Representation is a huge challenge for newsrooms, and you’re right– they need to do better. We talked about why the racial makeup of a newsroom matters in a post earlier this year, but you bring up another problem: The failure to diversify the sources that are interviewed in the news media day in and day out. When news outlets consult the same people, again and again, the audience is deprived of a full range of voices, perspectives and even facts. A lack of diversity and representation can also breed audience disengagement and mistrust.
Data from the Women’s Media Center back up your observation. Researchers tracked gender and race representation on the five big Sunday morning political shows for a year and said that “women and people of color are practically invisible.”
The study revealed that 68 percent of the guests on these influential programs were men, and more than half of those men were white. People of color accounted for just over a quarter of all interviews, and women for less than a third of them. These gender and racial disparities demonstrate a failure to reflect current demographics in which women represent more than half of the U.S. population and people of color nearly 40 percent.
Julie Burton, president and CEO of the Women’s Media Center, says that lack of representation has real consequences. “The major Sunday news shows set the tone for news coverage on all media platforms,” says Burton. “The stories covered and the experts and opinion leaders featured tell us who has power — who and what the shapers of media think we should care about.”
These shows not only set the agenda for the next news cycle but also enhance their guests’ reputation and prestige, making them even more influential. And more likely to be invited back again and again. Also no surprise, seven of the top 10 guests who came back for those repeat appearances were white men.
It’s pretty much the same story for newspapers and radio. For example, The Sacramento Bee found that 75 percent of its sources were male and that most were white, which does not reflect Sacramento’s demographics.
On NPR, two-thirds of the voices were men and more than 80 percent white, according to the last company-wide survey done in 2018.
Even more disappointing, the percentage of white voices actually increased from 2015 despite efforts to include more racially and ethnically diverse sources.
So what can be done? Well first, recognize the problem.
Most reporters will tell you they are seeking out and including diverse voices in their stories, but the only way to know for sure is to track the racial and gender makeup of all their sources. The results are often not what they expect and can alert reporters to unconscious biases.
The Atlantic’s science journalist, Ed Yong, does a monthly inventory of the number of women and people of color in his work and finds the exercise valuable. “Crucially, I tracked how I was doing in a simple spreadsheet. I can’t overstate the importance of that: It is a vaccine against self-delusion. It prevents me from wrongly believing that all is well,” said Yong, who has increased both the number of women and people of color in his stories and is now working on including more sources from the LGBTQ community.
Tracking can also help newsrooms become more inclusive. NPR’s Business Desk started tracking its sources after that embarrassing 2018 report, and according to the head of the desk, Pallavi Gogoi, it’s working. In the first quarter of this year, only half of its sources were male or white, while black sources increased to 22 percent and Asian sources rose to 13 percent. “The dramatic change proves that consciously selecting sources and stories makes a difference,” says Gogoi.
There are other, albeit longer-term, solutions. Newsrooms not only need to recruit women and people of color but make sure they are groomed for leadership roles and editorial decision-making. Media ownership also needs to diversify because it, too, is disproportionately dominated by white men.
There is no time to waste. According to census projections, the United States is expected to become a minority-white society by 2045. News outlets that fail to address these inequities do so at their own peril. Not only will they be unable to fulfill their mission to provide news that accurately reflects the world we live in, they also risk losing both their profits and audience.