Jun 1 2014

Beyond ‘Boring Hand-Wringing’ on Newsroom Diversity

Changing the institutions that make journalism so white and male

Newsroom (cc photo: David Sim)

What needs to happen in order to never have a conversation about race and gender diversity in newsrooms ever again? (cc photo: David Sim)

Crain’s Cleveland Business (1/12/14) acknowledged a mistake. In a January 5 story featuring predictions for 2014 from 32 community leaders, the outlet profiled no African-Americans or Asian-Americans. There was one Latino. And 30 of the 32 leaders whose views were published were men.

How do those erasures happen in a city where more than half of the population is black? According to the most recent census, women own one-third of its businesses. Black business owners: 25 percent. Yet their views, according to Cleveland’s premiere business and economy publication, didn’t figure as part or representative of “the Cleveland community.”

How does that happen? How can it not ever happen again?

“Let’s face it,” Ann Friedman wrote in a 2013 Columbia Journalism Review article (3/28/13). “The conversation about diversity in journalism is mostly boring hand-wringing.” I agree. That sentiment explains the low expectations I’ve had these past few weeks while following reaction to complaints levied at the insistent whiteness of the new “new media” newsrooms. There is always much talk, little action.

To recap, critics say Ezra Klein’s Vox and Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight, just to name the shiniest of the next-gen outfits, are repeating legacy media’s grand failure. They’re filling their rosters with white guys and overlooking women and people of color. The ensuing discussion picks apart and pieces together answers around a single question: How do we increase gender, race or ethnic diversity in newsrooms?

In fact, a question more indicative of intent to actually fix the problem might be: What needs to happen in order to never have a conversation about race and gender diversity in newsrooms ever again?

Sustainability rarely enters the newsroom diversity conversation. In that way, these in-the-moment crisis drills remind of a popular meme in international development. Popular frenzy and momentum accompanies the rock concert held in support of, say, women systematically raped in the Eastern Congo. Popular silence, however, accompanies attempts to enforce peace treaties, rein in arms sales, militia and military forces in the region—in other words, the institutional mechanisms that dramatically lessen the occurrence of systematic rape in the first place.

American journalism possesses a similar dysfunction when it comes to fundamentally altering the white and male composition of its newsgatherers. And in fact, journalism’s most sustainable effort around diversity is likely to be inaction.

What might it mean, though, to shift the dialogue around race, gender and ethnic diversity away from boring handwringing to sustainable industry-wide solutions? What needs to happen to never have this particular diversity debate again? After all, to paraphrase Jelani Cobb (NewYorker.com, 4/17/14) writing on the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Ed, to speak of diversity, in light of this country’s racial history, is to focus on bringing ethnic variety to largely white institutions, when in fact we should be dismantling the structures that made them so white to begin with.

A discussion that prioritizes sustainable change would center on the journalist pipeline. It would focus primarily on young people in the first five years of their careers and track who leaves the industry during that time and why. A diversity conversation worth taking seriously would ask about the industry’s absence of a mandatory and public census along race and ethnic lines in every medium. A more intentional diversity conversation would prioritize non-entertainment reporting and investigative news units for immediate attention.

As a critical first step, though, a solutions-oriented conversation would challenge the Federal Communications Commission to update its measure of whether media diversity is being accomplished in the marketplace.

While the FCC doesn’t regulate newspapers or print magazines, it does regulate broadcast and Internet communications. That oversight distinction is quaint, however; “media” in the 21st century is an ecosystem, not parallel lanes on the information highway. Also, mainstream broadcasting remains the dominant medium through which Americans receive original reporting.

On diversity, the FCC pretty much has nothing to say about “the people.” Its focus is on owners, specifically, whether they are diverse across race, ethnic and gender lines. That Jupiter-level discussion has nothing to do, however, with earthling preoccupations like the economic, social and political impact on Cleveland of its major business magazine erasing more than half the city’s consumers and its business owners in an annual round-up that indicates routine, not anomaly.

Of course, there’s always the “trickle-down” theory of diversity. But it’s not evident that media ownership by itself or mainly determines diverse coverage. So what does?

The FCC had attempted to collect data to begin answering that question, but quietly killed the pilot study of a local news market this February, a couple of months before it was to begin. Justification for the pilot derived from a 2012 FCC-commissioned literature review that found that, given a rapidly changing demographic landscape in the United States, it is essential to refine and extend our conceptions of diversity of ownership and participation in the production, distribution and means of access to critical information.

