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Home > Diversity > Reading Room > Unconscious stereotypes slow newsroom diversity

SPJ Reading Room

Unconscious stereotypes slow newsroom diversity

By Sally Lehrman

Many newsroom managers make an effort to hire, promote and encourage people of all backgrounds to succeed. Yet, America’s newsrooms have remained mostly white and male. Why?

Sociologists and psychologists have discovered hidden barriers that help explain the glacial pace of change within many an industry, even when the best intentions really exist. Without realizing it, they say, we all favor people most like ourselves. These natural human processes play into newsroom cultures and systems that tend to give white and male journalists an advantage.

Today, many editors will tell you they know exactly what they want in an “ideal journalist” — in job postings on, they seek reporters who are “goal driven” and “aggressive,” prepared to compete with the “big boys.” Important qualities, certainly, but is this male stereotype really all there is to it? What about being persistent, verbally talented, or good at developing trust with sources? These skills, stereotypically female, are just as important.

Because they operate at an unconscious level, stereotypes have their most power when people make subjective choices or must rely on incomplete information. Absent professional personnel practices, that’s the way newsrooms tend to assign and promote, and when diversity remains unspoken and invisible except when it’s time for staff counts, the ambiguity creates a lot of room for guesses and misunderstandings.

Scientists who study human interactions say this is when unconscious expectations and imagery — the stories and assumptions that everyone grows up with — can take over. Implicit stereotypes begin to limit people’s opportunities, but may go unnoticed and unquestioned. Those in the minority — because of their sexual orientation, use of mobility equipment, or any other reason — may turn to stereotypes as well as they try to interpret and anticipate their colleagues’ expectations.

When a stereotype is in play, the people affected by it tend to act unconsciously in alignment with it. Told that females usually perform poorly on a particular math test, women are likely to do just that. Otherwise, they score just as well as white men. The same thing happens when black people are asked to mark their race at the beginning of a difficult verbal test or are told that it measures intellectual ability. Or when a teacher starts talking about “white males,” those students often begin to feel threatened and uncomfortable. Social psychologists Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson studied this phenomenon at Stanford University. In their research, students’ scores reflected racial and sexual stereotypes when the test situation “primed” them in some way. Otherwise, they fared the same as everyone else.

Stereotype threat can stand in the way of mentoring, an important means for less-experienced journalists to develop their skills and climb the ladder. White men might avoid relationships with people of another gender, race, physical ability or sexual orientation for fear of making a misstep or being judged. Yet they are the ones most often in a position to offer support and advice. In experiments at Stanford, when white men thought they’d be discussing racial profiling with black men instead of love and relationships, they moved their chairs further away. “What’s interesting is that it’s not related to how prejudiced they are,” Steele says.

The U.S. public is now one-third Latino, Asian American, African-American and American Indian. The country will, the U.S. census says, be half “minority” by 2050. Yet 40 percent of the daily papers that reported to the American Society of Newspaper Editors on hiring and retention employ no journalists of color at all. Today, at the 926 daily newspapers that sent in their numbers, the share of journalists of color has reached just 13.4 percent. Broadcast data is equally discouraging — almost all of the numbers for journalists of color slipped last year, especially in radio. Television newsrooms are nearly 80 percent white, according to the Radio and Television News Directors Association, while radio newsrooms are 92 percent white.

Even as news corporations continue to struggle to achieve staff diversity, the organizations we cover seem to have progressed remarkably well. Many nonmedia companies have built diversity into their management framework, leading to accomplishments that leave news media trailing behind. Executives there view broad-based inclusion as a business imperative, and they make this clear up and down the management ladder. They value diversity as a means to support creative exchange, stimulate ideas and enhance competitiveness.

Each year, the magazine Diversity Inc. ranks the top 50 U.S. companies for best practices in diversity based on advocacy and management measures. Editors there have pinpointed common themes. Whether they sell consumer products, technology, or financial services, the successful businesses evaluated progress by using metrics. Nine of the top 10 in 2004 tied managers’ salaries or bonuses to the result. They also created pipeline initiatives to bring in diverse hires and to develop people for leadership posts. In newsrooms, the same practices work. Instead of calling their friends when openings appear, those who profile the real qualities of the job and recruit widely have more success in creating a welcoming environment for everyone.

Besides bringing diversity values to the forefront, these practices help remove the subjective decision-making that supports unconscious bias.

“In media, decision-making may well have to be subjective,” says Teresa Demchak, managing partner for the Oakland, Calif., law firm Goldstein, Demchak, Baller, Borgen and Dardarian. “But there are ways to add objectivity without reducing the artistic creativity that comes with the job.”

Demchak says that standard human resources practices to cut down unconscious discrimination are likely to work in newsrooms, too. Rather than allowing one person to decide on a new hire, she tells companies to build in some oversight. Hiring managers should articulate clear reasons for their choices. Instead of tapping promising staffers on the shoulder, she says, announce opportunities for committees and plum beats in a timely fashion. Turn promotions, including those that require informal apprenticeship, into an open, competitive process. Make sure there’s a way for staff members to make their ambitions known. Create procedures that offer everyone an equal chance to be groomed for top positions.

The best diversity programs do more than bring many varieties of human beings into the workplace. They embody the conviction that diversity enhances the work environment and the product itself — whether it is a car, a newspaper or a news broadcast. Successfully diverse companies find ways to infuse it into the operation until it becomes as unconscious a part of everyday work as implicit stereotyping used to be.

Sally Lehrman is a member of the SPJ board of directors and national diversity chairwoman. This column was Excerpted from “News in a New America” and reprinted with permission of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The book is the third in a series of publications by Knight Foundation that examine key issues facing the news media. In the book, Lehrman offers analysis of news coverage and newsrooms in a rapidly changing nation. Based on more than 150 interviews of journalists, social scientists and media analysts, the book addresses such issues as how to identify unconscious stereotypes and bias in coverage and newsroom practices. For more information, visit

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