February 24, 2020; Nieman Labs

Last week, Hanaa’ Tameez at Nieman Labs shared some good news about boosting diversity in local media. A partnership between the GroundTruth Project’s Report for America and the Native American Journalist Association (NAJA) will support 19 Native American journalists covering Indigenous and other related beats in various participating newsrooms across the country, up from 10 this year. For each of the 19 supported journalists, Report for America will pay for half of the reporter’s salary while the local outlet puts up the second half. “Newsrooms have the option to fundraise half of their half, and RFA helps them do so,” Tameez adds.

The news media industry needs to regain and nurture the public’s trust because of the central role the press plays in preserving democratic accountability of elected officials. Among a long list of must-do’s is the need to confront and change white-dominated cultures, practices, and narratives that prevail in the media, which is grounded in the racial and gender makeup of new reporters, editors, and news executives.

The lack of diversity in the US media is not breaking news. As Gabriel Arana wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review in 2018:

In 1979, the American Society of News Editors (ASNE) pledged that, by the year 2000, the percentage of racial and ethnic minorities in newsrooms would match that of the population at large. Noting that this was “the right thing to do” and in the “industry’s economic self-interest,” ASNE stressed the particular importance of lifting people of color into management.

Newspapers have failed spectacularly at achieving that goal. According to the Census Bureau, racial and ethnic minorities comprise almost 40 percent of the US population, yet they make up less than 17 percent of newsroom staff at print and online publications, and only 13 percent of newspaper leadership.

Recent numbers from the Pew Research Center, the American Society of News Editors, and others have noted that racial, ethnic, and gender diversity is growing at a snail’s pace. Moreover, as Arana’s and Pew’s research show, improvements have been largely seen among junior news staffers while news managers and executives—those in decision-making positions—have remained largely white and male.

Why is racial and gender diversity in the press important in addressing issues of mistrust? Each of us brings our own worldview, which can include implicit biases and discomfort around certain issues, to our work. In the case of journalists, it influences what stories they pursue (with the blessing of their likely male, white editor), what points of view to include, and how they seek and present information to readers.

News and entertainment media have often been guilty of perpetuating harmful stereotypes and narratives related to people of color and women. Not surprisingly, this has fueled distrust towards the media in these communities over the past several decades. Bolstering racial and gender diversity in newsrooms can help break this cycle. As Keith Woods, Chief Diversity Officer at National Public Radio, said years ago in an Atlantic article:

When you fail to pursue the most diverse news staff, you fail to open up the possibilities created when you bring a broader range of life experience, insight, understanding, curiosity–all the things that go into creating story ideas and coverage plans, and all the things that bring us news.

Partnerships such as those between news media, identity- and issue-based groups, and other experts will continue to play critical roles in improving racial and gender diversity in the media now and in the future. For example, in addition to its partnership with Report for America, NAJA also works with the Institute for Journalism & Natural Resources, Facebook, Google News Initiative, NBC Universal, and others to bring Native American perspectives into news coverage on a variety of issues and platforms. The National Association of Black Journalists and Asian American Journalists Association offer internships and fellowships with ABC News and NBC News respectively. And earlier this year, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists announced the “first ever partnership with Google News Initiative to bring Spanish-language journalists the latest technical available tools to build capacity in newsrooms at scale.” Lastly, the Associated of Women in Sports Media offers internships at CNN, ESPN, Orlando Sentinel and a handful of other media outlets.

The news media industry needs to regain the public’s trust to be able to play its critical watchdog role. It cannot do this without confronting and changing white-dominated cultures, practices, and narratives that prevail in so many media outlets. Partnerships like those between Report for America and NAJA are critical in boosting diversity in journalism, providing trust-worthy information that is relevant to all community members—especially communities of color and other marginalized populations—and in ensuring that a racial justice lens is applied in the stories media tell.—Yna Moore