Sadé Carpenter, who recently left Chicago Tribune as the deputy editor of food and dining, walked up to the front of Chicago’s journalism town hall at the Allegro Hotel on Feb. 23. She grabbed the mic and pointed out: “There are a lot of white men on this panel.” Of the 12 panelists, five of them were exactly that. Four of the panelists were journalists of color.
Only 21.9% of newsroom employees are members of minority groups, according to the 2019 ASNE Newsroom Diversity Survey. The Pew Research Center has also conducted studies that reflect the inequality Carpenter pointed out: According to 2012-2016 American Community Survey data, 77% of newsroom employees were non-Hispanic whites, and 61% were men. White men represented 48% of all newsroom employees.
The lack of a more reflective change is frustrating to many. In 1968, the Presidential Commission on Civil Disorders found that journalism organizations had been “shockingly backward” in hiring black people. In 1977, the American Society of News editors created the first Minorities Committee. Today, employees across the country acknowledge the ongoing imbalance, and they’re thinking about the problem in new ways.
The problem extends beyond diversity, said Dawn Rhodes, the former higher education reporter for the Chicago Tribune. “I think that word can be misused and misunderstood. … [It’s] about inclusion and representation,” Rhodes said. “What it means to me is not so much a quota, it’s not so much a number of people representing certain marginalized groups within a newsroom.” It’s about creating a culture where people from a variety of backgrounds — race, socioeconomics and sexuality — have influence in newsroom decisions, Rhodes said.
The ideal newsroom, said Rhodes, includes “a lot of self-examination about who gets to make the decisions in this newsroom and is there too much of a monolith around what those people look like?”
You can’t be like, ‘Oh, you got a woman. Check. An LGBTQ member. Check.’Corinne Chin, senior video producer, Seattle Times
That differs for each newsroom.
“One thing we’re really conscious of is that it’s not a checklist,” said Corinne Chin, Senior Video Producer at the Seattle Times. “You can’t be like, ‘Oh, you got a woman. Check. An LGBTQ member. Check.’ … We don’t say ‘diversity’ unless it’s paired with the word ‘inclusion,’ or ‘equity and inclusion.’”
Seattle Times’ Task Force
Alongside Assistant Managing Editor Frank Mina, Chin helps lead a diversity and inclusion task force, which initiates “interactive conversations internally about diversity and inclusion in the newsroom,” Mina said.
The task force started as a grassroots movement with six members in 2017, and now has one manager and one non-manager as co-leaders. Mina takes “a lot of the ideas and the energy and the excitement that come from the task force,” and makes sure “that they are brought up to senior managers, that they become part of our agenda through the year,” Mina said.
About 15 to 25 people of the 150 employees at the Seattle Times now attend the bi-weekly task force meetings, and the entire company has access to a Slack channel called Sensitive Intel. “People could share stories they’re working on that might be about particularly sensitive topics, or have to do with diversity- and inclusion-related issues, that people could back-read before they get published,” Chin said. “We can help each other identify our blind spots.”
For one of Chin’s stories, she used the Slack channel to get feedback about using the words “victim” and “vulnerable.” “It came to my attention that using that word, the way that I used it, and the number of times that I used it put the onus on these women who were, quote unquote vulnerable, that they were maybe weak or incapable of defending themselves. And instead, the reality was that they were being targeted for violence,” Chin said. “A lot of the changes are things subtle like that, and I think that a lot of our responsibility in journalism is really happening at that level.”
Their goals include looking at diversity and inclusion as a whole and assessing whether their reporting accurately reflects their community. “It’s not just are we reporting and writing and photographing people of different backgrounds, but are we doing it well? Are we doing it responsibly? Are we doing it in a way that serves our community? Are we doing it in a way that is respectful of and also reflective of the community we serve?” Chin said.
Because it’s not easy making a profit as a newspaper in 2020, Chin explained. “If we want this to be a sustainable business moving forward into the future, then we really need to be on top of our game and in reflecting our community and our subscribers and our full potential subscribers,” she said.
As long as the newsroom and the people who run it are constantly looking at and critiquing their own leadership and considering whether or not they need to change things to make sure that different voices are being represented in the decision making, I think that’s the ideal.Dawn Rhodes, former Chicago Tribune reporter
General readership and reach can grow if a news outlet’s staff is empowered in their roles, Rhodes said. Especially when budgets come into play (or lack thereof), hiring is only one piece of the puzzle in achieving a more representative newsroom. Moving people up the chain of command into more prominent positions cannot be overstated, Rhodes said.
“In order for it to be a healthy discussion, there needs to be people who disagree. There needs to be people who have different points of view,” Rhodes said. “As long as the newsroom and the people who run it are constantly looking at and critiquing their own leadership and considering whether or not they need to change things to make sure that different voices are being represented in the decision making, I think that’s the ideal.”
To do that, staff retention plays a role. “We’re looking at ways that we develop the staff that we have in the newsroom,” Mina said. “We’re looking at ways to provide management training or broader training in order to be able to prepare the industry staff to be able to move up into either management positions or leadership positions.”
Looking for ‘Fault Lines’
An easy first step news organizations can take? Ask themselves what a story looks like across all “fault lines” — that is, how individuals see the world through the prisms of race, class, gender, generation, geography and sexual orientation, said Martin Reynolds, co-executive director of the Maynard Institute, an organization that helps media companies represent all segments of society.
“Those fault lines are enduring, they don’t change,” Reynolds said. “If you ask yourself that question at the beginning of a project, you are going to talk to people that perhaps you otherwise wouldn’t have. You’re going to seek data that perhaps you otherwise wouldn’t have.”
Starting with that simple question sparks an array of others, Reynolds said. Among them:
“What should the engagement strategy be around the story across the fault lines?”
“Do we have the people to execute on this?”
“What would the hiring strategy look like across these fault lines?”
Then, a newsroom can create a “virtuous circle of thinking more inclusively,” Reynolds said.
Find your allies, Seattle Times’ Chin said. “I know that there are so many people in newsrooms all across the country who feel frustrated, and a lot of people who feel very alone,” she said. “It was just a matter of finding people and understanding that everyone’s intention is the same, and that’s to create better journalism.”
Newsrooms are on their way there, Reynolds believes. “I might be a fool for optimism, but … I’m starting to see some signs that people might be starting to get it.”
Illustration by Mary Truong. All rights reserved.