Diversity in newsrooms has been bad for decades and it probably won’t get better: study

A new study says some of the biggest newsrooms in the country are still failing to fulfill a nearly 50-year-old pledge to increase the employment of people of color in top masthead positions, despite repeated reviews and greater coverage of the issue.

The report, titled “Missed deadline: The delayed promise of newsroom diversity” and conducted by student reporters in the Asian American Journalists’ Association’s Voices program, analyzed the mastheads of several news organizations to examine how closely they reflected the nation’s demographics.

In 1978, the American Society of News Editors (ASNE) made a pledge to achieve parity with the percentage of people of color in the general population by the year 2000. After that deadline was blown and a new one was set for 2025, data in the Voices report shows many American newsrooms are still nowhere close to achieving this goal.

The report focused on the mastheads of five national newspapers—The Washington Post, The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times, and The Wall Street Journal—as well as NPR, Fox News, and CNN.

According to the study, minority individuals (black, Asian, Hispanic, Native American, or other) accounted for one person on the 11-person masthead of The Washington Post, three people on the 18-person masthead of The New York Times, one person on the five-person masthead of NPR, three people on the 14-person masthead of the Chicago Tribune, and one person on the 14-person masthead of the Los Angeles Times.

When it came to the diversity of the general news staff, the report said 31 percent of The Washington Post’s newsroom is minorities compared to 54 percent of the people who live in the Washington-Arlington-Alexandria metropolitan statistical area. The New York Times’s newsroom is 78 percent white and 22 percent minorities, while the New York-Newark-Jersey City metro area is 53 percent minorities.

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The Los Angeles Times has a relatively diverse newsroom—66 percent white and 34 percent minorities (11 percent Hispanic, 14 percent Asian American, and 5 percent black). However the Voices report noted this still fell short of the demographic of the Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim metropolitan area, which is 45 percent Hispanic, 7 percent black and 16 percent Asian American.

The report noted that “CNN, Fox News, and The Wall Street Journal declined to answer questions identifying editorial executives listed as leaders in their organization by race.” Earlier this year, The Wall Street Journal has been criticized by its own staff for its lack of diversity and persistent pay gaps.

The report drew data from ASNE’s 2016 diversity survey as well as the 2015 American Community Survey and the Census Reporter project for its information on the percentages of minorities in comparable metropolitan areas.

I think we would have been making much greater progress if there had not been the economic foundations of journalism literally shaken to the core.”

Avery Yang, who co-authored the report with Peregrine Frissell, Ala’a Ibrahim, and Sheila Raghavendran, told CJR a lot of his sources spoke off the record. “They didn’t want it to come back to them or like they were angling for a position on the masthead when they shouldn’t have been,” Yang says.

Ashley Dunn, who spoke on the record in the report and is a Page One editor for the Los Angeles Times, says “one of the huge failings of the paper” was not having a Hispanic editor on the masthead.

Dunn also told Yang diversity and mentorship initiatives like the MetPro training program had been reduced from across many Tronc newsrooms to only the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times. “It used to be really helpful, and now it’s been gutted,” Yang says.

Mizell Stewart, president of ASNE and vice president of news operations at the USA Today Network, says the transition from legacy to digital had an “outsize impact” on employment numbers. “I think we would have been making much greater progress if there had not been the economic foundations of journalism literally shaken to the core.”

Stewart says data from ASNE surveys showed local newsroom leaders were “much more focused on keeping the lights on and moving their news organizations towards the future. Diversity definitely took a backseat.”

He adds the results of these ASNE surveys weren’t used by newsrooms to drive more or better diversity initiatives but mostly chronicle the decline of the newspaper industry.

ASNE has promised to revamp its own diversity efforts including doubling the funding for research through its survey for 2018. “We are not going to back away from that challenge even though the timeline is growing,” Stewart says. “What we want to do is redouble our efforts to drive newsrooms toward that goal and identify the obstacles and develop programs to address that.”

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Karen K. Ho is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow her on Twitter @karenkho.