Newsroom Diversity Not Going to "Get Better"
Thanks to the Asian American Journalists Association, AAJA, we have new evidence exposing a dirty little secret about the news business in this country: Newsrooms in America do not reflect the readers they serve.
Ok, it's not really a secret but it might as well be given the utter lack of attention this issue gets. And it certainly doesn't get much news coverage.
The report posted by AAJA, "Missed deadline: The delayed promise of newsroom diversity," details the results of a survey they conducted of some of the major news organizations in this country. While the results were disappointing, and probably not surprising to many, what irritated me most was the refusal by many organizations to participate. The New York Times, LA Times, Washington Post, NPR and Chicago Tribune all agreed to contribute to the survey. At least they were transparent enough to reveal they haven't made much progress in making their newsrooms look like the communities they cover.
But CNN, Fox News and the Wall Street Journal refused. Fox News? - I get it. Wall Street Journal? - Not really surprised. CNN? Stop being hypocrites.
I conducted a similar, although more expansive, survey for the Kellogg Foundation in 2014. In addition to a review of the literature on this issue, I also conducted interviews with representatives from several of the major news organizations in this country. Like the AAJA team, I also interviewed people from NPR, CBS, the McClatchy Group, and Tribune and was also blown off by CNN.
After a few interviews, usually with "Directors of Diversity," I started to hear variations of the same tired story: "We're trying to make our newsrooms diverse but it's hard." Ok, thanks for trying?
I also did a historical review of diversity programs dating back to 1960s. Full disclosure: I am a product of those efforts getting hired in 1978 by a TV station in Tucson when I was still in college. What I discovered was news organizations were still relying on the same old strategies - the ones that were clearly not working.
So I decided instead, to focus on what people were doing that might actually be productive.
What I discovered was the amazing work going on in colleges and universities across the country, like Grady College at the University of Georgia or Savannah State University. Apparently, some of the best journalists of color in this country had fled the news business to create programs at these schools training a new generation of diverse journalists. Include Phillip Merrill College at the University of Maryland, Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State, University of Texas, George Washington and Syracuse to that list.
But the problem is one of scale. Those schools can only contribute a small trickle of new blood into the business. And the biggest problem with diversity isn't with the old established newsrooms. It's in the digital world.
In the last ten years the number of online-only newsrooms has exploded. There are probably thousands of them now and when I started looking at their staff directories I knew any strategies in play weren't going to make a dent.
So how do to make newsrooms more diverse?
I say give up - or at least I'm going to leave that quixotic quest to others. As one of the Diversity Directors told me off the record - "If media companies wanted to make newsrooms diverse, they would be diverse."
Instead, let's focus on creating new streams of information. Readership to newspapers and news network audiences are shrinking. People don't "consume" news the way they used. Social media has changed that completely. Let's create our own information streams and tell our own stories and let's focus on local news. That's what most people are interested in - the news happening in their backyards. Let's challenge and change the tired narratives that mainstream media only seem to perpetuate by circumventing them entirely. Let's help advocacy organizations do a better job of getting their message out by telling their story themselves. Let's support community news organizations that aren't owned by large corporate entities with hidden agendas.
Truth resonates. It's like a small fire out in the darkness that can be seen for miles. Let's build small fires and help each other find our way through the darkness.