Impressions of progress: How managers and journalists see DEI efforts

In July 2020, employees of the Minneapolis Star Tribune sent a letter to the paper’s publisher and management. The recent murder of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white police officer had given staffers “a renewed sense of clarity on how the Star Tribune can rise to this moment,” they wrote. The letter outlined steps that staff described as “vital to the survival of our organization.” They included the appointment of a community editor to “create a more equitable culture” at the paper. 

Two months later, the Star Tribune named Kyndell Harkness its first assistant managing editor for diversity and community. Harkness—a photo editor who had worked at the paper for twenty years—was trusted by her colleagues and was optimistic about making a difference through her new position. 

In a conversation the following spring, Harkness compared her position to the “conscience of the newsroom”—the person responsible for asking tough questions about whether the Star Tribune’s news coverage reflected the realities communities face. She also described responsibilities that extended beyond editorial work, from conflict mediation to shaping active recruitment strategies; her new work was complex, and reached across her organization.

The boundaries of the job were ambiguous; Harkness had to determine the scope and structure of her own position. “I’m creating the ship while flying it,” she told me at the time. “I had to write down what my goals are for the year, but there’s no job description for what I’m doing. I’m literally making it up as I go along.” She suggested that structural change at the Star Tribune depended on her ability to do so: “I need to be able to create a role and define that role so, if I leave it, I don’t leave the newspaper in disaster, which is probably my biggest fear.” 

Last year, a team of researchers at the University of Minnesota’s Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication—Tania Ganguli, a graduate student; Dr. Benjamin Toff, an assistant professor; and myself—began interviewing editorial staffers who, like Harkness, played central roles in facilitating their newsrooms’ new DEI efforts. Eleven people participated in interviews, typically spending an hour or more with us. Most of our interviewees held identities that have historically been excluded from positions of power in newsrooms. We offered them the opportunity to remain anonymous; some were more comfortable speaking candidly about their positions than others, and several raised concerns about retribution. We asked questions about the parameters of their jobs, their comfort with making change within their news outlet’s established systems, and their feelings about progress to date. 

Our conversations suggested that Harkness’s experience, and her feelings about it, were common. Many said the reckonings around racial justice and equity that unfolded in 2020 created new opportunities to re-energize diversity efforts. Michael McCarter, who is the managing editor for standards, ethics, and inclusion at USA Today, set up an internal mentorship program; Greg Lee Jr., who is senior assistant managing editor for talent and community at the Boston Globe, planned more diverse event programming. Most felt that their colleagues were generally more open to acknowledging inequities in their workplaces and discussing diversity issues and corrective measures publicly, rather than behind closed doors. “We were able to leverage that moment to speak and act and confront things extremely openly,” one editor said. “We were calling it what it was: systemic racism.”

Sign up for CJR's daily email

Like Harkness, interviewees also listed a complicated array of responsibilities that included content, personnel acquisition and retention, conflict resolution, and editorial oversight. And, as with Harkness, many of the newly created positions were informal in structure; in many instances, DEI managers didn’t officially report to anyone, and had no clear benchmarks for evaluating their own performance. Many said they felt supported by newsroom colleagues, but recognized that changing institutional culture required broad buy-in and long-term effort. 

“There is no hiring of one individual that’s going to come and fix racism in any institution,” Jameel Rush, who was appointed vice president of diversity, equity, and inclusion at the Philadelphia Inquirer in 2020, said. “That has to be the work of a collective.” Harkness, after describing her own efforts to me, had a similar takeaway. “It’s too much, right?” she said. “I mean, it’s just not a one-person job.”

 

RECENTLY, the Local News Initiative at Northwestern University released findings from its Medill Media Industry Survey, designed by Dr. Stephanie Edgerly and myself. More than fifteen hundred journalists responded to the survey, which included several questions concerning diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts. Our findings suggested that a majority of respondents believed that DEI efforts “have positively affected the journalism industry”; more than half said their news outlets “have formal positions devoted to DEI and advocacy work.” However, our results were based on a sample that was about 86 percent white—a response that may represent broad industry or newsroom demographics, but nevertheless limits broader understanding of how journalists from diverse backgrounds might be feeling about DEI efforts.

