WMC News & Features

Study of local TV news leaves diversity picture incomplete

Wmc Features White Male News Anchor 042018

Earlier this month, the Knight Foundation released its four-part report “Local TV News and the New Media Landscape,” detailing the state of the industry, its seemingly infinite opportunities for growth in the digital landscape, and the future of local television news.

The report found that local TV news is thriving as other local news outlets — newspaper and radio — struggle: “The average local TV station now has more news employees than the average American newspaper, profits are strong and local TV news remains the dominant news source for Americans.” In fact, the latest Radio Television Digital News Association (RTDNA)/Hofstra University Newsroom Survey on local news staffing, released on April 16, found that “total local TV news employment has surpassed total newspaper employment for the first time in more than 20 years of research.”

The report found that most TV newsrooms are at their highest level of staffing ever, and nearly 90 percent of news directors who participated in the survey said they expected their staffing to increase or remain stable over the next year. 

But who are their staff, and who are those news directors hiring? The survey examined TV news staffing and hiring by market, by full-time versus part-time, and by position. Data on the makeup of staff — age, gender, or racial breakdowns — were not collected. The Knight Foundation’s report itself provided only a brief mention of hiring practices, noting the trend of stations hiring more experienced journalism professionals, even if they have no TV experience, as a way to bolster the quality of journalism they produce.

While the report’s concluding recommendation echoes news directors’ stated intention of developing more substantive journalism via more in-depth, engaging reporting (rather than just “crime and controversy” reporting), innovation, and audience engagement, it stops short of providing insight into how that standard of journalism can be achieved, and by whom. Time and time again, the report’s authors say, news leaders expressed “a new commitment to connect with communities” as a way to achieve such an ambition and maintain a competitive advantage. Yet the connection between the newsroom’s makeup and that of the communities it serves was completely absent from the report.

The information that was omitted from the report, as well as from the survey, is concerning. The latest report released by the Women’s Media Center on “The Status of Women of Color in the U.S. News Media 2018” illuminates a disappointing reality for people of color, with women of color representing only 12.6 percent of local TV news staff and men of color representing only 11.7 percent. The overall figure for minority representation in local TV news has changed only 6.6 points over the last 27 years, according to the RTDNA report “Women and Minorities in Newsrooms.” The author of the report, researcher Bob Papper (who also contributed to the recent Knight Foundation report), concluded that, for the minority workforce, “the bigger picture remains unchanged.” 

What makes the underrepresentation of people of color in local TV news all the more critical to address is that it is a crucial pipeline for journalists. A 2015 Pew Research Center article examining diversity at smaller outlets noted that minorities have been and remain underrepresented, “especially when it comes to the places that would-be journalists traditionally try to break into the business: smaller local TV and newspaper outlets.”

The report’s authors interviewed Hank Price, general manager of WVTM-TV in Birmingham, Alabama, who emphasized that “Credibility and trust are the foundations of future success.” That kind of trust and connection with an audience, according to the Knight Foundation’s Director of Journalism LaSharah Bunting, can be achieved by advancing diversity in journalism. In an article written to accompany a report on social media subcultures released earlier this year, Bunting wrote, “Many news organizations have come to understand that a meaningful relationship with audiences is crucial to their success. Yet that connection can be tenuous when a newsroom does not reflect the communities it serves in its staff and coverage.” It’s disappointing, then, that this latest report did not heed Bunting’s advice by putting forth the recommendation of more diverse staffing. Though it offers as a recommendation more substantive reporting, and touts its benefits in creating transparency and trust with audiences, the report falls short in giving guidance to stations, newspapers, and digital outlets about how to create transparency and trust.

When I reached out to the Knight Foundation to inquire about the report’s lack of depth in examining diversity in TV newsroom staffing, I was told that the Knight Foundation “firmly agrees that newsrooms that better reflect the communities they serve is a key to trust and engagement” and that “one of Knight’s underlying values is to support inclusive and participatory communities.” I was then informed of their many grants that support diversity in TV news writ large. These grants are undoubtedly critical to creating inroads into the industry for people of color, but they answer only part of the problem. We need to know where newsrooms are in their efforts (or lack thereof) to hire diverse staff. Emphasis on training and opportunities for people of color is a lopsided and incomplete approach in which a pipeline is created for people of color to enter workplaces that may be inhospitable to or unprepared for them. In an industry whose main entry points are at local outlets, where people of color are the least represented, we are remiss not to connect this data point for local newsrooms and put forth the business case for hiring diverse staff.

Overall, the Knight Foundation report missed an opportunity to connect why local TV newsrooms should see a problem with lack of diversity among staff, why their newsrooms should reflect their communities, and how they can achieve their goal of a sustainable future for the industry by meeting this measure 

In the Women’s Media Center’s roadmap for parity, Viviana Hurtado, a news anchor for WTOL-TV/FOX, suggested, “[Sustainable change] requires companies not only revamping reporting structures but truly investing in up-and-coming staff, especially minorities, through clear mentoring and coaching, training, and career opportunity. [Do] not just recruit but promote and retain.” But first, newsrooms need to see the value in investing in staff of color. And in order for them to do so, they need to widen their focus. In an interview for the Women’s Media Center, Joy-Ann Reid explains, “Without diversity among journalists, the industry is looking at the country through a myopic lens.” Women’s Media Center co-founder Gloria Steinem went further to say, “Missing women of color in the newsrooms of this country is an injustice in itself, and an injustice to every American reader and viewer who is deprived of great stories and a full range of facts. Inclusiveness in the newsroom means inclusiveness in the news. Racism and sexism put blinders on everyone.” 

Quality journalism requires a diversity of perspectives and a mindfulness of the many ways gender, class, ethnicity, and ideals interplay to truly grasp the experiences of our communities. In order to do so, and to truly commit to our newsrooms reflecting those communities, we first need to be able to imagine a future for the industry in which people of color are commonplace and their contributions valued. 

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Frances Nguyen
Editor - WMC Women Under Siege, WMC Social Media Manager
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