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Home > Publications > Quill > Smooth News: Newsroom numbers — good and bad


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Monday, May 7, 2007
Smooth News: Newsroom numbers — good and bad

by Sally Lehrman

In what has become an annual ritual, American newspaper editors have counted up their newsroom diversity statistics. And the numbers have been found wanting.

The number of journalists of color within participating newsrooms has hovered stubbornly at about 13 percent for the past few years and even slipped a bit in 2006. Twenty more newspapers than last year — a total 392 — had no minorities at all on their staffs.

Is diversity a lost cause as a staffing goal? If these statistics don’t seem to budge, do they really matter?

Buried in the bad news may be a glimmer of hope. Online newspaper operations, measured for the first time by the American Society of Newspaper Editors, performed slightly better than newspapers as a whole, reporting nearly 16 percent journalists of color.

While that statistic remains dismal in relation to a U.S. population that is one-third people of color, it might help point the way to success. What’s different about newspaper online operations? Perhaps online editors think of their audiences as more diverse, a view that might make them work deliberately to cast the recruiting net more broadly and creatively.

In day-to-day operations, they’re trying out new things, breaking down systems, questioning everything. They’re creating a fresh culture, and so may be opening up to people and ideas that didn’t seem quite right under the old rules.

Tried-and-true hiring and promotion procedures may in fact shut people out, experimental psychologists and human resources experts tell us. Assignments, training opportunities and other perks can fall under the spell of unconscious stereotyping when no one stops to rethink them.

Dori J. Maynard, president of the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education and a board member of the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation, asks newsroom managers to tackle diversity with the same level of energy and creativity that they’ve put into online news and the multidimensional platform. The stakes are the same, she points out.

“You’re not going to grow your readership if you dismiss 30 percent of the population. It just won’t work,” Maynard says.

The task of inclusion may not come quite as easily, she admits. While the need to shift news platforms in response to changing audiences may seem impossible to ignore, the need to adjust content for the same reason somehow has taken on less urgency.

If we don’t see much diversity of race and ethnicity in our personal lives, Maynard suggests, it may be harder to take in our responsibilities to an increasingly mixed society. We might not even notice content that appeals to white audiences but renders others invisible.

Maybe, as an industry, we think that good intentions can make up for quantity. Perhaps those nearly 400 white-only newsrooms can work hard to find ways to cover our country and their own increasingly diverse regions well. But the data doesn’t support this belief.

Many media researchers have identified what they consider a white-centered bias in the news. Hemant Shah and Michael C. Thornton document this in “Newspaper Coverage of Interethnic Conflict,” for instance. In their 2002 book, “The Black Image in the White Mind: Media and Race in America,” Robert M. Entman and Andrew Rojecki detailed the tendency by network news to “ghettoize” black people into stories about crime, sports and entertainment.

Building a more diverse staff does help shift coverage toward more journalistic balance. An inclusive newsroom environment led to improved quantity and quality in news coverage of minorities, according to a recent study by researchers Ted Pease of Utah State University, Erna Smith of San Francisco State University and Federico Subervi of Texas State University-San Marcos.

Surely, newspapers worried about hanging onto market share can’t afford to ignore the changing demographics of our nation. And individual journalists who signed on to the vision of our work as valuable to democracy can’t sit idly by, either.

We cover the news because we want to help the public make informed policy decisions. When population and newsroom demographics are so wildly out of sync, we make ourselves a much less credible source for information and ideas.

What can rank-and-file journalists do? Join UNITY, SPJ and other organizations that are pressing for inclusive hiring practices. Help your management recruit journalists of color by building an inclusive network of your own. Push for newsroom training opportunities for everyone — these are one sure way to retain journalists of color, and everyone benefits. And rethink assumptions about how things should be done, because they may be unintentionally closing the door on colleagues of color.

Journalists working at every level of a news organization can help shift newsroom culture. Online organizations are rethinking news practices and coverage from the ground up. That’s the type of change we’ll need to get newsroom numbers to begin reflecting social reality.


Sally Lehrman is chairwoman of SPJ’s Diversity Committee.

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