To Solve Journalism's Diversity Problem, Change Must Start at the Top

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Following the death of George Floyd (a Minnesotan Black man) on May 25 while in police custody, protests erupted across the nation against racism and police violence. These past weeks have been tumultuous, not only for the public, but also for the media industry as it revealed concerns about the lack of diversity represented in newsrooms around the country.

The 2019 News Leaders Association’s (NLA) Newsroom Diversity Survey (formerly ASNE’s Newsroom Diversity Survey) identified that people of color represent 21.9 percent of salaried workforce among 429 news organizations that responded. Women make up 41.8 percent of all newsroom workers (in both print/digital and online-only newsrooms) in this year’s survey, up from 41.6 percent last year. Moreover, people of color make up only 18.8 percent of newsroom managers at both print/digital and online-only publications.

Without this kind of representation, mistakes can slip through the cracks. For example, about a week after Floyd’s death, the Philadelphia Inquirer published a controversial headline, “Buildings Matter, Too,” (a play on the Black Lives Matter movement) with a story about how the civil unrest affected the city’s buildings. The headline led to the resignation of longtime executive editor Stan Wischnowski and a walkout by nearly 50 staffers.

In Pennsylvania, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette was accused of barring two Black journalists from covering the recent protests. As a result, one quit, while the other journalist has filed a lawsuit against the paper accusing the publication of “retaliation and racial discrimination.”

The Los Angeles Times recently faced criticism over blatant shortcomings regarding race and representation in its pages and staff. In a letter to owner Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong and executive editor Norman Pearlstine, Black journalists demanded the newspaper commit to hiring more Black journalists, create a pipeline for them to advance their careers with the Times and correct pay disparities.

The newsroom also held a videoconference where Pearlstine heard from upset staff members who voiced the fact that the Times had missed the opportunity to hire diverse members after Soon-Shiong acquired the newspaper in 2018. According to a Times article, since he took control, 110 journalists have been hired. However, the newsroom is still 61 percent white, although the population of Los Angeles County is only 26 percent white.

Diversity is vital in serving their audiences. While some newsrooms have made it a core value, others have neglected it. Like the protests taking place in the streets, those newsrooms are now witnessing their journalists of color step up and vocalize what changes are needed to operate in their communities effectively.

What is Diversity?

Alberto B. Mendoza, executive director of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ), believes that “diversity really means that wide spectrum of inclusiveness as it relates to different perspectives that reflect the people you’re serving or the people that make up your community.”

Doris Truong, director of training and diversity at Poynter, seems to agree. She trains journalists on the reality that “diversity is not race only.”

When people think of diversity, they should not only think of Black and white. Diversity is being inclusive of many factors such as gender, socioeconomic status, religion and more—which is why the NLA Newsroom Diversity Survey is such an important resource.

The hope is that the numbers will encourage news organizations to improve, yet that hasn’t always been the case, according to Katrice Hardy, executive editor of the IndyStar and Midwest Regional editor for USA Today Network, and the chair of NLA’s diversity committee.

NLA was essentially seeing the same results year after year from those who participated in the survey. It didn’t help that participation hit a historic low of 17 percent in 2018 (although it did climb somewhat to 22.8 percent last year).

According to Hardy, these are the main factors why NLA is making changes to the 2020 survey, which they announced earlier this year. NLA wants to include key groups such as homosexual and transgender in the survey. The organization has also been working with Meredith Clark, lead researcher and an assistant professor at the University of Virginia, in hopes of creating an easy and quick process for news leaders to fill out the survey, thus increasing participation. Clark has also been conducting case study research to offer organizations tailored approaches and tools to help them improve newsroom diversity. NLA is also contemplating partnering with other organizations to offer grants to journalism entities on the promise that the recipients complete the survey and commit to improving.

“We’ve been kind of an advisor (but) we want to be driving this conversation. We want to insist and demand basically that news organizations do this work,” Hardy said. “Frankly, our industry will die if we don’t. We won’t have loyalty or the support of the very people who are going to be our readership.”

Changes Need to be Made

Hiring a diverse newsroom team is the first step, but as seen in the results of the NLA survey, hiring continues to be an issue. Hardy and Mendoza tell E&P that many times they have heard complaints that there is “no one out there,” but that is hardly the case. (Hardy suggests that newsroom leaders form partnerships with colleges and other entities to find people.)

However, there are signs that the industry wants to improve. Recently, the Washington Post announced more than a dozen open newsroom positions focused on race, including a managing editor for diversity and inclusion.

“The question is will they—whoever is appointed to these roles—have the real support to implement change?” Mendoza said. “While we might be put in these positions, are we put in these positions to succeed? Or are we just realistically being set up to fail? And every time one of us fails, it gives excuses for why this will never work again or why they don’t have to take that risk because they tried.”

Many times, those journalists will be hired, and when they start their jobs under the impression that they will be able to share their perspective or cover certain stories, they end up not having the opportunity. Other journalists might land a job and quickly realize that they are the only representation of their kind—the sole voice for a community or that promotions are hard to come by.

All three news leaders E&P spoke with named multiple examples that spell disillusionment for minority journalists and explained that those journalists will become frustrated and move on from the organization or even out of the media business. To that end, the diversity effort cannot stop the moment journalists enter a newsroom, which is why the news industry needs to support these minority journalists and help them move forward in their careers. That means providing news leaders with the resources and authority to do their job, creating a pipeline for minority journalists to develop their careers, and creating opportunities for them to be heard. But Truong said newsroom leaders should be prepared to hear complaints and think about what changes they are willing to make to commit to that mission.

Not only is coverage changing, but also how reporters are literally writing about it. The Associated Press recently announced changes to its writing style guide to capitalize the “b” in Black when referring to people in a racial, ethnic or cultural context.       

“If you’re in a newsroom that relies on AP, you still have your own authority, your own autonomy to decide what makes the most sense…You should not wait on the AP if you know that you’re doing the right thing for your audience,” Truong said. “In this case, it’s really something where it’s a clear signal of inclusion not only for Black people but also for the Indigenous people who have been asking for the ‘I’ to be capitalized for years as well.”

NLA also recently published a list of suggestions for short-term improvement which includes embracing that every journalist brings at least two perspectives to their work (personal/cultural) and taking the initiative to engage with race in explicit ways.

Hardy also told E&P that news leaders need to make it clear that it is everybody’s job to make certain that coverage represents underserved communities, and news leaders should have more conversations with their newsrooms to ensure that the industry becomes more inclusive.

For instance, the recent Floyd coverage showed many newsrooms their weaknesses and caused a lot of self-reflection.

“I think what distinguishes the coverage of this particular case from a lot of previous instances of police brutality has been how many Black journalists have been allowed the opportunity to bring their own voice to the coverage,” Truong said. “There’s been more allowance or sensation that the journalists can be more personal about it, and I think what we’ve seen is that audiences appreciate that.”

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