August 18, 2022

The News Leaders Association will not be releasing the results of its 2021 diversity survey due to problems with the collected demographic information, the organization announced Friday.

Those issues include discrepancies in how certain racial and ethnic categories were counted and percentages that did not add up to 100, executive director Myriam Márquez said. Two data visualization experts reviewed the data over the summer and found that a number of newsrooms had failed to complete the survey correctly, leaving NLA with two options: recollect the data or start anew. NLA chose the latter.

Since 1978, NLA and its predecessor, the American Society of News Editors, have conducted annual surveys of print and digital newsrooms to gauge the diversity of the news industry. The last year for which the NLA has published data is 2019.

The 2021 survey was supposed to be “radically different” from previous editions, said Northeastern University associate professor Meredith Clark, who was the survey’s lead researcher. NLA had paused the survey in 2020 to rework it after years of lackluster participation. While previous surveys primarily sought information about race and ethnicity, the 2021 version included questions about gender identity, sexual orientation, military veteran status, languages spoken and type of employment (i.e. managerial, non-supervisory or freelance/contract), among other categories.

But the project faced issues from the start. In March 2021, NLA piloted the survey with the newsroom leaders who sat on its diversity committee. Of the 12 potential participants, only two or three were able to collect the data and submit the survey by the deadline, Clark said.

“Just from that, I knew that we weren’t going to have good responses,” Clark said. “That to me was an indicator, and I warned about pressing forward with it.”

NLA delayed the release of the full survey until August 2021. When fewer news organizations participated than anticipated, NLA extended the deadline to October. In the end, 303 newsrooms employing 12,781 journalists took part — a participation rate of 10%. NLA’s goal had been 2,500 media outlets.

NLA has cited a number of reasons for the low response rate. The organization struggled to reach newsroom managers who could fill out the survey, thanks to outdated contact information and spam filters. Additionally, many news organizations said they did not collect detailed demographic data about their employees, and some expressed concerns about privacy.

But the survey included options for respondents to indicate that they did not have certain data on file. One researcher previously told Poynter that she encountered resistance from news organizations even after she tried to address their privacy concerns. A Nieman Lab story about some of the excuses newsrooms gave to avoid participating revealed open hostility to the survey among some news leaders.

NLA also used different methods to collect data, making it impossible to compare the survey results once they received them. While some newsrooms filled out the survey themselves, others had their information reported to NLA by their parent company. Gannett, for example, submitted data from its own diversity survey, which used different racial and ethnic categories than the NLA survey.

Some of these issues could have been addressed if NLA had given researchers more time to work on the survey, Clark said. The researchers faced pressure to get the survey results ready by the NLA conference in May.

“Like with any project, the more time and attention you can give something, the more — ideally — robust it can be,” Clark said. “So if there were problems with organizations not wanting to report and thus not reporting within that period of time, those are questions that might have been answered. If there was a problem with the way it was rolled out, that could have been addressed and shifted.

“But the (data collection) period ended when it did because NLA was going to have its conference in May, and they wanted those results for May.”

Márquez acknowledged that historically, NLA has released the results of its diversity survey during its annual conference, and that had been the original plan for the 2021 edition. But she added that NLA had been willing to delay the release if necessary.

The May conference was ultimately canceled due to the pandemic and conflicting events like graduations and weddings that would have reduced attendance.

In April, NLA partnered with the Colorado News Collaborative to pilot the survey among its 150 member newsrooms. That pilot, which included a survey identical to the 2021 edition that was distributed nationally, resulted in a participation rate of 10%. Márquez attributed the low response rate to the complexity of the survey.

“The CoLab had no problem reaching out to its members. … What they discovered over time was that a lot of them (the newsrooms) were reaching out and saying, ‘We just can’t fill out all this information,’” Márquez said. “They came back to us and said, ‘Can we do a simpler survey?’ And we said, ‘Yeah, let’s try that and see if that really elevates the response rate.’”

NLA plans to conduct its next nationwide diversity survey in 2023. In the meantime, the organization is hiring a diversity and training manager and will hold a “Diversity Roundtable” in the fall to strategize ways to increase survey participation.

NLA is also exploring options to conduct smaller qualitative surveys with the help of affinity organizations like the National Association of Black Journalists and The Association of LGBTQ Journalists. Because newsrooms often don’t collect demographic data beyond race, ethnicity and gender, partnering with affinity groups will be key, Márquez said.

Assuming NLA’s 2023 survey is successful, there will be a four-year gap during which the news industry will lack a profession-wide accounting of its diversity. Clark said this gap demonstrates to her that there are still “systemic obstacles” to the news industry being transparent about its composition.

“At every level of this, there are people, individuals and groups, who are responsible for the makeup of the journalism industry as we know it,” Clark said. “And what we see with an inability to collect robust data and to present accurate and robust data about the composition of the news industry is that those individuals and groups do not want to be accountable to the public.”

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

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