Syfy VP says the 'checklist' approach to diversifying newsrooms isn't working

By Sara Eckhardt

February 16, 2015

Robyn Lattaker-Johnson, vice president of unscripted development and current programming for Syfy TV, recently spoke at the Newhouse School for the 14th annual Conversation on Race and Entertainment.

Assistant professor Charisse L’Pree led the conversation, which explored the timely and significant topic of diversity in the workplace and media visibility, as well as Lattaker-Johnson’s own path to success.

Although the University of Washington graduate was formally trained in broadcast journalism, Lattaker-Johnson says she found it easy to translate her storytelling skills to reality TV. “Reality TV really stems from news,” she says.

Lattaker-Johnson started at the bottom, first working as a production assistant. It wasn't until she started freelancing that her networking circle began to develop and expand.

Now working as a VP of a major television company, Lattaker-Johnson has made it her goal to positively influence the world.

“I’m here to change the world a little bit,” says Lattaker-Johnosn. “I know I’ve done it already, but there’s more work to be done.”

Thinking differently, providing visibility to the underrepresented and promoting increased diversity are just some of the ways the she has been able to achieve change.

However, Lattaker-Johnson finds the current strategy of increasing diversity in the workplace ineffective. She says that we need more than just a set of requirements to truly make change.

“I don’t find the checklist helpful. For me, the process is not helpful because it’s averting the issue,” says Lattaker-Johnson.

Instead, the Syfy VP’s strategy is to “actively go out and cast so our shows are more representative of what society looks like.  When I watch TV I want to see people who look like me. We want to see people who are relatable.”

But there are also reality shows that cast characters that perpetuate stereotypes, and may even degrade certain groups of people. Lattaker-Johnson says this is because viewers love to judge other people.

“When we can watch and pass judgment, that is comedy to us,” says Lattaker-Johnson. “Reality is the new drama, and judgment is comedy.”

Throughout her career, Lattaker-Johnson has overcome many obstacles. She says the key is to, “Always be the one to speak up. I always try to be a leader and set an example.”

Sara Eckhardt is junior broadcast and digital journalism major at the Newhouse School.

Photos by Dominique Forbes, a master's television, radio & film student at the Newhouse School.