By:
May 9, 2022

As the News Leaders Association grapples with data discrepancies and lack of participation in the 2021 edition of its annual diversity survey, journalists are discussing ways to increase participation in it and similar industry-wide surveys.

Since 1978, NLA and predecessor organization, American Society of News Editors, have collected demographic data from print and digital media outlets via annual surveys to assess the diversity of the news industry. NLA had sought to collect 2,500 responses this year, but last month, executive director Myriam Márquez told Nieman Lab that just 303 newsrooms had participated, sparking furor among journalists.

NLA had planned to release the results of its survey back in March before pushing the publication date to April, Márquez said. Now, the organization is “hoping” to release the report this summer — after it hires a diversity and training manager to review the data.

The problem is that the data NLA collected includes both individual responses (i.e. newsrooms that filled out the survey) and information gathered by news corporations on behalf of their newsrooms that was then shared with NLA. This makes it difficult to draw comparisons across the 303 newsrooms.

Gannett, for example, submitted data from its own diversity survey, which records “Hispanic or Latino” as a race. The NLA survey, however, separates out “Hispanic, Latino, or of Spanish Origin” as an ethnicity, mirroring the U.S. Census Bureau’s racial and ethnic categories.

“We can’t offer an apples to apples comparison if an Afro-Latino working for a Gannett company is counted as someone who is Black or if that same person is counted as someone who is simply Hispanic or Latino,” said Northeastern University professor Meredith Clark, who was the survey’s lead researcher. “That’s the problem with collating that data that is collected in a different way. And when it’s ultimately reported, you’ve got two different sets of information.”

NLA tried asking Gannett to fill out the survey the way they had developed it, but the company declined. In an emailed statement, Gannett’s vice president of news performance, talent and partnerships, Mizell Stewart III, said the company was not aware of the difference in racial categorizations until it had already collected data from its newsrooms.

“Gannett representatives worked directly with NLA in the design phase of our own company wide collection of newsroom diversity data. By the time we were made aware that our data was collected in a fashion different than the NLA survey, we had already collected our newsroom diversity data for 2021 and began the collection phase for 2022,” Stewart wrote. “At no point in the design phase did NLA representatives indicate the difference in classification to Gannett. That said, we do intend to change the categorization of Hispanic/Latino employees to conform with NLA’s methodology when we release our 2023 diversity data.”

Márquez said the new diversity and training manager will be tasked with going through the survey data to address discrepancies. Asked if NLA will have to re-collect information from newsrooms, Márquez said that would depend on the new manager’s recommendations.

In the meantime, stakeholders across the industry are discussing ways to increase participation in diversity surveys. In 2018 and 2019, 293 and 429 newsrooms participated in NLA’s survey, respectively. NLA paused its efforts in 2020 to redesign the survey, but participation remained low this year.

One reason for the low participation rate is the survey’s complexity, which asks for demographic information that some newsrooms may not have on hand and do not know how to collect. The 2021 survey asked for information about race, ethnicity, gender, age, sexual orientation, military veteran status, disability and languages spoken.

Some newsrooms said they were worried the survey results could be used by unions as a bargaining chip during contract negotiations, according to the researchers who worked on the survey. Others said they had concerns about protecting the privacy of their employees. Still others simply didn’t want to open themselves up to criticism.

“News organizations, a number of them, say they’re doing the best that they can in order to attract and hire and retain candidates from structurally marginalized backgrounds, but they don’t have much success with that,” Clark said. “And when they are transparent about their numbers, the criticism feels unfair to them. It’s difficult for them to face that criticism.”

Code Black Media founder Dana Amihere, who compiled the data for the 2021 survey, said the biggest issue she encountered in asking news organizations to participate was “pure apathy.” When talking to newsrooms about the survey, she tried to address concerns about how the data would be used and resolve any issues newsrooms faced. But they remained reluctant to participate, finding other excuses.

“My overwhelming sense is that the biggest hindrance to this survey’s success is high-level management in the C-suite, which is ironic because sometimes I feel like they are the loudest champions for diversity,” Amihere said. “But then when they’re approached with something that can really move the needle and really help us get on track to make real progress, then everything is a problem.”

Increasing participation

Nieman’s story about the “crushing resistance” to the survey has sparked conversation on ways to increase participation. The most high-profile initiative is an open letter to the Pulitzer Prizes, asking the Pulitzer board to make participation in an industry diversity survey a criteria for eligibility. That effort, led by OpenNews co-executive director Sisi Wei and NewsGuild president Jon Schleuss, has garnered signatures from more than 170 organizations and 300 individuals.

