Q: It’s said that newsrooms do not reflect the racial makeup of the country, but census data contradicts that claim. What gives?

New York Times Newsroom 1978


This is an excellent question and a tough one to answer. According to the Pew Research Center, newsrooms are 77 percent white, which seems disproportionate at first glance. But according to 2020 census data, the United States is, indeed, 76.3 percent “white alone,” defined by the Census Bureau as “individuals who responded ‘No, not Spanish/Hispanic/Latino,’ and who reported ‘White’ as their only entry in the race question.” Other sources, even the Census Bureau itself, have indicated that whites represent between 57 and 61 percent of the US population. The discrepancy can be attributed to evolving notions of “race” vis-a-vis self-identification among Hispanic people, and these were implemented in the 2020 census. As the bureau explains: “The improvements and changes enabled a more thorough and accurate depiction of how people self-identify, yielding a more accurate portrait of how people report their Hispanic origin and race within the context of a two-question format.”

This brings us to the first challenge in addressing the issue: Data is subjective. Wait… how is that possible? Isn’t data the most objective thing in the world? Far from it. Data reflects numerous biases, starting with who conducted the research, who participated in the study, how large the sample size was, and, to use this case specifically, how we define “race.” Let’s look at an earlier example: According to historical US Census data, in 1610 the United States was 100 percent white. While this might be technically true if we consider only those people who identified as citizens of the United States, it erases from existence the countless indigenous people who also lived in the 13 colonies. Imagine if their interests had been considered by the journalists of that time. Better yet, imagine if indigenous people had been represented in the country’s earliest newsrooms, or what counted as newsrooms back then. “Journalism is the first rough draft of history,” goes an old industry adage. A corollary to that statement could be: “History is defined not only by what happened, but also by how it was documented, and whose interests that documentation served.” We’d be living in a very different United States today if indigenous people had played a part in writing that first rough draft of American history, let alone been acknowledged to exist in the first place.

Second, there is often an inverse relationship between the importance of a story and the social status of the people affected. Think: George Floyd, Trayvon Martin, Syrian refugees, the people of Ukraine. None of these people or groups represents a position of power or dominance. And that’s exactly why the terrible things that have happened to them are so important.

Here’s another famous industry adage: “Journalism should afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.” In other words, journalism is by definition a progressive field. And although its purpose is not to effect change, but to inform and to reflect the “best obtainable version of the truth,” as Carl Bernstein once put it, journalism strives to move society forward by maintaining a healthy democracy. Good journalists hold those in power accountable and provide a voice for the voiceless. And though progressive white journalists who report on underrepresented groups are essential, it would be wrong to rely solely on them to report on these segments of society. They will always, to some extent, exist outside of marginalized groups. Their perspective will always, to some extent, be that of someone looking in. And their voice, however powerful, will always be a proxy for those they cover. This is why representation matters so much.

Consider this example:

The 2020 Pulitzer Prize in feature writing went to a man named Mitchell S. Jackson for his profile in Runner’s World of Ahmaud “Maud” Arbery, the 25-year-old Georgia man who was murdered by white supremacists in February 2020 while running through the quiet, residential streets of Satilla Shores.

Runner’s World June 18, 2020

Jackson is a Black writer who brought his own life experience to his account of Arbery’s short life and his horrible, premature death. He didn’t just report on Arbery; he used his voice to represent Arbery. No white journalist, no matter how talented, could have done the same. Only about 5.4 percent of journalists currently working in the US are Black, according to data gathered by Zippia. Mitch Jackson is one of them. Imagine if there were more. Imagine how much society would benefit from more voices like his, from more stories like his profile of Ahmaud Arbery. Over time, it might even help to prevent another senseless injustice. The three men who chased Arbery down and killed him were found guilty of murder and hate crimes. Jackson’s reporting helped to afflict a system that produced and, for most of their lives, protected three comfortable white men who, even at their sentencing, expressed no remorse for their actions. His reporting, and his voice, also helped to comfort the heartbroken family of Ahmaud Arbery.

Third, but by no means last, because there is much more that could be said on this topic: The country is changing rapidly. While it might be 60 to 73 percent white today, by 2045 whites will represent less than half of the country’s population, according to the Brookings Institute. The policies, social norms, and perceptions of different groups that will be adopted over the next two decades will be informed not only by the stories the news media chooses to tell, but also by how they’re told and who tells them. In this sense, the makeup of any newsroom should not reflect the present demographics so much as the demographics of the next generation. The stories we produce today will guide us tomorrow; they will shape the future. The least we can do is to embody that future in our newsrooms. Doing otherwise would be to stagnate. Worse, it would deny the truth.