said, “We just greenlight the first three pieces that fit [a general diversity bucket like] ‘Chinese’ or ‘Black.’”
For example, a call for pitches centered on an ingredient, cooking style, or even equipment could also be complemented with a statement that the publication is prioritizing the item’s history with BIPOC communities, in order to challenge existing narratives around that item. (Read more about pitch guidelines under People > The Problem with Networks.) This offers intentionality, framing, and the viewpoint of the organization from the get-go, making it clear to writers and assigning editors what does or does not make sense for this content package. Another participant suggested regular columns or series that “intentionally allows for diverse perspectives,” such as a “Way We Eat” series, each spotlighting a different person and their approach to food.
In particular, participants agreed that greenlighting more personal essays is a good place to start, as more diverse stories often emerge here. However, this is only the first step in integrating a wider range of content throughout the publication. Contextualizing non-white stories as only fitting for first-person essays (versus reported pieces that may force editors to learn more individually about subject matter, for example) also limits BIPOC contributors in the pitches they feel will be accepted. Thus, intentionally diversifying how BIPOC foodways are presented within a publication is also an important part of this process.
3/ Incorporate data-informed, quantitative means to confirm efficacy of changes.
For example, one participant noted that using a random diversity audit could be a good starting point to determine if internal changes had actually resulted in tangible, numerical outcomes (e.g. increases in % of BIPOC contributors). At their organization, a random selection of stories for both digital and print from the last 2 or 5 years, respectively, are currently being analyzed to determine the publication’s overall composition of diverse content.
3/ The White Gaze
By and large, the editorial staff at most food media publications are white. When these same editors interface with BIPOC contributors, freelance or not, there is a power imbalance and sociocultural difference in how content is understood and interpreted. The way certain foods and food experiences are framed often assume the white experience to be the neutral, unbiased, and universal one.
For example, we noted in our initial toolkit that non-white-centric language (such as dish names and ingredients) are often assumed to be “new” and require additional explanation; in many instances, these are biases that can be perpetuated by the editor themselves. Multiple participants pointed to NYT’s now infamous Thai fruit article as an overt case of irresponsible writing; for example, at one point in the piece, the writer describes dragonfruit as “a bland mush with tiny seeds that can require floss to dislodge.” Corn on the cob, as one example, is generally spared such critical framing.
In fact, terms like “holiday,” “restaurant,” and “chef” are generally understood to favor a western point of view. As one participated noted, “holiday” typically refers to white holiday content (e.g., recipes for Thanksgiving or Christmas), which neglects holidays like Diwali that fall roughly during the same time period and ignores major holidays during other parts of the year like Lunar New Year or Eid al-Adha.
Similarly, the notion that a restaurant is an institution inside four walls — versus a street cart, food stand, etc. — is built upon western interpretations of dining, and favors higher-income, often white, entrepreneurs who have access to the capital necessary to open brick-and-mortars. As Khushbu Shah of Food & Wine commented in The Washington Post, it was important that her search for Best New Restaurants “[included] food trucks, pop-ups and food halls — ‘things that don’t require a lease on the space.’”
These foundational definitions are, again, often decided unilaterally by white leadership. For example, one participant explained that an internal conversation on “balancing brand with current, relevant topics” opened discussions around how white leaders had decided what is “on brand.” This also extends to the visual identity of a publication. When a publication already has a set aesthetic (with its styling, lighting, props, etc.), it can be challenging to retrofit different types of dishes into this look.
As one participant pointed out, not everything should be served with a glass of wine on the side, even if that may be visually appealing for some audiences. In other cases, the prop styling or imagery may lean on stereotypes held by the white staffers developing the visual content. For example, some news outlets used images of Chinatown for all COVID-related coverage, even though the coverage had no connection to the neighborhood, perpetuating dangerous stereotypes of yellow peril. Food media similarly allows “a group to stand in for a larger idea,” as one participant put it, often oversimplifying or creating static, timeless images of non-white cultures.
