Business of News

Newsrooms getting more diverse but still don’t reflect communities they serve

September 13, 2016
Photo credit: Jürg Vollmer

The ranks of journalists are getting more diverse for the first time in nearly 14 years, and digital properties are outperforming legacy peers, according to a new survey by the American Society of News Editors. The survey found people of color now make up about 17 percent of newsroom staffs; the percentage hovered between 12 to 14 percent from 2002 through 2015.

The data is based on survey responses from 737 organizations–646 newspapers and 91 digital news sites. ASNE officials believe the numbers accurately reflect the industry, though less than half of the organizations polled opted to participate. In addition to the overall increase, the study breakdown found that people of color make up about 17 percent of staffs at daily newspapers and 23 percent at digital operations. At print publications, about 38 percent of staffers are women; digital operations clock in at 50 percent women. 

The survey results drew a mixed reaction from journalists, who noted the numbers may be improving but newsrooms still have a long way to go toward better representing the communities they serve.

ASNE made a few changes to this year’s survey including two ways they analyzed the data. This year they combined print and digital results and also decided to stop creating projections of the total number of journalists in the industry. Adam Maksl, who directed the survey research, says these changes were made to make the overall results more accurate by eliminating guesswork and showing a fuller picture of an industry that’s increasingly digital. When he initially saw the 17 percent figure, he was skeptical, but went ahead to perform a comparison of the 433 organizations that participated this year and last year. The result of the direct comparison also showed minority representation of about 17 percent.

“That gives me some more confidence in the fact that what we noticed in the overall survey isn’t just a statistical blip or some sort of error, but that there has been some bona fide increases in the percentage of minorities,” says Maksl.

The data also shows that there are more people of color in the industry overall. Despite these gains, many are hesitant to celebrate. Some even took issue with some of the other changes to the ASNE study.

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“It is not just about making sure you have people of color sprinkled throughout, but fostering a newsroom in which the people who may not think like the dominant group feel like their voices are heard, and that they matter,” Elise Hu, an international correspondent for NPR told CJR by email.

Hu, at NPR since 2011, says she believes her employer is committed to diversity, but suffers when it comes to retention and having people of color in leadership roles. “My biggest discomfort when it comes to this conversation is that I still rarely feel brave enough to speak up about this stuff in my own newsroom.”

ASNE’s data shows of all newsroom leaders in the industry, people of color make up about 13 percent, and women make up about 37 percent.

Sarah Glover, president of the National Association of Black Journalists, wrote in a Facebook post on Saturday that this “isn’t a time for the news industry to pat itself on the back.” Her message expressed concern about a lack of black journalists in leadership positions, pay disparities journalists have experienced from various companies such as The New York Times, and the fact that newsrooms still do not reflect the US population as a whole. According to 2010 census data, people of color make up about 37 percent of the population.

Some journalists of color question ASNE’s decision to no longer provide a breakdown of diversity stats by individual organizations, a change some of the organizations requested. ASNE President Pam Fine told Richard Prince’s Journal-isms that they agreed to withhold information to collect as many responses as possible. Many find the lack of transparency troubling.

“Disclosing numbers is such a basic and minimal step that I don’t think any newsroom that chooses not to do so can really be serious about improving diversity,” Lena Groeger, a science journalist and designer at ProPublica, told CJR by email.

Raju Narisetti, senior vice president of strategy at News Corp., says transparency is the way to get companies to own up to diversity issues. “The same media which puts a lot of pressure and shames big Silicon Valley tech companies–the fact that they have told ASNE that they cannot report individual names shows the double standard when it comes to newsroom management.” He adds, “I think a lot more naming and shaming needs to go on.”

ASNE Executive Director Teri Hayt says she understands the criticism, but does not want that to take away from the larger focus and goals of the study. ASNE first challenged newsrooms to match US diversity numbers by 2000, and conducts the study as part of its commitment to documenting newsroom diversity over time. The results are promising, she says, but she cautions the survey is only an analysis of organizations that chose to participate. While ASNE decided to leave off the names this year, she says that doesn’t mean bringing back the practice is off the table for the future.

“I’m actually excited that we’re starting to see movement,” she says. “It is going in the right direction, it’s just not going in the right direction fast enough.” 

Carlett Spike is a freelance writer and former CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow her on Twitter @CarlettSpike.