Why is public media so white?

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Courtesy of Julie Drizin

Twanna Hines, Mei Fong, Farai Chideya, Julie Drizin and Marie Nelson at American University School of Communication event on "Covering a Diverse and Divided America." Chideya is a former public radio host; Nelson is a former producer and executive with NPR and PBS. Chideya is now a Ford Foundation program officer focused on journalism. Current has received grants from the Ford Foundation for travel and strategic planning, not reporting.

Why is public media so white?

This is a manifesto about the sorry state of diversity, equity and inclusion in public broadcasting. It’s a long read, but since I always say that “we are in this together,” I hope you will take the time to read it, think about it and respond.

We hold these truths to be self-evident: Public media has a whiteness problem. You know this. Everybody knows it, especially people of color. The vast majority of our stations and organizations fail to adequately reflect their communities or the country. We lack representation of people of color in our leadership, staffing, newsrooms, voices on air, sources, coverage and — no surprise here — audiences. We in public media mean well. Our hearts are in the right place; we have the “right values” and often say the right things, but good intentions and good words are no longer good enough.

The growing Black Lives Matter movement is confronting the enduring institutional and structural racism that continues to poison this country. BLM reminds us that social change comes from the grassroots; it happens when oppressed people rise up, say “Enough!” and assert their collective power. Leaders in all sectors are called to listen and accept responsibility for the past, present and future. That includes public media leaders.

In the past few weeks, media organizations have been making public pronouncements about the lack of diversity in their own organizations while proclaiming their commitment to racial justice and equity.  Many, including some pubmedia stations, are now hiring chief diversity officers who will be tasked with making good on that promise.  

Journalists of color are speaking out about the lived realities of working in white-dominated newsrooms, the burdens of being a minority at the office and the trauma of being treated like a crime suspect by police in public spaces. In response to these open discussions of institutional racism, both The Washington Post and The New York Times have announced initiatives aimed at changing their culture and their coverage, creating new beats, promoting people of color within and examining their hiring practices. Public media should too.

Messages about mission

Some public media stations emphasize diversity and inclusion in the mission statements posted on their websites. After the George Floyd killing, some issued press releases or put pop-up messages online pledging to be a force for healing in their communities. Public media CEOs and GMs have emailed listeners and viewers, acknowledging the painful reckoning we’re experiencing and witnessing.

I was especially moved by a letter from WAMU GM JJ Yore in which he expressed solidarity with the victims of systemic racism, writing, “I am mindful of the great responsibility the news media play in covering these events. The recent acts of violence against people of color and subsequent cries for racial justice are consuming our personal lives, our journalism, and our work throughout the station.”

Outward-facing messages are one thing; internal turmoil is another. WAMU, licensed to American University, where Current is based, is one of several stations where staff turned to Twitter to air complaints and concerns about white leadership and station culture. Public expressions of solidarity with the growing movement for racial equality is important but clearly not enough.

WNYC is again the focus of wrath and reckoning, as a New York Times columnist reported on staff anger at the hiring of a new white newsroom leader. In response, CEO Goli Sheikholeslami wrote to the entire staff to acknowledge the problems and outline her response. She announced a goal to recruit people of color to two-thirds of the open positions at New York Public Radio, to include staff on hiring panels and to form a Race Equity Culture Group.

On Juneteenth, Jon Abbott, CEO of the largest employer in our system, acknowledged that WGBH in Boston had fallen short on diversity, equity and inclusion. He pledged to hire a chief diversity officer and hold managers throughout the company accountable for the hiring and retention of people of color. WGBH will also create a Diversity and Inclusion Council and train all staff on anti-racism, implicit bias and micro aggressions.

You could say that the largest stations have the resources to set the highest bar and make investments, but that’s a cop-out. All stations can do something. Some recently posted on publicmediajobs.org to recruit bilingual journalists and race and equity reporters. Some have been actively recruiting board members of diverse backgrounds. Some, but not all.

What more can public media do about its whiteness problem?

Truth and transparency are a first step. Four years ago, Current produced a comprehensive special multimedia package on the state of diversity in our field. It was published in conjunction with the first joint National Association of Black Journalists/National Association of Hispanic Journalists conference. At the time, we convinced CPB to provide its 2015 data on employment in our field, statistics that had barely budged in the decade before that special diversity edition. Not surprisingly, people of color had the highest representation in clerical and administrative positions, while leadership ranks were largely monochromatic.