As an initial first step to combating the white gaze (and other sources of bias or inequity), some organizations employ sensitivity readers to review content before it goes live. Unfortunately, these readers may be selected arbitrarily — e.g., they may be one of the more senior editors — or the task may be assigned to a BIPOC staffer as additional, unpaid labor. As one BIPOC participant shared:
“Just because I’m a person of color does not mean that I’m qualified to edit every story [by or about people of color].”
While the process of having a sensitivity reader has recently become formalized across publications, the process of training and educating sensitivity readers has not.
Additionally, because many editors also share similar backgrounds — e.g., similar alma maters, fields of study, and former workplaces — there are commonalities in the style of editing favored and seen as “good.” Multiple participants agreed they were taught to “rip a piece apart.” This is not only counterproductive in establishing different narrative voices at a publication, it also destroys trust in an already unequal relationship. Despite this, one’s editing style is generally at the sole discretion of the assigning editor, and no clear systems seem to exist to mediate potential conflicts in these relationships.
Opportunities for Change
1/ Normalize individual research in the editing process.
If content doesn't immediately make sense to the editor that is solely the result of their lack of familiarity with a culture (as opposed to a reporting or continuity issue, for example), it should be their responsibility to research it instead of expecting the writer to extrapolate more in the assignment. As one participant recounted, “When a writer I was working with mentioned an ingredient and referenced a part of India where the ingredient comes from, I was confused about the verbiage, and initially wanted to highlight the passage and ask them to clarify, but instead I did some Googling, reading, and learning on my own so I could properly edit without assuming everyone would have my point of view.”
2/ Proactively test the assumptions of staffers.
“What exactly is a ‘universal experience?’” one participant asked the group, pointing out how visuals for pieces on food and marriage, for example, typically center a white, heterosexual couple. As part of their organization’s onboarding process, new team members are now asked a series of questions, like the above, to “consider their own biases.” Writers are also encouraged to avoid language that makes collective assumptions (e.g., “everyone has heard of…”).
3/ Formalize expectations of writers and offer explicit guidelines around DEI work.
To codify editorial and visual standards beyond one-off examples, many publications have begun working on internal DEI style guides. One participant actively working on a diversity-specific editorial style guide explained how there are “process checklists for each beat” that ask writers to evaluate everything from the diversity of their experts interviewed to word choice, to the framing of certain experiences.
As we describe in more detail in our whitepaper, Well+Good’s 16-page internal DEI Style Guide offers guidelines on how to write across race, gender, orientation, and disability, based on the recommendations from experts and advocacy organizations working in those fields. While one executive editor approves and adds all major changes or additions to the guide, it is a collaborative effort among multiple editors; we believe this is important to ensure such a document encapsulates multiple perspectives and retains institutional value even as employees cycle out.
Well+Good’s guide also links to specific past examples to learn from; for example, they point out that their own Sweet Potato Noodle Pad Thai recipe from 2017 “was explicitly positioned as a ‘healthier’ version of takeout solely because it used sweet potato noodles instead of rice noodles, when there’s nothing necessarily wrong with rice noodles.” Many publications are still learning how to continually refresh their guides and ensure consistent adherence to the guidelines as new writers and editors join the organization.
4/ Establish a formal sensitivity review process that begins at the start of the content pipeline.
Multiple participants voiced that late-stage “sensitivity reviews don’t cover fundamental flaws” and rely on one or a handful of sensitivity readers to catch all potential issues, which is unrealistic. Instead, a participant spoke of earlier-stage meetings where editors would lead their own and other departments through scheduled stories, during which anyone could comment on potential red flags, items to consider, visual assets, or a framing to avoid. This also can be a helpful exercise in building cultural competency across the department.