And even under the current FCC mission parameters, the 20-year review of 500 cross-disciplinary sources, whittled down from 1,000, had mainly found “a severe shortage of research” about whether news outlets met the news needs of American communities. The pilot was to gather data under the lit review’s suggested reframing, including one new to-do that proved most objectionable: a qualitative assessment and census of newsroom producers and the editorial decisions.

But pushback came from an Obama-appointed FCC commissioner, right-wing conservatives, and professional associations and prominent columnists within the news industry. Critics charged the government with policing America’s newsrooms and attempting to re-impose the Fairness Doctrine.

“I don’t understand how talking to newsroom managers about their staff relates to the FCC’s mandate around underserved communities and minority broadcast ownership,” Mike Cavender (Colorlines, 3/14/14) told me. Cavender, executive director of the Radio Television Digital News Association (RTDNA), is a vocal critic of the original pilot research design:

In broad-based terms, making sure that all communities within a given market are being served is a worthy topic, and the RTDNA doesn’t have a problem with that in theory. But, again, we have a problem with incursion into the news process. Those judgments are better made by news managers, not government bureaucrats.

I’m not one for weakening the First Amendment, but there are good reasons to feel conflicted here.

One, protesting the collection of data doesn’t appear to be all that different from the NRA protesting federally funded gun violence research. Both are stifling the creation of rigorously gathered and verified knowledge. Two, I wonder if the media’s knee-jerk First Amendment defense doesn’t either ignore the public’s particular concerns altogether or wrongly presumes its fight versus the government is synonymous with the people’s—and it’s not.

Why shouldn’t the public get federally funded research that evaluates whether local news outlets are meeting their information needs? This is what the FCC’s pilot study had sought to do. Also, mainstream media are less friend, more foe on a variety of issues of particular concern for racial and ethnic minorities. Especially in a society where segregated neighborhoods and schooling is the norm, it’s appropriate to systematically evaluate whether 50,000 overwhelmingly white, male journalists are meeting the news needs of people of color.

Challenging the FCC’s measure of diversity, too, may also reveal how its outdated and wrongheaded standard trickles down into newsrooms. “Diversity doesn’t stop at hiring one person who represents each so-called different viewpoint, be it race or gender or sexual orientation or political leaning,” editor Shani O. Hilton (Medium, 3/14/14) writes.

Hilton, as one of the few (or only?) black female editors at a new media start-up, penned an oft-cited reply to critics. “Any newsroom in which the black staffer is expected to speak up for blackness while the white staffers only have to speak for themselves is a newsroom that’s failing.” That failure starts at the top at the FCC—and it’s that failure that taints the ground rules for national media policy discussion and debate.

The FCC “owners” focus sets up the terms of debate such that even community media advocates embrace the fallacy that owner diversity is the turnkey solution for representative media coverage. Of course, presuming that diversity among media owners is possible in 2014 is a willful negation of the historic concentration of wealth among white men to the exclusion of all other groups—but that’s another essay.

Here, I want to focus solely on the simple theory behind FCC diversity policy: Female owners produce “women news”; Latino owners produce “Latino news”; black owners produce “black news.” That is absurd for many reasons, not least because this fictive “one member = all group members” construction has never at any point existed in the history of humanity.

And yet, as Hilton points out, it’s this same “you, speak for your race of millions” mentality that reigns in too many newsrooms and passes for diversity. Somehow it never applies to white males, who—whether owner or journalist—apparently produce “everyone’s news.”

Very rarely does a single article exemplify the national narrative of erasure or narrow coverage that happens daily to marginalized populations and women and, perhaps more damaging, skews the larger community’s understanding of who they actually are. It’s important to note: Crain’s Cleveland’s omission became a story only because of data collected about the city’s market and its population by a federal agency.

Without Census data, non-white Clevelanders would have had to rely on anecdote only—as journalists of color and women now must do to describe their industry—to dramatize their concerns about being erased. And anecdotes alone, as any journalist knows, do not a credible local or national news story make. Anecdotes are for the bar or the water cooler. Data is for the front page.

Undoubtedly, challenging the FCC to modernize its diversity metric adds fodder to longstanding calls for the agency to revisit policies currently structured around owners’ needs as opposed to communities’. New questions—more than, what’s the best way to network with people outside of your race/gender circle?—need to be asked by journalists, policy makers and communities if normalizing newsroom diversity is the goal. After all, one thing is certain: The market alone won’t fix the newsroom diversity problem.

Carla Murphy is a reporter/blogger at Colorlines and a contributing editor with the Nation Institute. Her Twitter name: @carlamurphy.

Extra! June 2014