June 12, 2020

For Albert, the three strikes came within a single week. A series of crises at the West Coast daily where he’d worked for more than a decade suddenly put his perspective as a journalist of color at the center of the newsroom’s editorial process.

First came the public backlash for the paper’s reporting on the shooting death of an unarmed man of color at the hands of police. Then, a contributor’s column about gentrification, published two days after the shooting, struck a painful chord with an already-aggrieved community. A few days later, another reporter set off a firestorm by quoting verbatim a source who used a racial slur. Each time, Albert’s phone lit up with text messages from the newsroom’s leadership, asking him to provide insights on how to navigate them.

“By the end of the week, I came home, kinda waved at my family, and just crawled into bed,” he said. The controversies had unfolded just weeks before he was set to move into a new role as a mid-level manager. The exhaustion made him rethink taking on a management role.

Albert’s experience is one all too common among journalists from underrepresented groups, particularly those of color, working in media outlets in the United States. A spate of recent stories from and about the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The New York Times and even niche sites including Refinery29 and Bon Appétit have begun to blow open the worst-kept secret in the Fourth Estate: that Whiteness as the default existence — enforced by both explicit and implicit values, norms, and practices in the newsroom — has and will continue to thwart any meaningful efforts to make the country’s newsrooms reflect the communities they claim to serve.

Dismantling an insufficient diversity strategy

For more than 40 years, the American Society of News Editors conducted an annual diversity survey as part of its mission to “to drive the quest for diversity and inclusion in the workplace and in news content across all platforms.” In 2017, I joined the ASNE team with a task to “revitalize” the Newsroom Diversity Survey to better reflect the contemporary realities of the industry and its people. Leading the survey had been a dream of mine since.

But as principal investigator, I quickly learned that the survey doesn’t need revitalization. It, like so many other journalism institutions, must be completely dismantled and rebuilt to provide a responsive, sustainable and culturally competent approach at being transparent about the consequences of colorblind racism in our newsrooms, publications and schools.

Gwyneth Mellinger, a professor at James Madison University, has written extensively about ASNE and the shortcomings of the Newsroom Diversity Survey.

“As with most gestures toward multiculturalism,” she wrote in a 2013 research article, “the ASNE initiative does not reckon with the systemic nature of modern racism, which continually reinvents itself as it goes largely undetected by the dominant culture.”

The industry’s widespread insistence of upholding an approach to journalism that was developed when only land-holding White men could vote; and professionalized in an era when Black people were still barred from enrolling in most public universities and schools, means that even our best attempts to “diversify” are positioned in a way that subjugates anyone outside of the so-called mainstream.

In our research, we identified a central theme: Industry norms, values and routines — reinforced by the overrepresentation of White, usually male, journalists in middle-management roles — have created workspaces that actively devalue the presence and contributions of employees from underrepresented groups. For our part, we recognize the complicity in continuing to use a demographic data tracking tool that valorizes quantity over quality, and counting raw numbers as evidence of progress.

To that end, News Leaders Association, the organization formed out of ASNE’s late-2019 merger with the Associated Press Media Editors, will not conduct the newsroom diversity survey for 2020. Instead, we will resume data collection in 2021 with a comprehensive approach.

I guess it’s fair to say the survey has been “scrapped” after all.

READ MORE: News Leaders Association Calls for Structural Changes on Newsroom Diversity

A new way forward

The strategy has been more than two years in the making. Through a series of complementary interviews I conducted in 2018 and 2019 — the first qualitative research ASNE used as part of its annual newsroom diversity survey, my research identified the overarching theme that industry norms, values and routines — reinforced by the overrepresentation of White, usually male, journalists in middle-management roles — has created workspaces that actively devalue the presence and contributions of employees from underrepresented groups. At the same time, with the support of NLGJA, ASNE piloted data collection among LGBTQIA+ journalists. In 2019, more than 200 queer-identifying journalists self-reported their data using our updated survey instrument.