To add multiple layers of feedback into their process, participants also recommended designating a separate, internal Slack channel to ask for peer review. While this was recommended by all — and is helpful to give more junior employees a voice — it also presented efficiency challenges. As one participant asked, “How do we decide if that’s a personal opinion versus the best choice?” Another pointed out: “It’s hard to incorporate 6 peoples’ feedback into 2 lines of text...and everyone is afraid of making the final call in case it is the ‘wrong’ call.”
During our discussions, participants repeatedly stated there should be dedicated personnel that can fact-check and review content full-time. We believe there should be a transparent process for selecting who is suitable and well-equipped for a sensitivity read, as well as who manages the relationship and edits with these readers. Additionally, multiple other participants stated that it was on organizations to provide “proper training for everyone [so they can] self-diagnose [issues] along the way,” have a budget available for external sensitivity reads, and/or have the research team (if one exists) support the review of origin stories of selected pieces.
Even with these processes in place, sensitivity reads require time to be effective. With writers and editors pressed to create so much content each month, they often do not have the bandwidth to comprehensively research and vet every piece that crosses their desks. One participant recounted a time when their organization made a particularly public mistake: Even though many people they “consider to be very good at sensitivity reads” saw the piece before publication, no one had flagged the mistake.
5/ Open communication channels with the original creator.
Participants pointed out that creative briefs for photo or video shoots tend to come from the editors and not the original creator, writer, or recipe developer. This prioritizes the editors’ lens in the project, which can complicate or occasionally misconstrue the original preferences or intent of the creator. While this is somewhat inevitable, participants said that more channels of communication to the original creator are helpful when questions arise; the more specifics in the brief, the better. One participant added: “Including what not to do in the visual guides and creative briefs [is] really useful.”
6/ Create formal conflict mediation channels.
When it comes to editor and writer relationships, no formal system for addressing disagreements or mediating conflict seems to exist. Participants were aware of the reality that “the more you work with [someone] the more they are willing to say.” As part of cultivating a mutually respectful relationship, participants agreed it was important for editors to use the track changes function and “explain yourself in the edits” by providing specific, concrete reasons for changes. In the case of potentially sensitive edit requests, participants would also send prescribed edits to colleagues for a fresh review.
While these are helpful individual changes, a more systematic approach should be explored. For example, one participant floated the idea of an anonymous channel for freelancers to discuss personal situations; the challenge here, of course, is ensuring such a forum would be constructive. We also recommend that each editor should provide a short (1 page) overview of their editing style that includes context around response time, written & spoken communication styles, etc. Publications should establish and train multiple editors as formal mediators for writer-editor conflict, before it is escalated to HR through a systematized process.
4/ The Problem with Networks (Sources)
Research shows that as social networks become segregated by race and gender, access to social capital — in the form of unsolicited job offers, access to promotions, etc. — becomes more heavily concentrated in the hands of white men. This in-group favoritism not only permeates the staff, but also the sources interviewed for media content, resulting in a homogeneous group of credited experts.
This is further compounded by the difference in money and resources between potential sources: as Food & Wine’s Kat Kinsman explained in Esquire, “So often in journalism, we're rushed to source quotes and recipes so we can push out stories, and end up including chefs and restaurants that can get back to us most quickly...meaning those who can afford PR teams.” In the same piece, former Grub Street editor Sierra Tishgart said, “Press likes to report on what’s brand new, and there’s constant newness coming from people with money and power and influence who have the funding to constantly revamp a restaurant, redo a tasting menu, and open a fast-casual arm of their business.”
Consequently, those who may be closer to or better versed in the subject matter may be overlooked simply due to lack of proximity to the media organization; the oft-cited example is when Bon Appetit touted a white male chef as the expert on pho. The proliferation of white, male, affluent opinions paints a lopsided picture of the knowledge-keepers of many BIPOC cuisines, and offers these same individuals more recognition than their BIPOC counterparts.
Opportunities for Change
1/ Require diverse sources.
