What we don’t know about diversity in newsrooms
A new study released by Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy may be most surprising for what it didn’t find. In the wake of a particularly hostile and divisive 2016 presidential campaign replete with harassment and internet trolling, “In the Shadow of Kerner: Fifty Years Later, Newsroom Diversity and Equity Stall” set out to investigate 15 major news outlets in order to learn more about the gender and racial makeup of their political press corps and to measure whether or not news coverage of race and politics had improved since the groundbreaking 1968 findings of the Kerner Commission, which famously found that our nation was moving toward “two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal” and that the news media, with its lack of diversity, was partly to blame.
Farai Chideya, a seasoned journalist and commentator and author of the new report, begins by outlining “new threats” and the various ways in which women journalists and journalists of color have been targeted more and more in an increasingly hostile political environment, including “harassment by interview subjects and hostile news consumers” and “conflict and sometimes harassment in newsrooms.” Clearly, political reporting is taxing for these groups. The report sets out to discover whether more diverse teams of reporters did a better job covering the election despite such increasing obstacles. The 2016 election “was a master class in American politics,” said Chideya, a 2017 Shorenstein fellow, “and I don’t think a lot of us [journalists] passed the final exam.” But getting data was intended only as a first step.
“The point wasn’t to get numbers for numbers’ sake,” said Chideya. “The point was to use the numbers to do a deeper analysis,” and ultimately to examine whether more diverse newsrooms covered the election with more “nuance,” as she put it. But the study never got that far.
Instead, the most significant finding was that most of the outlets on Chideya’s list declined to provide any data at all. Of 15 newsrooms queried, just four offered up the requested information, a breakdown of their political reporting teams by race and gender: USA Today (which responded quickly and thoroughly, the report notes), The New York Times, The Washington Post, and NPR. Three additional outlets — PBS NewsHour, the Los Angeles Times, and NBC — provided partial data that was different from what was requested. The majority, however, declined to share any numbers at all, a fact that’s even more surprising given that these are major outlets that undoubtedly had the resources to do so: NBC, The Wall Street Journal, CBS, BuzzFeed, ABC News, MSNBC, CNN, Fox News, and Time magazine. In fact, a third of the non-respondents didn’t even bother to reply to the Shorenstein Center’s requests.
“We contacted multiple people over a span of two months,” said Chideya. “Some of them were people I knew. At NBC, for example, someone said they’d give me the numbers, but then NBC Corporate made it clear that those numbers weren’t going to be forthcoming.” The study also notes that it was “difficult to get reporters and editors to talk about the issue. Often, they would do so only if they were on background or off the record.”
“If this industry is going to say we’re here to stand up to the truth,” said Chideya, “then we have to stand up to the truth that our newsrooms are hiding numbers and preventing a deeper analysis. We can’t preach the gospel of transparency and accountability and then not practice it ourselves.”
Of those who did provide data, The New York Times had the least diversity of all, with political reporting teams that remained 90 percent white and 70 percent male. Chideya was not surprised. “One of the things that happens at powerful, legacy news organizations is that there are sometimes clearly defined career paths and people get to stay in their positions.” With few new hires, it’s basically “people sitting on power … probably a lot of veteran reporters who’d racked up miles on the campaign trail.” The takeaway, said Chideya, is that such organizations “have to be a lot more deliberate in putting diversity in the mix.… Think about who you’re putting on the election beat, and why you’re putting them there. In a country as divided as this one is, it’s important.”
The most promising numbers came from the Los Angeles Times, which reported an editorial staff that was 65 percent white and 35 percent nonwhite. (The Times did not provide data for political teams specifically.) In terms of gender diversity, NPR ranked highest, with political reporting teams made up of 60 percent women. When asked why she thought that was so, Chideya, who is a former host of NPR’s News & Notes, pointed to a conscious effort by executives like Keith Woods, the company’s vice president for newsroom training and diversity. “They’ve struggled as everyone else has,” said Chideya, “but they’ve put in the time to think about what diversity means to them as an institution.”
“In retrospect,” the report concludes, “the Kerner Commission report seems almost hopeful.” At least it presents the issues “clearly and with the expectation that the rallying cry will produce action.” In contrast, the Shorenstein study found a surprising lack of urgency in today’s newsrooms; an unwillingness to address, much less resolve, the problem.
The report also offers a variety of creative solutions, from mandatory transparency of diversity metrics by major awards committees such as Pulitzer and DuPont, to creating more pipelines for diverse hiring and retention, such as the Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting, founded by New York Times investigative reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones in 2016. Change doesn’t just happen, said Chideya. “Diversity is the result of many small decisions.”
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