ASNE survey a critical source of information, but only if leaders participate

Reporting and interpreting the American Society of News Editors’ annual Newsroom Diversity Survey requires that we read between the lines.

For instance, at least five — and certainly many more — people of color will be missing from the New York Daily News’ numbers next year, following layoffs last week that saw a loss of half the newsroom’s staff. 

The story behind those numbers illustrates the critical need for newsrooms to be transparent in reporting how well they hire, retain and promote individuals from diverse backgrounds. Additionally, there should be a demand for updating the groundbreaking tool used to encourage the industry to achieve parity with the communities it serves. 

For 50 years, ASNE’s Newsroom Diversity Survey has been a critical source of information about the industry’s failings to create newsrooms that can adequately serve the needs of an American public that is growing more diverse by every imaginable measure. The survey relies on industry leaders to hold themselves to the same accountability standards we expect from other influential sectors: by collecting and reporting accurate and insightful information about who is (and who is not) represented in the newsroom. 

“Counting gives us a starting point,” said Linda Shockley, managing director of the Dow Jones News Fund, one of several nonprofits that acts on such demographic data to design developmental programs that contribute to a more diverse journalism workforce.

“It tells us where we are in terms of the numbers of different kinds of groups that are working in the media, but it’s just the beginning, because there’s a whole process that’s involved: advancement and retention,” Shockley said. The survey “is a gateway to get on to the larger questions of ‘Why do people get churned through and out of the profession and the industry?’”

The Daily News’ six-member social media team, which included three Black women and two men of Asian descent, were counted among the paper’s 45 employees who lost their jobs this week. Next year, they will show up in the data as part of a simple, if precipitous, demographic drop for an outlet that serves a city in which nearly a quarter of residents are Black, 30 percent identify as Hispanic or Latino, and nearly 14 percent are Asian. That’s newsworthy. 

What’s noteworthy — particularly to newsroom leaders who have yet to accept that effective engagement with diverse audiences requires a diverse staff — is the path Candace Amos had to walk on her way out.

“This is my first time ever being laid off. I’ve worked in this industry for 10 years. I worked at the New York Post as a reporter, then at US Weekly for a little less than a year, and I’ve been,” — she paused, catching herself — “well, was, at the Daily News for three years.”

Amos ssaid she was demoted from her position as social media editor in 2017 as part of Tronc’s decision to flatten the social media team’s structure.

“I basically went from managing the team to being one of the team members,” Amos said. “I took that kind of hard, because I worked so hard to get where I was, especially as a woman of color in this industry. There are so many biases that we have to overcome. We have to fight every day.” 

For Amos, that fight picked up shortly after she returned from maternity leave and found herself locked out of the decision-making process as the newsroom was reshuffled under new corporate leadership.

Such downward career movement isn’t reflected in the numerical data the survey collects, but the narrative behind it — and what I imagine are probably thousands of insights from journalists on the fringes — is exactly what my research team and I are trying to capture as part of our work to “reinvigorate” the survey by adding focus groups and one-on-one interviews to bring context to the numbers. Having the figures is simply one part of a process in addressing what’s wrong in our newsrooms.

Adapted from an earlier newsroom census, the survey, which was distributed to newsrooms on May 4, and closes on Aug. 1, asks questions about how white women, and men and women of color, are faring in newsrooms across the country. A self-reporting instrument for LGBTQ-identifying journalists will be launched in August.

Administering the survey is “a bear,” admits Adam Maksl, an assistant professor journalism at Indiana University Southeast, who ran the survey for five years before it came under my direction in May at the University of Virginia. 

For the human resources professionals, managing editors and publishers who respond to the survey, pulling the data can seem like a thankless task.

“Everyone sees it on the micro side,” said Maksl, “And there are fewer employees to collect the information, which means there’s more work for everyone.

“But it’s impossible to see a change on the macro level without doing the smaller tasks." 

The survey’s smaller tasks stretch beyond simply answering the questionnaire every year. Participation requires gathering demographic data about employees either as they join the organization, or on some regularly scheduled basis, and releasing it annually to ASNE, a neutral third party committed to advocating for organizational diversity and inclusion in journalism.

Since the survey’s inception, 10 years after the Kerner Commission Report on Civil Disorders indicted the media alongside local government and law enforcement for their roles in creating “two Americas, one Black and one white,” winds of economic change have reconfigured every descriptor we have for how journalism works.

“The newsroom” is no longer a centralized brick-and-mortar home base for workers on the editorial side of the business. Complex job descriptions go beyond the simple categories of “reporter” or “editor,” and crunch together multiple functions of reporting, editing, audience engagement and visuals. Massive job losses across the industry and the ever-present demand for information updates every time we tune in, turn on, or refresh our preferred media sources mean that fewer people are working to do more every day. 

None of the changes are an excuse for failing to robustly address commission’s charge of training, hiring, and promoting Black journalists (then) and more broadly, journalists of color (now) to ensure that the principle of democracy is modeled, not just espoused, by the Fourth Estate. 

This week’s layoffs at the Daily News are a case study in the demand for outlets to be transparent with their diversity numbers, and for researchers to look beyond them and examine what’s behind their trends. They are evidence that the Newsroom Diversity Survey, though primed for adaptation to better reflect the current dynamics of our complex media environment, is still a primary tool for measuring just how far we have to go in creating newsrooms that reflect the dynamics of the people we are committed to serve.

At the height of our current crisis of faith in news and information, social media outlets that peddle in the information economy are now facing a negative image of the trust gap between mainstream media and communities of color. Within the journalism industry, a lack of inclusion created a near-fatal flaw that forces news workers to work double time as they attempt to debunk claims of bias and rebuild credibility among marginalized communities that need them most in the disinformation age. Like Facebook, outlets across the country are dealing with the impact of a fatal flaw:  The public has little to no proof of who is behind the machine, nor how they make it work.

Yet only one industry was established on a commitment to act in the public’s best interest. We have an obligation to go on the record about who we really are.