Newsrooms must be ‘prodded into action’ on staffing diversity, says Harvard report

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A report evaluating diversity in American news media found newsrooms have made little progress toward fixing staffing problems that create blind spots in coverage of race and politics.

In the Shadow of Kerner: Fifty Years Later, Newsroom Diversity and Equity Stall,” by journalist and author Farai Chideya, reflects on the conclusions of a 1968 report by the Kerner Commission, which included sharp criticism of how the news media exacerbated racial inequities during the Civil Rights era. Noting the lack of diversity in newsroom staffing, the commission reported that news media had “failed to analyze and report adequately on racial problems in the United States, and, as a related matter, to meet the Negro’s legitimate expectations in journalism.”

For her research, Chideya requested demographic data on diversity of political reporting teams during the 2016 elections. She requested data from 15 major news organizations. Only four, including NPR, provided it. Two others, including PBS Newshour, provided data for their entire editorial staffs, but not for the political team.

Chideya conducted the research as a 2017 Joan Shorenstein Fellow at Harvard and published it through the university’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy.

Staff data from the news organizations that cooperated didn’t match the demographic makeup of the U.S. population, the report noted, and that discrepancy made a difference in how the elections were covered.

“Most major news outlets and news teams failed to anticipate the unusual nature of the [2016] election, which does not at its base invalidate their work,” the report said. “However, post-election assessments have not included systematic analyses of who was chosen to cover the campaign.”

According to the report, NPR’s political staff was more racially diverse than teams for the New York Times, USA Today or Washington Post. The NPR team was 68 percent white, 16 percent African American and 16 percent Asian.

By comparison, the New York Times’ political team was 90 percent white and 10 percent African American.

NPR also had the highest percentage of women on its 2016 politics team — at 60 percent. The New York Times’ team was 30 percent female.

PBS NewsHour’s breakdown of its entire editorial staff was similar to data of NPR’s team. PBS NewsHour’s staff was 58 percent female, 67 percent white, 11 percent African American, 6 percent Latino and 17 percent Asian.

The report also discusses incidents of racism, sexism and intimidation that journalists of color and women faced while reporting during the 2016 election.

“In newsrooms across the country, Latino and non-white reporters brought the increasingly hostile racial environment on the campaign trail to the attention of their editors, but based on both published reports and interviews offered on background for this paper, their warnings were largely ignored,” the report said.

The report calls for more transparency from newsrooms about the demographic makeup of their staffing. It recommends that foundations that fund journalism demand the information be made public. To be awarded a major prize for journalism, such as a Pulitzer, news organizations should be required to disclose their diversity metrics, the report suggests.

Chideya, now a program officer at the Ford Foundation, also called on individual journalists to work to change the industry. She highlighted efforts by New York Times reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones to increase the number of journalists of color in investigative reporting. Jones co-founded the Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting, a mentoring and training program for journalists of color.

“Today, the lack of urgency, resolve or both to address issues of journalistic diversity and equity means newsrooms must be prodded into action,” the report said.

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