Earlier this year, Tucker Carlson Tonight on Fox News featured a story about immigration across the United States-Mexico border. Carlson said mass immigration “makes our country poorer, dirtier, and more divided.”
Scores of people took to social media to say the statement was racist. Anger over the comment quickly spread, resulting in more than a dozen companies removing ads from the prime-time cable news program. This situation is a reminder to communications professors that we have an extraordinary responsibility to teach students to be culturally competent.
Issues of diversity and inclusion come up naturally in communications curricula focused on attracting varied audiences and creating accurate representations of identity.
Opportunities abound for teaching students to develop fair and complete representations in film, television, ads, and media campaigns, but professors must be prepared to articulate why inclusion matters in communications and related professions.
Because communications professors work with future storytellers, we have a responsibility to help our students recognize that there are both ethical and economic advantages to intercultural development related to race, gender, ability, sexuality, faith, and class. In order to teach inclusive thinking, we must also continue to develop our own knowledge and tools to do this important work.
Below are ways communications faculty can educate themselves and, in turn, their students.
● Resources such as multicultural centers, chaplain’s offices, or LGBTQ programs might be available at your institution. These centers are staffed with knowledgeable professionals who have been trained and have recent information about specific social identity groups and their intersections. Additionally, they may also have reading rooms with books, magazines, and video content that could be helpful in planning lessons or as sources for projects. These spaces are usually open to anyone on campus to come and learn, no matter their identity.
● Librarians are important sources for professional development. Our library staff at Elon University in North Carolina have been key partners and advocates for creating a more inclusive campus broadly. They love to help faculty find discipline- or profession-specific resources.
● Events on campus allow students to share their ideas about identity with professors. We have attended student government town halls, political party meetings, and panels sponsored by various ethnically and racially oriented organizations to gauge what students are thinking about their campus, culture, and worlds. Generally, faculty and staff are invited to these sessions, but it’s always smart to check with the student leaders before attending.
● Student media is also a good gauge of campus climate. The stories covered, music played, and films produced provide valuable exemplars when teaching the inclusivity of sources and effectiveness in reaching all members of an audience. Recently, our student newspaper produced the first ever Spanish-language version of their weekly newscast and newspaper. This effort was widely applauded on campus, and it demonstrated that there is a population of students interested in creating and reading this content. It is now incumbent on us to support and inspire more of our students to reach audiences with diverse identities.
● Professional organizations have recognized the need to broaden the understanding of diversity in communications industries. Materials can be found on these organizations’ websites. The Radio Television Digital News Foundation offers a downloadable diversity toolkit on its website (rtdna.org) for anyone interested in implementing case-based lessons in their classrooms. The toolkit also offers a few readings and discussion questions. Similarly, the Public Relations Society of America (prsa.org) has made available its diversity and inclusion toolkit that offers best practices for professionals wanting to add more inclusive thought to their offices, but the techniques can also be viable for classroom use.
● Some national organizations offer faculty seminars where portions of the programs highlight issues related to race and gender. The Television Academy Foundation covers the airfare and lodging of participants of its faculty seminar. In 2018, the seminar offered a deep dive into the television industry in the #MeToo era. Communication professors would also do well to keep an eye on the International Radio and Television Society faculty seminar. The topics vary each year, but there is always a session or two focused on inclusion.
● Connections in the broader community also afford an opportunity to develop empathy, understand different perspectives, develop active listening skills, and create rapport with people different from you. Our civic engagement-based programs at the university offer students the chance to engage deeply in the communities that surround Elon. Students and faculty have the chance to develop cultural humility, a necessary aspect of intercultural competence. Communications students in particular can connect with the broader community by working with non-profit clients in the community, writing for the local newspaper, and making documentary films about history and current issues. Both students and faculty can use their talents to volunteer and make connections with the local NAACP chapter, immigrant communities, and the area PFLAG group. These all provide opportunities to have meaningful interactions with people from various background and learn more about their lives.
Communications disciplines and professions have natural alignment with intercultural development. Faculty, staff, and students have opportunities to continue and further that development, which is crucial to their effectiveness in the classroom, on campus, and in their lives outside of college.
Brooke Barnett is an INSIGHT Into Diversity Editorial Board member, an associate provost for Academic and Inclusive Excellence, and professor of communications at Elon University in North Carolina. Naeemah Clark is a faculty fellow for Civic Engagement and associate professor of Communications at Elon University.