September 12, 2016

I wish I had better news to write about this week, or even a happier point of view.

But my heart sank the way it does when I think about attending yet another diversity meeting when I saw the American Society of News Editors’ annual newsroom diversity survey figures, even though the numbers simply confirm what I already know: Journalism’s glacial pace toward creating inclusive workplaces is a direct result of our inability to maintain credibility and relevance with today’s diverse audiences.

The good news is, yes, it appears minority representation is up in U.S. newspaper and digital newsrooms. The study indicates minorities make up 17 percent of the newsroom workforce; a gain of 5.6 percent among 433 organizations that participated in the 2015 survey.

Related Training: The Power of Diverse Voices: The Poynter Minority Writers Workshop

But there are tough questions to face as well. The news release warns against year-to-year comparisons, as fewer newsrooms participated than did last year. Moreover, the self-reported data comes from less than half of the more than 1,700 news organizations ASNE counted last year.

You know how the saying goes: There are lies, damn lies and statistics. There are also statistical lies of omission.

I’m reluctant to cheer the “rise” in representation among people of color for two reasons: First, there’s the issue of the survey’s response rate. From a social science perspective, it’s actually enviable — slightly less than half of the outlets queried this year self-reported their data. But that number is also damning when we consider the media is constantly demanding that companies — especially those in Silicon Valley — make the same information public. We can’t demand transparency from corporations, then clam up when it’s our turn for scrutiny.

Second, this year’s breakdown of the data along leadership lines demonstrates that people of color don’t even comprise a journalistic Talented Tenth in news leadership.

For those who don’t know, the Talented Tenth is a concept introduced by W.E.B. DuBois in the early 20th century. DuBois imagined that an upper echelon of Blacks in the industrial age would lift up the rest of the race through education and leadership training. And even his vision omitted women.

There’s not even a Fortitudinous Fifth of minority leadership among the survey’s respondents. Black men make up the highest percentage of minorities in newsroom leadership positions at 4.7 percent.

Were it a human being, ASNE’s original goal — newsroom parity by the year 2000 — would be old enough to drive. Yet people of color now make up nearly a third of the country’s population, and the media that shapes our perception of one another is still overwhelmingly, painfully White.

The reports are discouraging, though personal experience lends a good deal of understanding. I left the newsroom for the first time in 2010 after four rounds of layoffs in a single year, thinking that I might not be valuable enough to survive a fifth. I left again in 2014, just months after taking my first newsroom leadership job because of looming student-loan debt and an uncertain view of upward mobility in my new company.

The numbers speak to me. I get it. Quantifying diversity gives our industry a distinct measure of purpose. We use the numbers to further develop diagnoses for our problems, and on rare occasions, to celebrate our success.

But as a social science researcher given to qualitative approaches, the stories behind the numbers concern me even more. Each week, I hear the stories of my friends: those who’ve stayed and have endured years of microaggressions; who are weary of being tapped to cover the “color” stories in diverse communities, yet ignored when they pitch editors about those communities’ more substantive issues; the ones who have been passed over for promotions or told there’s no money for raises year after year while their faces appear in the company’s promotional materials that boast of an inclusive, empowering environment.

Each of those numbers represents a lived experience of a person who is still working in a newsroom where, for all the good it has done, didn’t do enough to right its own wrongs.

Each of those numbers is an internal indicator of the diversity problems that surface when an editor, like HuffPost’s Liz Heron, rightfully gleeful about the representation of women in an editors’ meeting, fails to notice that few, if any, Black and Hispanic women have a seat at the table.

The stories behind each of those numbers emerge when inflammatory, inaccurate headlines boil down conflict to its most base elements, like the “Gunman Targeted Whites,” display type splashed across the page of Memphis Commercial Appeal — three days after a lone shooter opened fire on police following a Black Lives Matter rally in Dallas.

The lack of progress born from those numbers continues to rob our readers, listeners and viewers the way it did when outlets across the country chose to run a photo of the 42nd President of the United States on the night that the first woman to clinch the Democratic nomination for the highest office in the land gave her history-making acceptance speech.

“…The pace of diversity needs to quicken to catch up with the population,” said Pam Fine, president of ASNE, commenting on the numbers in the survey’s initial release. Her prescriptions for addressing the problem — inspiring more people of color to enter the business, paying them well and extending opportunities for advancement, are three critically necessary approaches. I’d add a fourth: We must begin to recruit, train and support minority students who express an interest in journalism much earlier in their academic lives — in middle school, before the access issues of high-school news work push them out.

And looking at this year’s newsroom census numbers, considering the missteps we’ve taken at a current pace, I’d say we need to move at warp speed.

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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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