A seat at the table: American newsrooms still don’t represent their diverse communities

A half-century ago, the Kerner Commission investigated the racial unrest that tore at the fabric of the nation in 1967. The panel laid some of the responsibility on journalists for the deadly summer of violence: “The media report and write from the standpoint of a white man’s world.”

In 2018, tension is again high between police and communities of color. Ferguson, Charlottesville, Standing Rock and other places have been rocked by racially charged clashes in recent years. Viral videos show one incident after another in which a person of color — or someone who isn’t speaking English — is told to “go back home.”

Fifty years after Kerner, it’s still a man’s world when you look at who produces most news coverage. A Women’s Media Center report last year found that “female journalists continue to report less of the news than do male journalists” in the top 20 news outlets — and the difference was “especially glaring in TV news.”

Journalists are charged with shining light on society’s ills. Lack of a voice is one of those ills. Yet not all voices have a chance to be heard in today’s newsrooms. Although more women and more people of color are journalists now than in the ’60s, most newsrooms still do not adequately reflect their audiences.

The American Society of News Editors has been surveying newsroom staffs for 40 years. This year’s findings — provided by a disappointing 17 percent of 1,700 newsrooms surveyed — showed incremental movement toward greater representation by people of color and women. Although the latest survey participation was so low as to be of minimal statistical relevance, previous decades of ASNE data do not provide a rosier outlook.

ASNE’s goal since the survey began in 1978 has been for newsroom staffing to equal the diversity of U.S. audiences. The original target date was 2000; in 1998, the date was adjusted to 2025. The association hasn’t announced a new target date, but 2025 does not seem doable if staffing trends continue.

As the number of working journalists falls, the needle on diversity stubbornly resists movement. This despite research by management consultant McKinsey and Co. that underscores an economic incentive for ethnically diverse managers: Companies with diverse leadership “are 33 percent more likely to outperform their peers on profitability.”

A common mistake is thinking that hiring is the solution to a host of issues. Managers want to believe that adding a diverse voice will give them credibility with undercovered communities, provide a backstop against unintentional offense to under-represented audiences and improve reporting.

But just hiring someone can’t be a cure-all. Counting on any single person to be the fix is an incredible burden — one that many journalists who were called to be the first in their newsroom can’t, and shouldn’t, have to carry alone. Managers have to take a larger look at what happens before and after hiring.

Hiring should involve stakeholders across the newsroom. And a smart newsroom should be tracking a pipeline of quality candidates at all times instead of only seeking recommendations when a job is available.

Once someone has been hired, it’s a newsroom’s responsibility to ensure that person’s success. Make sure someone hired for her diverse perspective isn’t pigeonholed into a beat because of presumed expertise. And don’t force someone to assimilate to the existing office culture; you wanted different views, so don’t suppress those differences.

The final leg of ensuring diversity is promotion, which comes in many forms, but creating a career path requires active participation. Sometimes people discover their true passion through cross-training with other teams. Being open to nonlinear possibilities is key.

Newsrooms need to take a harder look at the conversations they’re having around diversity. One tool is the Maynard Institute’s “fault lines” framework, which encourages journalists to consider another person’s race, gender, class, age and geography. Those are the forces that shape viewpoints — and it’s important to recognize one’s own fault lines before looking for what perspectives might be missing.

Success stories do exist in newsroom representation. One example is Chicago’s City Bureau, which made diversity, equity and inclusion essential in hiring practices and employment policies when it was founded in 2015. And it’s encouraging to that CEOs of legacy news organizations — including Gannett, The New York Times and Thomson Reuters — have taken the CEO action pledge to check their own biases, initiate meaningful conversations and go beyond their comfort zones to learn from others.

Too few news managers are taking meaningful steps to increase diversity. As an industry, we have to do better. And we need to do better faster. We don’t have another 50 years to adapt. The world outside is quickly becoming more and more diverse. If we can’t mirror that diversity of perspectives in our news products, we will cease to have relevance. And without relevance, we will cease to exist.

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