One question that turns courageous journalists into cowards

Donald Trump talks to reporters in the 'Spin Alley' after the first prime-time presidential debate in August. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

There are many ways to cover politics—data, field reporting, expert analysis—but all of them require a sense of not just what to seek and include, but what to exclude. So when I was verbally sexually harassed by a Trump supporter after an interview, that didn’t make my coverage. It wasn’t germane to the story I was writing. But it did make me think, once again, how reporters’ experiences in the field are shaped by things we can’t control, like the bodies we are born into; as well as ones we can, like the expertise with which we research our topics and listen for key insights.

Being a black woman reporter who covers politics, race, and gender has made me unafraid to enter spaces where I am not particularly welcomed. I once showed up unannounced at an all-white country church to interview a pastor who had threatened to dig up the body of a mixed-race baby from their cemetery. Most of the time, things are less dramatic than that. But I’ve learned a lot from having to remain compassionate under challenge, to navigate differences big and small with an eye on being fair in my final reporting. I’d wager that all political reporters who go out into the field have to deal with their own version of these challenges, which is one reason diversity matters in political teams. Different perspectives on as massive a topic as American politics should strengthen the work of the whole newsroom.

That’s me speaking through the lens of my experience, of course. I also believe it’s important to quantify the question of who reported the 2016 election, and whether political teams’ race and gender diversity had any impact on newsrooms. As a fellow at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, I’m researching the subject by conducting interviews with reporters and experts, and using the newly released MIT Media Lab analytics tool MediaCloud, and data from the firm Media Tenor.

But the most important data point for this project—numbers from newsrooms on their 2016 political team staffing—has been the hardest to collect because very few managers or business-side staff are willing to disclose their data. One company admitted off the record that they were not responding to diversity requests, period. The Wall Street Journal provided the statement that it “declined to provide specific personnel information.” An organization sent numbers for its corporate parent company, whose size is approximately a thousand times the size of the entire news team, let alone the political team. Another news manager promised verbally to cooperate with the inquiry, but upon repeated follow up completely ghosted.

We should not be ashamed by these numbers, whatever they are, but we should be deeply ashamed if we hide them.”

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There are exceptions. Liz Spayd, the public editor of The New York Times, wrote an excellent piece noting that of the paper’s 20-plus political reporters during 2016, two were black, and none were Latino, Asian, or Native American. Susan Page of USA Today responded within minutes of my sending an initial email to say that the paper’s core political staff consisted of 10 women and eight men; and among those, two Latinos and one African-American. Their level of candor is both refreshing and rare. So far, several other news organizations have promised numbers but are still in the process of delivering.

TRENDING: Newsrooms should follow two simple rules for reporting on women’s bodies

So I’m going to put this out there for everyone to see. I’m looking for metrics on the racial and gender diversity of newsroom political teams—notes on how to share yours are below—and for us to self-report because it’s the right thing to do. We should not be ashamed by these numbers, whatever they are, but we should be deeply ashamed if we hide them.

Why write about diversity in newsrooms now?

Arguably, 2016 was the most racially contentious and gender-fraught election of the modern era.  This election required extraordinary things of journalists. Sometimes we lived up to the challenge; but in many other ways, we missed the mark. When it comes to the diversity of our political reporting teams, it seems we can’t even find out what the mark is, because despite our proclaimed love affair with data, we won’t disclose our own.

We’re going through a heady and self-congratulatory period in American journalism. A tough one, yes, but a time where we are arguably needed more than ever. We are demanding transparency from the Trump Administration, other branches of government, and business entities. We are using our role as journalists to claim the moral high ground, and patting ourselves on the back for speaking truth to power.

Diversity in American media has nearly flatlined for more than a decade, and there’s no reason to expect it’s any better in our political units.”

But here’s a truth: diversity in American media has nearly flatlined for more than a decade, and there’s no reason to expect it’s any better in our political units. The American Society of Newspaper Editors’ annual diversity study in 2014 noted that “The percentage of minority journalists has remained between 12 and 14 percent for more than a decade.” In 2016, it rose to 17 percent, which sounds good until you realize that more than a third of Americans are Latino or non-white. Women were 38 percent of the newspaper employees in 2016… and of course women are 51 percent of the population.

 

My own experience

I was the only black reporter in my newsroom at FiveThirtyEight during the 2016 election cycle, and the employee who had covered the most presidential elections. I was also a non-data journalist at a data journalism site, which led to debates over how to approach stories. For example, as someone who has written three books that deal directly with race or gender, I wanted to dig more deeply into the political science behind why racial rhetoric is both toxic and persuasive sooner in the cycle.

As a newsroom veteran, I tried to deal with any tensions in a productive way; spent time mentoring other employees; and also got the benefit of learning data journalism techniques from an amazingly talented staff. Was it easy? No. Any time there are differences in skillsets and/or diversity, there is more chance of conflict, but as many business analyses show, companies with more staff diversity outperform similar but less diverse ones. And in journalism, where our life histories help inform how we get the story, we should recognize diversity helps prevent groupthink—something there was far too much of this election cycle. (FiveThirtyEight has since hired a black political reporter and a black sports writer.)

In my time as a political reporter, I have learned to deal with the indignities of being a black woman on the road. A couple election cycles ago, a man at an offsite event at a political convention repeatedly used the word “nigger”—not to describe me, of course, just those other black people he hated. As mentioned, this cycle I was verbally sexually harassed by an interview subject, an older white construction worker who then had the audacity to thank me for not chewing him out the way the ladies at work did. In other words, he knew what he was doing was wrong, and he took advantage of the fact that I was on his turf and there in a professional capacity, hardly the time and  place to have an outburst. (That’s not my style anyway, but it seems to be what he requires to stop).