What is defined as a “diverse” set of sources (including how many sources) needs to be explicitly explained and required of writers. As one participant explained, “Writers haven’t [historically] been told to look for diverse sources.” Another agreed that diverse sources had never been made a priority for their team. As a result, they experienced a situation where “there wasn’t a single Black or Brown person quoted in a story about cannabis.” Participants agreed that editors must be willing to turn away pieces without diverse expert lists to make this an industry standard.
2/ Create and offer resources to find diverse sources.
Multiple participants shared they had internal “lists of expert sources of women in the sciences, food, etc…[as well as] different lists for other marginalized groups” that they shared with freelancers and staff writers alike as a starting point of reference. In particular, participants mentioned that for scientific and academic sources, writers typically had to look harder to find experts that were not white men:
“BIPOC sources will say, ‘this isn’t my exact area of expertise, so I’ll refer you to someone else’ whereas white sources often respond with ‘sure, I’ll talk about that’ [even if it’s not their area of expertise.]”
Offering support as an editor is crucial in ensuring writers have the time and flexibility to cast a wider net for sources. As part of developing a positive relationship, participants encouraged writers and editors to maintain open communication about sourcing troubles, and agreed that editors should offer help — either indirectly, by extending deadlines, or directly, by reaching into their own networks — if needed.
5/ Lack of Transparency
While most pieces in food media are the work of many contributors — from the writer and the editor(s) to the stylists and photographer(s) — there is often a lack of transparency in the production process after a contributor submits their final draft. At many organizations, freelance writers are not privy to the final title, subtitle, visuals, or social copy of their own piece before it goes live. Similarly, the public often does not know the sheer number of people that review a piece before it is published, and tends to direct commentary at only the person(s) listed in the byline.
As Racist Sandwich Podcast’s Stephanie Kuo said in a public panel, her piece about fusion restaurants in the Dallas area ran with a headline that she did not approve, yet she bears the brunt of receiving angry emails about the piece years later. Sometimes, these inflammatory headlines are used to promote virality or cater to SEO, sometimes by social media staffers with limited visibility into the editorial workflow; other times, they are simply a product of unconscious bias. As entrepreneur Jing Gao recounted in a public panel, the print feature of her product — a Chinese chili sauce — in The New York Times ran with the headline “Your Coronavirus Cooking Needs Condiments,” while all other comparable features used words like “quarantine” and never “coronavirus.” (NYT later changed the digital headline, but the print headline lives on.)
Despite best efforts, mistakes are inevitable. When this does happen, few organizations have a formal procedure for addressing missteps — recent or historical. With content spanning decades, participants expressed uncertainty on how much transparency would be appropriate, both internally and externally. “How do we respond to comments now about something that was written before I started?” asked one participant. “Should I have my team remove this altogether, especially if it is not a well-trafficked page? Or should we put out a statement, and risk drawing more attention to [the content in question]?”
Meanwhile, participants who surfaced past issues to management felt that their concerns often disappeared into a “black box,” with no clear steps for resolution beyond an email of acknowledgement.
Visuals-specific editors explained these problems also spill into their departments. Many of these participants stated they are not often given full context for the piece before being asked to assign or create accompanying visual assets. Often, they are brought in late in the process, so there is little turnaround time for in-depth conversations or to develop relationships with the writer(s) of the pieces they are styling, shooting, illustrating, etc. As a result, this makes it difficult to thoughtfully represent the writer’s point of view, and can lead to imagery that is irrelevant or insensitive.
Since requests for visuals tend to be one of the last steps of the publication process, participants explained this has a domino effect on visual teams. If a piece requires custom photos, editors pressed for time rely on the organization’s standard pool of (often predominantly white) freelance stylists, photographers, and illustrators. For more generic headers, designers and editors resort to widely available stock images — most of which center white, able-bodied, heteronormative people — or again, use the same pool of designers and illustrators. One participant recounted a hurried “we’ll make it work” attitude when it came to visual assets; another stated that because “digital media is built on free images,” a proper budget is particularly lacking when it comes to visuals.
Opportunities for Change
1/ Visibly credit everyone involved in a piece.
