The Media Today

Beginning again, and again

June 16, 2023
Illustration: Nicolas Ortega

This spring, Digiday reported that “media companies are still mostly hiring white people.” The news was damning not only because of the facts of the matter, but also the context: just a couple of years ago, the journalism industry was said to be undergoing a “reckoning” over racism. High-ranking white people resigned or were dismissed; there were prominent hires of Black editors and other people of color; newsrooms issued apologies. In a 2021 piece for CJR about the press, white supremacy, and atonement, Alexandria Neason noted that “to chart a new path forward, we will need much more than regret.” 

Per Digiday: At Condé Nast, 49 percent of new hires in 2022 self-identified as white, up from 45 percent in 2021. At Vice Media Group, new hires in the United States were 54 percent white last year, up from 47 percent. At Hearst, new hires were 59 percent white. At the New York Times, 44 percent of new hires were people of color, “down a whopping 10 percentage points compared to 2021.” History repeats: In 1968, members of the Kerner Commission—an advisory board formed by President Lyndon B. Johnson in response to a series of protests against racism—observed in a report that the country’s mostly white media had failed to cover the underlying causes of the demonstrations. In response, the organization now known as the American Society of News Editors set out to build a journalism workforce that reflected the racial makeup of the US population by the year 2000. As Neason wrote, “that deadline came and went.”

A few years ago, in an issue focused on race and the press, CJR visited ten American newsrooms where “the mismatch between the makeup of the staff and the demographics of the coverage area” was particularly notable. The project made clear that “the conversations about diversity are the same ones that the industry has been having for decades” and that “little progress has been made.” In the same issue, Jelani Cobb, who is now the dean of the Columbia Journalism School, described his first job at a majority-white publication—in the nineties, at the Washington City Paper, working for David Carr. In seeking out a diverse staff, Carr was explicit that his objective was not abstract. “He explained in straightforward terms that he worried that there were specific stories missing from his newspaper,” Cobb wrote. “He wanted a better publication and believed our work would help him build one. And we did.”

These are tough times for the journalism business, and that is why it’s crucial to face the industry’s failings with clear eyes and an openness to change. While writing her piece on the media’s atonement, Neason also spearheaded an effort at CJR focused on self-examination and redress. Such a project, she wrote, is “not so much a reckoning as it is a beckoning—to begin and, when we falter, to begin again.” Those words seem worth repeating now. 

You can read Neason’s piece on atonement here and CJR’s project “Beyond Atonement” here. The Media Today will be off on Monday in observance of Juneteenth. See you on Tuesday.

Betsy Morais is the managing editor of CJR.