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The Modern Newsroom Is Stuck Behind The Gender And Color Line

Are newsrooms too white?
Ben McLeod
Are newsrooms too white?

In many of today's newsrooms, women and journalists of color remain a sliver of those producing and reporting stories. According to studies from the American Society of News Editors, the Women's Media Center and the advocacy group VIDA, gender and ethnic diversity in newsrooms have hardly improved in the last decade despite increasing demand for more inclusive journalism in the current round-the-clock news cycle.

Nationally, Hispanic, black and Asian women make up less than 5 percent of newsroom personnel at traditional print and online news publications, according to 2016 data from the American Society of News Editors. The organization stopped requiring that news outlets reveal their identities in an attempt to increase participation in the yearly census. Numbers from 433 news organizations that participated in 2015 and 2016 show a 5.6 percent increase in the minority workforce, now at 17 percent at print and online news sites. But the numbers lag far behind demographic shifts in a country where nearly 40 percent of Americans are part of a minority group. Around the country, local newsrooms remain largely white by most measures. (In the spirit of full disclosure, NPR's latest diversity figures can be found here.)

In March, the Women's Media Center released its annual report on gender representationin the media (print bylines, internet, broadcast and other outlets). The latest numbers show a tiny change — 37.7 percent of the news was credited to female journalists, according to an analysis of over 24,000 pieces of news content. Major national outlets continue to be dominated by men, and women actually lost representation in broadcast news television.

In a 2015 survey by the group VIDA: Women of the Literary Arts, magazines with a focus on news and culture, such as The New Yorker, The New Republic and Harper's, don't fare any better. VIDA's numbers show that women of color (and minorities in general) are virtually absent from the political commentary and investigative journalism these magazines provide. Though nearly 20 percent of the country's population is Hispanic, very few of these publications had a single VIDA respondent self-report as Hispanic.

The implications of this generalized absence are manifold, and begin at the storytelling level.

A September 2016 piece by Lonnae O'Neal in The Undefeated, a site that covers how sports, race and culture intersect, described how NFL Network reporter Steve Wyche — one of the country's leading African American national sports reporters — covered the story of Colin Kaepernick's refusal to stand for the national anthem as an act of protest. His refusal, Wyche learned, formed part of a larger outcry over police violence against black men and women. Initial reports by other outlets focused on Kaepernick as divisive and a potential distraction in the locker room. For O'Neal, who analyzed the coverage with a racial lens, the Kaepernick story raised questions "about why the country is more brown than ever but mainstream journalism is so white."

O'Neal herself rose through the ranks as a Washington Post reporter and columnist for 24 years before joining The Undefeated. She sees her race as providing an added edge in stadiums filled with mostly black players. "Because I'm experienced, because I'm a woman, and because I'm African American, I can go right up to people and find an entry, a portal, a way to talk without layers and layers of translation," she said. Her common background with her sources, the "cultural resonance" between them, won't always carry the day, "but it goes a long way."

For O'Neal, hiring women, minorities and generally journalists of diverse backgrounds is not a luxury or a matter of "different optics," or political expedience, as recruiters typically approach the matter, but essential to the profession's mission and longevity. A typical white, male-centric newsroom, means critical stories will continue to go unreported and news analysis will remain unbalanced.

"We need new and different lenses, people of different backgrounds thinking at the table. We'll only be richer for having that. Why is it so hard to set as an intention? Because many folks are going to be uncomfortable with what that looks like," O'Neal said.

In the meantime, old narratives about race and identity don't change. Latinos are mostly U.S.-born and consist of dozens of sub-groups. But, says Dana Mastro, a professor in the department of communication at the University of California in Santa Barbara, they're seen only in one frame — immigration.

"The idea that there are other narratives just doesn't pan out," said Mastro, who researches racial and ethnic stereotyping in the media with a particular interest in Latinos. "It's immigration and almost entirely threat-driven," she said. "You just don't see other themes emerge, and Latinos are almost exclusively portrayed as undocumented Mexicans," she added.