While the industry and academia have come to rely on these numbers (and will continue to be able to do so), the stories behind them are telling. If the 2019 ASNE Newsroom Diversity Survey data were any indication, mid-level management remains the provenance of White journalists, most of them men. Only 18.8% of newsroom leadership roles outside of the “top three” are occupied by journalists of color. In online-only newsrooms, 28% of “top-three” leadership positions were held by a journalist of color.

The absence of people of color in positions of leadership raises serious questions about the conditions that contribute to the attrition of journalists of color between entry-level and executive posts in the news industry, and additional questions about how they fare once promoted. For decades, while the well-intentioned diversity efforts of organizations like ASNE have been designed to desegregate the newsroom, many have failed to include the structural, social and cultural impacts of Whiteness in their calculus. The evidence of these shortcomings — the slow pace of progress in diversifying newsrooms — provoke us to question how Whiteness works in the newsroom as part of our examination of management’s influence on the recruitment, retention and promotion of journalists of color.

MORE FROM POYNTER: Dear newsroom managers, journalists of color can’t do all the work

Like Albert, a number of the participants in our research talked of being “the only one,” or perhaps one of a handful of people from an ethnic or racial minoritized background, and thus the go-to person for perspective on issues of concern to their respective communities. Lack of demonstrated cultural competency shows up in both reporting gaffes and gross oversights in coverage; these are symptoms of a homogeneous workplace with an uneven distribution of power.

Demographic figures aside, the root causes of such missteps are the tokenization and isolation of newsworkers from underrepresented groups, who need colleagues and managers to work with them in developing a more inclusive approach to reporting the news. And among our participants, the lack of support ultimately results in burnout and attrition.

“That’s why I left,” said Rose, a Latina participant in her 20s. After a two year-stint at a western daily where she was one of only two Latinos on staff, she left to take another position at a larger metro.

“I didn’t have the managerial support … No one understood me on the managerial level. And that was a problem,” she said.

Rose said the social isolation of being a young woman of color in a small town compounded the lack of inclusion at work. She recalled getting hate mail as she worked the general assignment beat at the paper, including covering immigration and the rise of White nationalist groups in the community. The hate mail was an occupational hazard, an issue beyond the scope of an editor’s influence or control. But it intensified the impact of the lack of respect and inclusion she felt at work.

“I may have been getting s— from the community, but if I was getting support in my newsroom, and I was able to tell the stories that I wanted to tell that needed to be told, then I would have stayed,” she said.

“These are general quality-of-life issues inside the work,” said Letrell Crittenden, an assistant professor at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia. Echoing Rosa’s comments, Crittenden added that social conditions both inside and outside the newsroom may characterize the experiences of journalists of color in ways that aren’t obvious to White newsroom leaders.

“I call it the ‘The Pittsburgh Problem,’” said Crittenden. “Pittsburgh is not seen as an inclusive place for people of color, for journalists of color. A lot of the journalists I interviewed for this project are no longer in the city.”

His research underscores the greater truth behind the troubling issue of how Alexis Johnson and Michael M. Santiago, Black reporters at the Post-Gazette, have been reassigned from covering antiracist protests. Black journalists and other journalists of color are continually subjected to a “view from nowhere” approach to both reporting and relationships, one that makes the perspective of those in power — such as the 81.2% of White middle-managers — the default.

The research conducted as the ASNE transitioned into NLA only begins to color in the details of why the industry has twice failed to meet the imperative that the industry should reflect the country’s ethnic and racial parity — and will again, if the Year 2025 goal remains intact.

The task is difficult, but not impossible. It requires the redistribution of power, beginning with self-acknowledgment of how power works in each news organization. It requires reflexivity, trust, and imagination. And it requires the intentional efforts of everyone invested in the future of news — including more than a few good White folks.

Meredith D. Clark, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of Media Studies at the University of Virginia. She’s terrible at email; contact her via Twitter @meredithdclark.

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Meredith Clark is an assistant professor at the Mayborn School of Journalism at the University of North Texas and a monthly columnist for Poynter. You…
Meredith D. Clark, Ph.D.

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