The sad reality is that newsrooms–like most other businesses in the country–do not mirror the racial or economic makeup of the country as a whole. And this disparity likely impacts the coverage the community receives.
In 2018, the Pew Research Center found that 77 percent of newsroom employees were white, and more than half are white males. These numbers haven’t changed much since 1967 when a federal commission called out the news industry for being “shockingly backward in seeking out, hiring, training, and promoting Negroes.” From 2004 to 2019, only 38 percent of newsrooms became more racially diverse, while 15 percent became less diverse, according to a 2019 analysis from the News Leaders Association. Digital news operations showed more promise: About one-third of their full-time employees are journalists of color.
Talk about this problem resurfaces every few years with commitments from many news organizations to do better. However, mirroring the protests in the streets after George Floyd’s murder, walk-outs and public outings against journalists’ own newsrooms came out in response to what many saw were their outlet’s weak commitment to social justice. The pledges to increase diversity and inclusion, were slaps in the faces to the Black journalists who experience racism in their newsroom.
Journalist Soledad O’Brien wrote about the impact of this lack of representation in newsrooms in a New York Times Opinion piece: “The thin ranks of people of color in American newsrooms have often meant us-and-them reporting, where everyone from architecture critics to real estate writers, from entertainment reporters to sports anchors, talk about the world as if the people listening or reading their work are exclusively white.”
A host of newsrooms address the issue in their coverage by creating race beats. A beat, in journalism, is an area of reporting that a journalist focuses on. By specifically hiring journalists of color to report on racism and promoting these newsroom staffers to leadership roles, news organizations are trying to hold themselves accountable. But this too is not without its detractors.
Transparency in pay, hiring practices and overall staffing demographics isn’t completely unheard of. The 18-month-old NYC nonprofit news organization The City, publishes a yearly report that includes a race, ethnicity and gender breakdown from their interns up to the board of directors.
But the diversity of those producing the news is only one part of the problem. Some reporters are also taking a deep look at the individuals who are quoted as experts in their pieces.
When Bloomberg reporter Ben Bartenstein analyzed whom he interviewed for his work, he found men nearly seven times more often than women. The next year he increased the number of women to 50 percent and documented the lessons learned on Twitter.
NPR also took a look at its sources and found a lack of diversity. “Latinos were the only journalists who could be counted on to cover Latinos,” said Keith Woods, NPR’s chief diversity officer. “We have to do better at hiring.”
Tanzina Vega, the host of “The Takeaway,” a WNYC (and NPR affiliate) show, started covering race and inequality in 2013 when she created the beat at The New York Times. “We have an empathy gap in this country. We have a wealth gap and we have a truth gap,” Vega said last year. The through line, as Vega sees it, is race.
This connection between what a newsroom looks like and what news coverage needs to be is an ongoing reflection of the country at large This doesn’t mean it can’t be improved, but it is a dynamic relationship that requires transparency, fresh hiring practices, and a renewed sense of purpose.