When we excluded “minority-operated” stations and those licensed to historically black colleges and universities, leadership at public radio and TV stations was around 13% nonwhite. CPB’s definition of leadership includes department managers, not just CEOs.  This, in a country where the 2020 Census — assuming it isn’t compromised — will surely show that the U.S. is now 40% people of color. The working-age population may not be as diverse; still, our mission dictates that we must look and sound more like the world outside our walls.

Speaking of walls, Current is lifting our paywall on our 2016 reporting so all may access it. If you find it compelling, we hope you will subscribe in order to support our ongoing coverage of diversity, equity and inclusion in public media.

How are we doing now?

Six months ago, and again last month, Current asked CPB for the latest data on minority employment. CPB didn’t provide that information until after this column was first published. As a result, this piece was updated for our print edition and has been updated here as well.

CPB shared a breakdown of employment data from 2016–17 and presentation slides from its annual “State of the System” reports. The data from these reports is old and lacks the detailed breakdowns of CPB’s earlier analyses, but it did show some progress. In 2017, the percentage of people of color working at stations reached 23.9% – a 2.4% bump over 2015. The statistics for 2018 showed a decrease to 23% of minority representation in the total workforce. That isn’t good enough.

In this more recent data, CPB didn’t pull out employment data from minority-operated stations or provide breakouts by job category, which track representation in positions such as officials, managers, professionals, technicians and “other.” In 2017, people of color were concentrated in the “other” category at the bottom rung of the employment ladder. I doubt that has changed.

I respect our hard-working public servants at CPB, and I believe they care about inclusion in our industry, which is why they have a page online celebrating past initiatives funded by CPB. Indeed, CPB was once statutorily required by the Public Telecommunications Act of 1988 to submit annual reports on diversity to Congress, but no longer. I still have in my personal pack-ratty possession one such report from 1994 and copies of Mosaic, a newsletter that focused on public media’s diversity and inclusion efforts. That stuff is history.

Let’s face it: Data about how we as an industry are doing on racial and gender equity (and perhaps other demographics) should be public. Not hidden in files, on individual computers or in a section of a website with no visible link on the homepage. It should be in a public-facing database that is searchable by station and state, along with the most recent demographics of local communities stations are serving. Nobody expects the same results from Maine and West Virginia that we should from “majority-minority” states like California and New Mexico.

What it means to be a public service

In a democracy, we expect accountability from our publicly funded institutions from police departments to public schools. Why not public media? I can think of only one reason to withhold diversity data from the general public: It doesn’t look good, and releasing it might jeopardize public broadcasting’s hard-won federal appropriations. But if public media isn’t making measurable, significant progress on diversity, equity and inclusion, or even at a minimum documenting local efforts toward that end, perhaps our funding should be called into question.

So, I am now calling on CPB to publish all of its available diversity data online in a user-friendly form. This annually collected diversity data isn’t the intellectual property of CPB or stations. It belongs to all of us and to all Americans. Public broadcasting needs to be held accountable to the public from which it derives its mission and its funding. We serve them, and we are them.

Current shouldn’t have to beg or battle for this data. I believe that if The New York Times requested it, CPB would provide without delay. The reason CPB has given for withholding various data from us over the years is that it is proprietary. I’ve been told that stations provide their data with the understanding that it won’t be shared. Of course, pubmedia organizations are welcome to publish their own diversity data on their websites, along with their 990s and annual reports, but Current should not have to mine 500 institutional sites to collect and analyze this critical information. We don’t have the resources to do that and we probably never will.

Data is the pool we all swim in now. We collect, analyze and use metrics to make informed decisions. Indeed, it may be helpful to station leaders, human resources folks and other staff to have accessible tools to compare their own stations with similar stations and learn what’s working elsewhere. We are a system that embraces an ethic of mutual aid; we like to share and “steal” ideas we read about in Current and we go to conferences to glean best practices. A public database could empower our system and actually help us all achieve the progress we need.

