How tracking source diversity is changing coverage at NPR and MPR

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Journalists at NPR and Minnesota Public Radio say they are seeing the payoff from a heightened focus on tracking the diversity of their sources, with reporters more keenly aware of the need to expand their pools of interviewees.

MPR shared data July 14 detailing the demographic information gathered from sources from February 2021 to April 2022. Journalists tracked characteristics including age, pronouns, the sources’ roles, their place of residence, and race and ethnicity.

The goal was to establish a baseline and incorporate diversity tracking into the newsroom’s daily workflow, said Michael Olson, deputy managing editor for digital at MPR.

Analyzing the data, MPR found that white people were underrepresented compared to the general population of Minnesota, that sources in central cities were overrepresented, and that 54% of sources were between the ages of 40 and 64. Only 31% of Minnesotans fall into that range. 

“A big takeaway for me is that the roles of spokespersons, officials and experts skew heavily white and towards individuals using he/him pronouns,” Olson said. “We don’t get to pick spokespeople … but we want to make sure that part of a journalist’s job is holding institutions accountable. … We can’t just say they’re out of our control.”

To avoid one-dimensional reporting, journalists must be mindful of how those voices shape narratives, Olson said. Going forward, MPR will focus on “[making] inroads and doing better with seeking diverse voices and expert sources,” he said.

In an editor’s note about the report, MPR News Managing Editor Sarah Glover wrote, “We present a fuller picture in our stories and we are reaching audiences we have not paid enough attention to in the past.”

MPR is achieving much of that work through its North Star Journey project, Olson said, a reporting project that explores the history and culture of Minnesota communities. The project is an intentional effort to understand challenges facing various communities, Olson said.

The network is continuing to refine its process for gathering source data. One shortcoming of its system, Olson said, is that a source who appears in multiple mediums — for example, a newscast and a web story — is counted only once. The data would be more reliable “if we were able to track ‘How many newscasts was that source or has that person been in?’” Olson said.

Staying accountable with Dex

Olson said that MPR’s model for asking sources about their identity borrowed heavily from NPR’s approach. Since last summer, NPR has been using Dex, a new tracking system.

The network has been tracking source diversity since 2013. It developed Dex to standardize the process and “make sure that we were consistent with our race and ethnicity categories, we were consistent with our gender-identity categories, we were consistent with the age-bracket categories,” said Rolando Arrietta, director of content production and operations at NPR. “With all of us using the same system, the data would be a lot more meaningful.”

Because reporters enter their own data, Dex’s creators sought to make the system streamlined and easy to use. It offers standardized identity categories to reduce extra work for journalists, who are given a list of questions to ask sources concerning their identities to ensure sensitivity, according to Pallavi Gogoi, head of NPR’s business desk and a member of the committee that developed Dex.

Journalists at NPR stepped up efforts to diversify their sources after data was shared in 2018 that was “embarrassing” for the network, Gogoi said. The analysis found a heavy bias toward white men as sources. 

“… We all wanted to do better,” Gogoi said. “I think that the only way we do better is if we have accountability. And coming up with [Dex] was, I think to me at least, a way to really hold ourselves accountable.”

The Business Desk had been tracking sources in a Google document before Dex was created. In 2018, the desk’s sources were 85% white, with 9% identifying as Asian, 3% Hispanic and 3% Black. They were also 71% male and 29% female. 

In the first quarter of this year, 51% of the desk’s sources were male and 47% were female. Only 54% were white, with Black sources increasing to  22% and Asian sources rising to 13%. Additionally, 7% were Hispanic, and 4% identified as Middle Eastern/African. People who work in economics, business, technology and media are overwhelmingly white and male, so the dramatic change proves that consciously selecting sources and stories makes a difference, Gogoi said. 

Journalists and desk heads are free to review Dex data and adjust their coverage accordingly. Teams previously discussed source diversity results in meetings, but Dex enables discussions at other times as well.

“Good journalists will look at the data, and they will react accordingly,” said Keith Woods, NPR’s chief diversity officer. Entering all data, including for sources not directly chosen by NPR’s reporters, furthers the idea that story choice makes just as much of an impact as source selection.

Integrating source diversity tracking so completely into journalists’ work and everyday practices has impressed upon them the importance of doing so, Woods said. 

“I think if you were to come to NPR and just walk around and grab a journalist randomly and say, ‘Is it important to news organizations to think about the diversity of your sources?’, I think people would say yes,” Woods said. “That’s how much it has saturated the conversation.”

Previously, sources of color were more often featured in stories about race, much in the way that women once featured more prominently in publications’ “women’s sections” rather than in stories about science and politics, Woods said. Using Dex helps to curb that practice by tracking when certain sources are most quoted. 

“Every day, people of color raise children. They wrestle with raising teenagers. They worry about the economy — all of these things that are part of what it means to just be an American, just to be a person, that has nothing to do with whether or not you’re … Latin American or Asian American or African American,” Woods said. “We can both tell those stories that are particular to groups, but also work hard to include them in the ordinary stories of everyday life.”

Tracking systemwide

Beyond NPR, Dex is in use at KCRW in Santa Monica, Calif., and among the stations of the Texas Newsroom, the collaborative news hub in that state that comprises Houston Public Media, KERA in Dallas, KUT in Austin and Texas Public Radio in San Antonio. The tracking system will become more broadly available to stations as development continues.

“My dream is that all of us in public media would use this same system, and I’d say it’s Dex so that we can really have a comprehensive conversation across the network about how we sound and how close we are to sounding like America,” Arrietta said. “We don’t have capacity for that right now from a technical production standpoint and from a support standpoint, but that’s a dream of mine.”

Since the Texas Newsroom stations began using Dex in the last quarter of 2021, journalists’ attitudes around source tracking have evolved, said Managing Editor Corrie MacLaggan. That has led to greater diversity among sources. The journalists are required to use Dex, but MacLaggan hopes conversations about the importance of source diversity will motivate them to report the data regardless. Some reporters frequently consult the data and adjust their practices accordingly, MacLaggan said.

The Texas Newsroom will establish its first baseline for source diversity at the end of September with data from that month and from there will set goals for improvement. After giving journalists and stations time to adjust to using Dex, MacLaggan expects to see that reporters will need to enter data more consistently and that the Newsroom’s reporting is not yet reflecting the diversity of Texas. But she said she’s ready to set goals to improve on those points.

“It absolutely takes time, but we want it to be a simple process,” MacLaggan said. “… No system is perfect, right? But it’s pretty straightforward, and so that’s the goal — to make people see, ‘Okay, this is something I can do.’”

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