North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Public Radio released a study last month tracking the racial diversity of sources cited in its news reports, joining stations and networks throughout the system that have started gathering such data to gauge how well they are reflecting their communities.
The Asheville station shared the study’s results on its website Jan. 23. Other public media outlets tracking source diversity include NPR, WHYY in Philadelphia, KUOW in Seattle, KQED in San Francisco, and KUT in Austin, Texas, which shared results of its yearlong study Feb. 3.
Blue Ridge Public Radio is among the smaller stations to undertake such an effort. It has fewer than 20 staffers, with five on its news team. The station conducted its first-ever study with help from the Center for Diversity Education at the University of North Carolina at Asheville and a computer science student at the university. It used the state’s public voter registration records to check the race of sources.
Without the university’s help, BPR couldn’t have done the study with its own resources, said News Director Matt Bush. “There isn’t a price on the importance of doing this,” Bush said.
The study focused on sources in BPR news stories from May 2018 to May 2019. During that time, around 75% of featured sources were white, 9% were black, 6% were Hispanic/Latino, 4% were Native American and 3% were Asian. According to 2017 Census data, the 17-county area that the station serves is 86% white, 6% Hispanic/Latino, 4% black, 1.5% Native American and 1% Asian.
Though the station’s sources were more diverse than its audience, BPR still has work to do, Bush said.
“We know it is a very white community,” he said. “… It doesn’t mean we should ignore diversity. One reason why I think this is very important to us is that Asheville, over the last decade, has really seen a lot of gentrification. … The other part is that the Latinx community is growing. It’s the fastest-growing minority population in our region.”
Bush also cited a sharp decline in Asheville’s African-American population as a reason to focus on who is represented in BPR’s coverage. “In some ways, it might be more important for places like us to do this [study],” said Bush.
Bush said BPR reporters are looking to further diversify their sources, promote awareness of the issue within the newsroom and develop more locally focused programs to include community voices. The station also plans to conduct a follow-up study of sources from June 2019 to June 2020.
Low representation in Austin
Austin’s KUT boasts a larger news team —18 staffers — and serves a community with greater racial diversity than Asheville. It began tracking source diversity in 2018.
KUT hired a part-time staffer, Sangita Menon, to assist with the study. Menon reviewed coverage from January to March 2018 to track names, genders, ethnicities and titles of sources. She called sources to determine what they identified as or asked reporters who had interviewed their sources in person. KUT newsroom staff then entered source information into a spreadsheet from September 2018 to October 2019.
The results of the study, posted on KUT’s website Feb. 3, found that 66% of sources over the yearlong period identified as non-Hispanic white, 18% as Latinx (of any race), 10% as black, 3% as Asian and 2% as two or more races. A small fraction identified as Native American or Hawaiian/Pacific Islander.
According to data from the Texas Demographic Center, the population of the area KUT serves is roughly 53% non-Hispanic white, 32% Latinx (of any race), 7% black and about 5% Asian.
“Clearly, we are still underrepresenting the voices of people of color in our community, particularly people who are Latinx,” Projects Editor Matt Largey wrote in the post.
Largey told Current that station managers who want to undertake such a study should clearly articulate the goal of diversity, because otherwise, station staffers may see the task as busywork. He also recommends continually sharing feedback from such studies with the newsroom.
KUT is planning projects aimed at further diversifying its sources, including a storytelling project with the Austin Public Library and events at community colleges where it will ask people what they want to see on the news and gather new contacts.
Largey said he recognizes that it will take more than a couple big projects to make a difference, with the station needing to establish a consistent presence in the community to make progress.
“We can’t just say we did this one big project and now we’re done and now everything is better, because it’s not going to be,” Largey said. “Being consistent about it will change the mindset and will make us pay attention to this more.”