When it comes to credit, listing all the people involved in the process behind each piece — e.g., writer, copyeditor, editor, consulting editors, translators, etc. — is a simple step toward public transparency. (This is already common for images.)
As we referenced in the Introduction, for recipes specifically, it is good practice to credit both recipe creators and interviewers in the recipe “byline.”
2/ Formalize a process to protect writers.
When writers (staffers or freelancers) cover sensitive topics, they may receive public backlash. While extreme instances may be uncommon, media publications should still have a formal process — made clear to all writers — on how their organizations will respond diligently and take care of writers if the situation does arise. This builds trust, and also expands the breadth of material writers are willing to take on, knowing they will be backed by a larger entity. (As participants in our town hall also noted, failure to protect BIPOC writers covering sensitive topics also makes them feel tokenized and used.)
3/ Distribute power & encourage communication along the editorial-to-visual chain.
Multiple visual editors encouraged closing the gap between art and editorial. In particular, they advocated for more hybrid roles where a staff member would either do some of each job or formally manage relationships in both departments. Editors in these positions can more effectively evaluate the match of written content with visual assets by asking questions about how each part of the piece plays into the intentionality and framing:
What is the purpose of this piece?
What type of reaction do we hope to draw out of readers?
Why did we choose this angle or framing for this piece?
How will this piece be remembered?
How does this visual asset deepen the reader’s understanding of this piece?
What is this visual asset meant to do for this piece: Complement? Explain? Prompt a question?
With or without hybrid roles, participants agreed it is important to give everyone involved in the process more agency to (sometimes dramatically) change the outcome of the full story. Distributing power across the editorial chain can start with simple actions, such as having writers explicitly confirm the title and subtitle of their stories, or allowing freelance stylists and photographers to question, object to, or modify creative briefs following conversations with involved parties.
Opening communication channels between writers, editors, recipe developers, and the visuals department (stylists, photographers, art directors, illustrators, etc.) is also important. One participant, who led the creation of an identity-based cookbook, recounted a positive experience: “Everyone on set read the essays [accompanying the dish]...so [those working on set, like the prop stylist] would make the props based on the essay.” They even made sure to “text the writers photos of the props to get the OK before moving forward.”
4/ Incorporate freelancers into the organization from the beginning.
By deepening relationships between freelancers, editors, and other staffers, even those working on a contract basis can feel more comfortable vocalizing their needs or concerns without feeling it may risk future opportunities. Employing a more long-term mindset in the case of freelancers can start as simply as introducing the freelancer to more people within the organization from the start, and eventually giving the freelancer more autonomy and authority over their assignments. As one participant said,
“It’s about empowering a writer or recipe developer to, for example, ask for a Black photographer, and us [the organization] to say, ‘Yes, let’s do that.’”
Developing a trusting relationship early on is also an important step to avoid tokenizing those who are selected to be part of identity-driven pieces. As a BIPOC participant explained, “When publications do a huge package on a certain identity, there is pressure to have someone of that identity shoot it…[it’s important to] talk to the person on the byline and ask for [the style they want for visuals] as opposed to just boxing [the writer or photographer] into an identity.”
5/ Establish a process for addressing mistakes.
Learning from and moving past mistakes is a muscle that requires exercise. However, multiple participants recounted a pervasive fear of doing something wrong that would halt forward progress on new DEI-related initiatives or decisions. Some also noted how upper management had outsourced the responsibility of greenlighting sensitive content or proposed internal changes to an outside party.
While incorporating external consultants and experts can be useful, building a dependency on these people undermines the ability of the existing staff members to create, oversee, and enforce new policies. Instead, we believe it is necessary to create rigorous processes that actively engage staff members on ways to address mistakes when they inevitably occur.