Prior to that survey, I conducted another, focused exclusively on DEI efforts. This survey was smaller, but respondents were proportionally more diverse, and most had reported on race and race relations during their careers. While many in this survey felt their news organizations had made progress with DEI efforts, nearly half believed that DEI issues remained the most pressing challenges facing the journalism industry. 

Journalists of color were more likely to feel pessimistic about DEI-related progress than were their white colleagues. Twelve—all but one of whom are people of color—said they felt no significant changes had been made. Several were concerned that much of the DEI work fell on the shoulders of just a few people. “There’s a heavy burden placed on people of color,” one journalist wrote. In one section of the survey, I asked respondents to assess their agreement or disagreement with this statement: “I feel like my perspective matters when I engage in diversity, equity, inclusion, and advocacy work.” Taken as a group, journalists of color were less likely to feel that their perspectives were influential, compared with white respondents.

Many journalists said they still lacked confidence when covering communities they don’t belong to. Several said they still had to convince their editors that stories about centering systemic racism and racial injustices were newsworthy, or that they had made appropriate decisions in their coverage. “Editors don’t even see it as a ‘story,’ ” one journalist wrote, referring to the challenges they face when reporting about race and racial inequities. “I have to persuade my editor that some things don’t have ‘both sides,’ ” wrote another. 

Taken alongside our interviews with DEI managers, those responses remind us of the scale of the task at hand. “We went from two, maybe three people [of color] with a seat at the table to four,” Tom Horgen, who was promoted to senior manager of audience strategy at the Star Tribune in 2020, told me. “That’s not structural change.… The leadership is still so white and so male.” 

During my interviews, I spoke with Myron Medcalf, who worked for the Star Tribune early in his career before leaving for ESPN, and who recently returned as the paper’s first-ever Black metro columnist. Medcalf was certain that Harkness was working behind the scenes on his behalf. But he was more measured about how transformative the efforts of DEI managers could be in isolation. “I think a lot of things that have happened over the last year aren’t real, and they won’t last, unfortunately,” he told me. “Our industry has had a lot of opportunities to change.” Its continued failure to do so takes a toll. “The health disparities, and the trauma, and the mental fatigue, the emotional fatigue. So those are the risks for all of us—all of us in this world who are trying to tell some of these stories.”

 

Last summer, a few months after I spoke with Harkness, the Star Tribune came under fire for an error in a breaking-news story about the police killing of Winston Smith Jr. The paper had wrongly identified Smith as a “murder suspect,” using false information that had been relayed over a police scanner. Ultimately, the paper issued a correction, deleted references on social media, then explained the source of the error. In December, in a year-end column, Harkness noted she and others at the Star Tribune had also met with Smith’s family and apologized. 

“In witnessing and participating in this moment, I finally felt like we had grown a bit,” Harkness wrote. “This meeting would never have happened without the work of this year. The constant discussions with each other and with community members led to this opening up, this chance at authenticity.” Her paper had changed in tangible ways, she wrote, even if the work was “slow with a capital S,” and even if the public couldn’t see it. 

Her column—that reference to slowness, in particular—reminded me of a moment from our conversation months before. The journalism industry’s most recent DEI efforts had arrived with urgency: a rush of reckonings, a number of new appointments. But the work itself isn’t quick; Harkness predicted it will take decades. “The goal, always, is that we build structure so that I build myself out of a job,” she said. However, she added, “We are in America—I just don’t think we, in my lifetime, will be able to be so woke that we won’t need a person who is the conscience of the newsroom.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Danielle K. Brown is the Cowles Professor of Journalism, Diversity and Equality at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. Her research investigates disparities, equity issues and ethics in news media. Follow her on Twitter.

TOP IMAGE: Adobe Stock