These are small prices to pay to get a front-row seat while history is made. I never expected being a reporter to be easy. But what breaks my heart is when fellow journalists disrespect the idea that newsrooms should be integrated, and do their best to justify de-facto newsroom segregation. When I wrote an article several years ago on newsroom diversity, a person from a major newsroom wrote in response that they had done excellent work covering Hurricane Katrina with their disproportionately white staff. What kept coming to mind as I replied to him was: Do you want me to compliment you for being able to work without diversity? That’s like saying “We run an excellent segregated school in an integrated neighborhood.” It’s not a cause for applause.

In addition, I know on background that same newsroom paid a settlement to a journalist of color who’d had run-ins with a white journalist known for conflict with a series of reporters of color. Some of journalism’s more intense racial and gender problems—not just harassment, but being passed over for promotions in favor of less experienced white or male reporters—are veiled behind settlements with non-disclosure agreements. (Think of the many settlements involving Roger Ailes that predated the public knowledge of allegations of sexual harassment.) As a journalist for 25 years, I’m privy to some of this insider knowledge, but the nature of the settlements make them hard to document publicly. Settlements with women and journalists of color are not just evidence of discord within America’s newsrooms, but also offer a secondary business case for diverse staffing and better management to avoid costly payments.

Judging from the spate of articles about the lack of diversity in President Trump’s cabinet, journalists know that there’s merit in reporting on race and gender metrics… except when they’re our own. Only doing the research will provide us with a sense of how this impacts newsrooms. But I suspect in the long run, in a world where audiences can cherry pick what they find relevant, less diverse newsrooms are likely to miss key stories, or join in late. That can’t be good for the bottom line. No matter what the numbers tell us, shouldn’t we want to know? And it’s better for us to learn sooner than later. If newsrooms want to be more diverse by 2020, it’s time to plan ahead and see about casting a wider net for talent, or giving new opportunities to those already in the newsroom.

If we journalists can’t turn as unsparing a gaze on ourselves as we do on others, it speaks poorly for us and the credibility of our profession. If the press lauds itself for demanding transparency from government but cannot achieve transparency in its newsrooms, that is cowardice. If we say we can cover all of America with representatives of only a few types of communities, we may win battles but lose the war to keep news relevant to a broad segment of Americans. This is as strong a business argument as a moral argument.

 

Next steps and your help

When it comes to race and gender, I have some means of getting rough data without newsrooms’ participation. My tireless research assistant and I are literally going through rosters of reporters and editors  and coding them by race and gender. This has the potential to be incomplete, and the process is, frankly, comical. For example, we use membership in ethnic news organizations like NABJ and AAJA to help us categorize the race of reporters of color. But there is no affirmative categorization for whiteness, just the absence of other markers. Thus, most of the people in our rosters are now coded WX—meaning: White… eXcept how do we know for sure? To be rigorous—to move them from WX to a firm W—we need to literally call every person coded WX and ask: “Are you white?”

Doing this kind of work is tedious, and being stonewalled is humiliating. It’s not my fantasy to spend time harassing news organizations who pride themselves on fostering information transparency to be forthcoming about their diversity numbers. But someone needs to do it, and I’m in a position to give it a good hard try. If I can’t get it done, even with the imprimatur of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center behind me, it speaks to a deep and shameful resistance within our news culture to holding ourselves accountable.

This is our chance to do one small good thing for journalism, to stand up and truly be accountable. So let’s do this. Lay your metrics on the table, American journalism. We can congratulate ourselves afterward on having been brave about it.

***

How to self-report your 2016 political team diversity metrics:

Whether or not you are a news organization I’ve already contacted, please email me at Farai_Chideya@hks.harvard.edu

For the purposes of the reporting, I’m looking for a race/gender count of 2016-cycle political staffers—full-time or at least 25-hour-per-week contract workers (but not freelancers paid by the story). People come and go during the election season, but these should be people who spent at least six months covering the election between September 2015 and November 2016.

If you want to add to the data you disclose, you can include separate counts for freelancers; or for staff who worked on politics less than six months of the cycle, but those should be broken out separately.

Want bonus points? Produce an org chart showing how your staff diversity played out across the ranks of reporters and editors. Feel free to annotate for self-reported class background or other metrics if you want, too. But race and gender are the minimum.

We’d like on-the-record numbers and interviews from people who we can use as sources in the report: managers, corporate communications staff, anyone authorized to speak on behalf of the newsroom. Please indicate if you are speaking on the record and in what role.

Because we are not getting this information, in many cases, we also welcome interviews and information on background. That is, if you are a staffer and can provide information, please do, and tell us who you are and that you don’t want to be quoted or cited. We’ll take what you provide to us into account as we do our research, but obviously it can’t be the final word. You could also offer quotes about the topic on the record, and your assessment of staff diversity on background.

As we conclude the report, we will release information on who has provided information, and who it was requested from who did not.

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Farai Chideya is a reporter and broadcaster who has covered the last six presidential elections for outlets including CNN, NPR, and, most recently, FiveThirtyEight. She is the author of six books including The Episodic Career, and is currently a fellow at Harvard's Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. Follow her on Twitter @farai.