Externally, this could mean publishing an editor’s note, hosting an open commentary period, or detailing the company’s DEI strategy on the publication’s homepage to inform readers that there is a larger process of change taking place. Internally, this could mean a company-wide memo and dedicating a DEI Council meeting to assess what guardrails could be put into place for next time. Combined, these accountability measures offer employees a sense of how mistakes are both acknowledged and handled at their organization. This reduces the feeling of risk while testing new ideas and allows trial-and-error to be a positive, not punitive, cycle. Multiple participants said that knowing that their organization has a plan in place to confront both current and future mistakes with clarity would help alleviate the emotional toil and exhaustion of reading aggressive Twitter threads. As one participant said, “We’re people too, and [the comments] hurt.”
6/ Ultimately, slow down.
As many participants recounted, the expected timeline of content drives many of the aforementioned problems. As one participant said, “When companies are pushing for 5, then 10, then 15 photos in a day...that’s when things fall through the cracks.” Another pointed out: “This year alone [in November] we’ve done over 15,000 recipes...the biggest pain point has been communication between the person who wrote the recipe and the photography team.”
When tight timelines are also met with scope creep of editors’ jobs from just editing to recruiting freelance writers, overseeing artwork, briefing illustrators/ photographers, etc., more problems inevitably arise. While all the steps laid out in this toolkit may slow down the overall editorial process, we hope it will offer more long-term sustainability in both quality of output and workplace culture.
As we’ve already discussed, the food media industry today is overwhelmingly white. As one editor at a leading digital publication said, “I’m acutely aware that it’s mostly white people making decisions about who’s on a panel, who’s in the story. I don’t have an answer, other than replacing all of us.” Another added:
“Until people are actively willing to diversify and let other people in the door, [conversations on equity will remain] a circular argument, and that’s a little exhausting.”
Unfortunately, the prospect of an entire masthead proactively stepping down is unlikely. Simply inviting a more diverse group of freelancers into a newsroom also does little to dismantle white supremacist work cultures. These kinds of actions must be backed by long-term organizational reform that centers the psychological safety of BIPOC staff and contributors.
In this section, we review current staffing practices across organizations and brainstorm how to cultivate more pathways to power for those with marginalized identities. Guiding us through these conversations were questions such as: How do white-led media organizations conscientiously expand their networks and spaces to include BIPOC? How do we build relationships and systems that consider and potentially reshape power differences?
1 / The Problem with Networks (Freelancers)
Journalism has long had a reputation for being an elitist institution, often requiring certain qualifications (e.g., a Bachelor’s degree) that excludes those from marginalized identities. Writing as a full-time job is also notoriously poorly paid — the starting salary for a staff writer hovers around $30K, even in cities like NYC — which further diminishes the pool of those able to afford to write professionally. Because writing (and more generally, the food industry) is seen as a passion job, low pay is often excused in the context of “doing what you love.” Additionally, the fact that we are predisposed to hire those who are similar to us has led to predominantly white newsrooms.
All of these factors have contributed to a veneer that food media is unwelcoming or unbreachable by those without the formal qualities of a “food writer.” When editors rely on their networks to source writers and contributors, they may only access people with particular editorial experiences; as one editor put it, “People with new pitches might not have the classic NY pitch pedigree, but they might still have something that’s interesting to me and our audiences.” As one participant shared, “We need to be actively reaching out to those who may not consider themselves ‘writers’ or ‘qualified’ to write about food.”
At the heart of the problem with networks is the question of intimacy: how can editors and food media’s gatekeepers develop ongoing relationships with the communities not regularly represented in our newsrooms — in a way that extends beyond any one individual’s efforts?
Opportunities for Change
1/ Document the process of finding new writers.
In our first toolkit, we proposed that gatekeepers should offer 15-30 min calls with emerging non-white professionals who are regularly shut out of conversations with gatekeepers. Since then, various Salon participants have begun to systemize these calls within their organizations so that organizations are able to document, record, and collectively expand their networks. At one publication, an editor announced that “every editor working with freelancers must be responsible for bringing in a certain number of new contributors every quarter. We’re not mandating specific backgrounds, but we hope they will bring in new perspectives.” Another publicatio