That was the motivation behind the American Society of Newspaper Editors’ annual survey about diversity in U.S. newsrooms. Tiny Current even participated in that research. However, this year (of all years) ASNE canceled the survey because the response rate last year was pitifully low.

Some media organizations are complying with the spirit of that survey anyway. The New York Times recently released its annual diversity report. I suspect their report documents more progress on diversity than public media’s statistics will show. Leaders at The New York Times know they have a lot of work to do, but they recognize that sunlight is the best disinfectant whether that information is internal corporate data or government records.

You may be surprised to hear that CPB is exempted from the Freedom of Information Act. Truly, some people who have worked in pubmedia for decades do not know this. I’ve been told that CPB had promised to follow the spirit of that law. What happened to that spirit?

If you are new to public media, I need to tell you that accountability was the main purpose Current was launched by a group of public TV stations 40 years ago. They wanted to make sure there was someone in Washington, D.C., keeping tabs on CPB, PBS, NPR and the FCC. We try to do that and of course, now, much more.

Perhaps my public demand for this information ­may anger some of my friends and colleagues in public media. I honestly have faith that people at CPB and throughout our system are committed to a secure, vibrant and inclusive future for public media. I don’t mean to make any enemies or burn any bridges.

I am trying to use my perch of white privilege, my pen and my passion to be a drum major for racial and social justice. Being an ally has been my personal and professional mission throughout my career. But this is not about me. I am not trying to center myself at this moment but to seize the moment to advocate for the many people of color who have invested their talent and spirit in this field and others who may aspire to work in public media.

What about Current?

In keeping with my call for transparency, I will say that inclusive hiring has been a priority of mine for the last five years that I’ve been Executive Director. When I arrived in 2015, Current’s full-time staff was entirely white. We’ve hired three full-time employees since then. Black candidates were in every finalist pool. In the first search, a Black finalist was exceptionally qualified, but his salary requirements were more than double what we could offer. Both of the reporters we have hired since are African American. Each has made Current a better news service.

Still, Current’s track record isn’t good enough. At present, out of six full-time employees, only one is a person of color. He is half of our reporting staff, 25% of our editorial team. One person cannot represent all people of color, but one person can surely make a difference.

It’s not up to people of color to wage this battle — it is white people who must do the work to achieve racial equity in our worlds.

I still have a tote bag from a public media Capitol Hill lobbying day from many years ago. It reads, “Tell Them Public Matters.” In other words: Public Media Matters. I believe those words, but we must do more to truly matter to the changing America we aim to serve.

Thank you for reading. If you have something to say, I ask that you please add your thoughts in a comment below. This is a time for all of us to be on the record.

16 thoughts on “Why is public media so white?

  1. All CPB qualified stations are required to post an annual diversity statement and their FCC equal employment opportunity report on their website. Both are public information and readily available. “Current” might review a sample of these documents to gain insight into why public broadcasting remains so white. Are stations making aggressive efforts to diversify staff and service? Or are they coasting along with exclusionary practices? Do stations minimally comply with CPB and FCC requirements by posting boilerplate statements and making meager effort to diversify? Do stations connect with local diversity resources or simply rely on carrying national programming to address diversity? Combing through these station reports will take time and significant effort but it might yield significant and actionable information.

    • Hi Marion. I wish Current could do that kind of comprehensive scraping of websites but we only have two reporters! Our position has always been that if CPB is collecting data about public media for public media then Current is entitled to it, as are all people who work in our field and all Americans. It would also be a massive duplication of effort. They are already gathering this information, on the public dime. I’m glad they are gathering it. It’s a sign that it matters. But sharing is caring! Some stations are doing more and doing better than others, to be sure. And now, with so many stations shrinking their workforce, DEI efforts may be compromised. I think CPB will jump in and make an investment on this, but we won’t know until we know.

  2. Thank you for speaking truth to power. It is sad but not surprising to see CPB’s resistance to publishing diversity data when its own leadership is something like 90 percent white. Who are they to hold stations accountable?

  3. First, thank you Current and Julie for “being the change” we NEED to see. In addition to attending the webinar….

    What can station staff do to help push this conversation forward and inspire change?
    Town halls?
    National Survey of staff experiences of racism and discrimination in public media?

    Many public media workers have justified fears that if they speak up that they will then be ostracized, fired, sued, or otherwise retaliated against (for example, staff are facing the threat of being sent to prison for speaking out)..

