What we need to know to improve diversity in newsrooms

journalism / Article

News organizations have come to understand this important truth: a deep relationship with readers leads to improved trust, stronger journalism and sustainable business. Yet that authentic connection can be difficult to establish when newsroom leaders and staff don’t reflect the communities they serve.

Diversity in newsrooms is among the biggest challenges facing the industry, yet the commitment to tackling this problem is often insufficient or nonexistent. News organizations can’t begin to offer viable solutions if they don’t fully understand, or acknowledge, the extent and scope of the problem. And, as journalists know, to thoroughly interpret any important issue, you must begin with the data.

Last week the American Society of News Editors announced it was extending the deadline to Oct. 12 for its annual newsroom diversity survey because only 234 out of nearly 1,700 newspapers and digital media outlets responded to the request to submit data this year. In response, Knight Foundation joined Ford Foundation, Democracy Fund, Lenfest Institute and many other funders in releasing a joint statement calling on newsrooms to respond with urgency and submit their employment data. These foundations also announced they will now require annual completion of the ASNE survey for journalism grantees going forward. 

Since its inception in 1978, the ASNE newsroom census, funded in part by Knight for many years, has been an important tool for tracking diversity in the industry and how it compares with the shifting population of America. The 2017 census showed that people of color made up 16.6 percent of those newsrooms surveyed, down from 16.94 percent the year before. And, for the first time, the survey included data visualizations from Google News Lab illustrating the gender, race and ethnicity of newsroom staff and leadership compared with the demographics of the communities they cover.

Building a diverse newsroom can be hard work, especially when financial pressures are forcing cuts and limiting hiring. In the last decade, more than 27,000 newsroom jobs have vanished, according to Pew Research Center. At the same time, there are real consequences when newsrooms do not make diversity a priority. 

News media have long struggled to provide complete, nuanced reporting with historical context on diverse communities. As trust in news media continues to erode, especially among diverse communities, many are bypassing traditional media to raise awareness of important issues and tell stories on their own terms. 

The transparency that journalists often demand of the sources and institutions they cover must also be applied to the newsroom and its operations. To inspire trust in journalism and deepen engagement, it is vital that the public has the information and context they need to assess the work. 

We cannot advance diversity in newsrooms without measuring it, and the collection and analysis of this data is a vital step forward. This is data that every news organization should be regularly gathering and examining on its own. It is essential to developing sound strategic priorities, while and attracting new audiences and subscribers.  It also helps to identify institutional blind spots and challenges, as well as opportunities for growth. Talk to the people in your newsroom and those who have recently left. Examine if your newsroom culture truly embraces diverse voices or has a reputation of silencing them. 

Readers ultimately lose out when certain voices are routinely absent. News organizations must respond with urgency and live up to their promise of fair, accurate representation of all people.

Newsrooms with questions about how to respond should contact lead researcher Dr. Meredith Clark, [email protected], or ASNE Executive Director Teri Hayt, [email protected].

LaSharah Bunting is Director/Journalism at Knight Foundation. Follow her on Twitter @LaSharah.

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journalism / Article