Clark, Wei and Schleuss had been discussing the idea of tying survey participation to eligibility for certain awards for the past couple years and decided to reignite the effort after the publication of the Nieman story. The idea, Schleuss said, is that the Pulitzers are the top prize in U.S. journalism, and any changes they made could trickle down to other awards programs.

On April 29, Wei and Schleuss called on the Pulitzers to “announce its intent” by May 9, when the board will announce this year’s Pulitzer winners and finalists. Pulitzer Prize administrator Marjorie Miller told Poynter that the board has received the request but has not yet had time to consider it.

In an email to Schleuss, Miller wrote, “(T)he Pulitzer board is not in a position to decide in the next week whether it would sign onto adding such a criteria to its awards requirements. To even consider doing so would mean modifying the rules of entry, which is not something the 106-year-old organization does lightly or hastily.”

She added in that email that the request would be sent to board members for “possible consideration” during their summer meetings, and if there was interest, they would add it to their fall meeting agenda.

Meanwhile, NLA has already made participation in the survey a requirement for some of its awards this year. Clark said she wants to see award committees at all levels implement similar requirements. That includes awards given by affinity groups like the National Association of Black Journalists and the Trans Journalists Association and industry organizations like the Online News Association and Investigative Reporters and Editors.

“We don’t get change without remaking the structures that allowed us to get here in the first place,” Clark said.

Similarly, foundations could require proof of participation in a diversity survey as part of a grant application. Wei said some funders already collect demographic data from their grantees. They could then help their grantees convert the data into a format that aligns with NLA’s survey, making participation easier.

Wei added that newsrooms that successfully complete the survey could also help other newsrooms fill it out.

“One of the biggest barriers is that people don’t collect the data to begin with,” Wei said. Solutions include “supporting people in collecting the data, putting out examples and guides on how the newsrooms that currently do it go about it, (and) literally hands-on helping another newsroom that’s in your network or in your community to fill it.”

Márquez said she would like to poll both those who participated in NLA’s survey this year and those who did not to get a sense of what obstacles they encountered in filling out the form.

Looking beyond NLA

The NLA survey is widely considered the definitive industry diversity survey for print and digital outlets. (The Radio Television Digital News Association conducts its own survey for broadcast.) Some organizations, such as the Institute for Nonprofit News, conduct diversity surveys for subsections of the industry.

The Diversity Pledge Institute, a nonprofit that helps newsrooms improve recruitment and retention of employees from diverse backgrounds, is attempting to launch its own industry-wide survey this year. Founder Larry Graham said the organization has already developed an initial version, which it will pilot among a small group of news organizations. After collecting feedback, the institute will refine the survey and launch nationwide. The goal is to reach at least 500 newsrooms.

Graham said starting with the pilot survey will be key in achieving a high participation rate in the final survey. He said he also hopes to work with one or two journalism graduate programs that specialize in data collection to further boost the response rate.

One advantage the NLA survey has over other efforts is that it has more than 40 years’ worth of data from past surveys. However, NLA is also a membership-driven organization, and its members are oftentimes the same people who decide whether their newsroom participates in the survey, which could pose a conflict of interest.

“If there presents a conflict of interest in putting pressure on people who are leaders inside the industry to produce this data and risk those same people not being a member of NLA, then … the survey should move elsewhere,” Clark said. “If NLA can do this and that conflict not arise, then there’s no reason for it to move elsewhere.”

Clark added that she believes NLA should devote more resources to the survey. Ideally, several people would be working full-time, year-round on the project, and she advised NLA to partner with another organization to build capacity.

Amihere said she thinks a research group outside of the journalism industry should conduct the survey, which she finds ineffective in its current form. The problem, she said, is that news organizations that do not take the survey do not face any consequences. While efforts like the open letter to the Pulitzers provide some accountability, it’s not enough. News organizations shouldn’t participate in diversity surveys because of what they might gain (i.e. an award or a grant), but rather because they owe it to their readers, Amihere said.

“Your readership, your audience — those are the people that we need to be accountable to because they’re the ones who count on our staff, on our rank and file, on our leadership, on our C-suites to reflect the communities that we’re supposed to be serving.” Amihere said. “If our readers aren’t as informed as they should be about the fact that they’re not being served and they’re not being armed with the information to say, ‘Hey, you need to do better,’ then that’s a problem to me.”

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Angela Fu is a reporter for Poynter. She can be reached at afu@poynter.org or on Twitter @angelanfu.
Angela Fu

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