    How can we create a space where public media workers can speak of their experiences without facing such serious threats?

    Whistleblowers could lose their freedom, careers and means to take care of their families. How can we protect them?

    Again, thank you so much Julie and Current for speaking the truth that many of us have been hoping would eventually be heard and justly addressed, one day.

    • Thanks for writing. I wish you felt safe enough to use your name. With so many people risking their lives now to fight for justice or tell the stories of those battling COVID-19 and racism, I do think it’s important to take a stand and take risks to make change. However, I fully respect everyone’s choices here. And I am aware that others, especially people of color, could face consequences that will not. I honestly don’t have answers to what station staff can do. Whatever that is, I sincerely hope that our institutions become places were it is safe to speak out, where DEI is embraced as a top priority throughout the organization.

  4. I had to check the publication date on this story as it could have been written when I joined WGBH in 1981, or it might have been published when I transitioned to KQED in 1988 or to PBS in 1989…and then out
    of public broadcasting 5 years later!

    The headline would have been the same and your struggle to hold public broadcasting accountable to its founding mission to serve minority and diverse communities. Now, in 2020, same headline to the same story – why is public media so white?

    • Deja vu all over again, right? When I found my old copies of that “Mosaic” newsletter, it reinforced for me that public broadcasting has known it has a whiteness problem for decades and has tried to address it in ways that haven’t produced the level of results we need. CPB has funded many extraordinary programs/initiatives that amplify the voices and experiences of people of color in the U.S. It’s an important piece of the puzzle. but it’s not enough.

  5. “But if public media isn’t making measurable, significant progress on diversity, equity and inclusion, or even at a minimum documenting local efforts toward that end, perhaps our funding should be called into question.”

    I agree. Public media gets special status, culturally and financially. It should be exceptionally transparent, and it is not. It should also be exceptionally antiracist, and it is not. We are beyond ‘documenting efforts’ – things need to change immediately and publicly. And if not, then CPB should fund only the media organizations that are truly diverse.

    The data we do have are appalling: https://www.npr.org/sections/publiceditor/2019/12/17/787959805/new-on-air-source-diversity-data-for-npr-shows-much-work-ahead

    I first started working in public media in 1998. I love the idea of it, and sometimes the reality. But this has gone on too long.

    • Thanks for the clarity you always bring to the conversation, Rekha. I wish CPB could come up with a way to include DEI efforts and results in its CSG funding formula, even as an incentive program. Stations already have many hoops to jump through to get their grant. Maybe CPB will hire an SVP for DEI, an accountability role as important as an Inspector General IMHO. :-)

  6. It should also be asked, why is Public Media so young? There also needs to be more diversity in the ages of new hires.

  7. I hate to be THAT guy, but I wish there was a better picture picked to go along with this. I’m assuming that the intend was to show a diversity of race and ethnicity, but it happens to be all female. It goes along with what I am noticing in public media as well; few men of color. I happen to be in that few.

  8. @blackatpublicmedia (instagram)
    An anonymous, safe space for Black People & POC to share their experiences of racism while working in public media. Use the link to post anonymously:

    • Hi Edwin. That’s somewhat true. Throughout pubmedia, leader longevity is a factor that works against diverse representation in top tiers. I’ve written about this before. There are some BIPOC in the “C-Suite” level at CPB but certainly not “enough,” and I’m not sure how much independent decision-making power these individuals have. It is a bureaucracy after all. Many BIPOC former leaders at CPB left to become station CEOs or senior content people; perhaps others have joined the ranks of former CPB senior staff who have retired and become consults to the industry. I don’t know if their experiences at CPB was a factor in their departure or simply if better opportunities came along. We’ll probably never know, as people in pubmedia are reluctant to be openly critical of the holder of the purse strings. Ultimately, I think it’s a good thing for those who are supposed to advance public media’s mission on the national level to have a track record on the grassroots station level where they have experience with what it means to actually work with public media makers, dedicated station staff, in effort to have a real impact in local communities and audiences. While it is beneficial to our system to recruit talent from outside the system, especially if that talent is BIPOC, I think stations, the basic building block of public media, would be better served with more station folks taking a turn at CPB.

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