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But without fundamental shifts in the news industry's modus operandi, simply hiring minorities won't change that, says Alex T. Williams, a doctoral candidate at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication, who studies media trends.

"The norms of journalism, and the routines of news organizations, are deeply ingrained," he wrote in an email. "Expecting a handful (or often less) of non-white employees to improve news coverage places a lot of pressure on them — when it likely requires a larger commitment from the entire newsroom or organization. If we hope to see more widespread change, the commitment needs to be a lot deeper than 'diversity hiring.'"

Williams' research, published in the Columbia Journalism Review, also challenges the old view that persists in some places in the industry that a lack of qualified minority candidates is the problem. Using data from Grady College's Annual Surveys of Journalism and Mass Communication, Williams found a hiring disparity between white and non-white journalism graduates.

Women of color, Williams added, referencing data from the American Society of News Editors, have been hit harder by recent layoffs in the news industry than any other group. The result for many journalists of color even at the top of their game is a fraught isolation and blatant stereotyping. Between 2009 and 2015, the number of black women in newsrooms dropped from 1,181 to 730; the number of Latinas in newsrooms dropped from 840 to 584; and the number of Asian American women dropped from 758 to 466.

Indira S. Somani, a former television news producer who teaches in the department of media, journalism and film at Howard University, recently co-authored an unpublished study currently in the peer-review phase at an academic journal that looked at the professional challenges faced by African-American journalists working at ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN and FOX. She conducted in-depth interviews with 23 news producers, correspondents, anchors and assignment editors, both men and women, to whom she granted anonymity in order to get answers that were as candid and open as possible. Somani offered insights from her interviews without drawing any specific conclusions prior to completing the peer-review process.

"One of the people I talked to, a national correspondent, says she tried to make people she works with forget that she's black," Somani said. The subject described suppressing "certain things" in order to be seen "as a human being," Somani said, quoting the subject. "I know there's a barrier there," Somani quoted the woman as saying, "But I don't want to draw attention to the barrier." Subjects often described receiving unwanted comments about their hairstyle and choice of clothes. They also described ambivalence about being confined to covering "the black story."

"There's a frustration and appreciation in that," said Somani, who tries to prepare her mostly African-American students for an evolving profession. "People are frustrated because they don't want to be assigned a story just because they're black. At the same time they realize they'll do justice to it."

Without a wider range of reporters and a more layered approach to big stories, O'Neal says, the public's understanding is impoverished. Just one example she cites — the disproportionate impact of deep cuts in retail jobs on low-income women, particularly women of color, is not addressed much in major news outlets. "When we talk job loss, the rust belt gets elegiacs," O'Neal wrote in an email after a phone interview. But the layoffs of thousands of retail workers is described as "'creative destruction at its best,'" with little probing.

Somani and O'Neal emphasize that a diverse, institutionally supported corps of journalists takes time and vision to build. That includes the sort of advocacy and mentoring — old fashioned talent nurturing — that often eludes young minority journalists even before they get their degrees. As a news producer at a major network, Somani remembers being "one of six people of color in the entire building, including the custodial staff." She loved the work, but had no mentors and tried to keep a steady focus as white, male executives promoted white producers. "It was not a supportive environment at all for women and minorities at all," she remembers. O'Neal is grateful to her mentors during her career, editors who were all women or people of color.

"There's real power in somebody having a greater imagination for you than you do, who can make things happen," said O'Neal. "The thinking goes that people will just bubble up and navigate their way to where they need to be," she said, disputing classical liberal notions of a meritocracy that prizes talent and perseverance. "That's not enough in any field of human endeavor. You have to be seen, mentored nurtured. The patriarchal message is that with enough luck and individual pluck, things will happen. But it takes real intention. Do we want to leave coverage of the United States to luck?"

Tal Abbady's writing has appeared in several national publications.

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Tal Abbady