The American Society of News Editors annual study of newsroom diversity just came out, and The Atlantic's Riva Gold did a terrific job describing the current state of newsroom diversity and its causes.
At a time when non-whites make up roughly 37 percent of the U.S. population, the percentage of minorities in the newsroom has fallen to 12.37 percent from its 13.73 percent high in 2006. In last year's 2012 ASNE study, overall newsroom employment was down 2.4 percent, but the picture looked much worse - down 5.7 percent - for minorities.
It's bad and getting worse, and the most important aspect of this isn't necessarily its impact on individuals, though that is a problem, but its impact on society. Gold only touches on that towards the end:
"The news media is not only failing to serve the communities but the country at large when they fail to reflect what's going on in communities of color," says [President of the Robert C. Maynard Institute for Journalism Education Dori] Maynard. This lack of diversity in newsroom employment shapes news coverage regardless of the medium.
The lack of diversity in the voices we hear in the mainstream reverberates throughout society. It's impossible to have a discussion about how to handle problems of race, poverty, or women's rights if we don't include those voices in our discourse.
The New York Times' Public Editor Margaret Sullivan recently commented on the lack of poverty coverage in the Times, which can be summed up with this line: "Occasional coverage — no matter how excellent — doesn’t get the job done."
Diane Nilan, an Illinois-based advocate for homeless families, is frustrated by The Times’s "spotty interest": "I ache for these people, but until the media make an issue of it, nothing will happen. It would be good to see The Times really take the lead in providing clarity and building compassion."
The lack of coverage affects the broader meta-narratives around poverty and inequality, and without it, individuals are left to fall back on preconceived stereotypes and conceptions about groups they don't often hear from. If the Times hired more individuals who could draw directly from those backgrounds in writing about and advocating for coverage of those issues, you'd see the Times taking the lead on something like this. But they don't have those people, they can't do those things, and everyone suffers as a result.
The bad economy has a lot to do with the cause of the problem. There are basically two responses Gold has to this: first, the news industry would perform better with a diversity of voices and perspectives:
Why does it matter, from the business perspective, if newsrooms don't reflect society at large? Because publications need readers. Hernandez attributes a decline in reader engagement to the fact that so many people don't see themselves reflected in coverage.
I often hesitate with ideas like this; diversity in the newsroom should have higher motivations than merely economic ones, and if newsrooms were to find that it didn't actually help them make money, the argument falls apart. This is a moral problem; the media plays a major role in shaping society, and advancing understanding around these issues is a big part of it. Making moral arguments that hinge on economics is problematic because the underlying economics can change, undermining a goal that's really more important than that.
The other argument he makes is about the expansion of the internet, and on this one he's a bit more balanced, arguing first that "the digital landscape has opened up new channels for a wide variety of people to produce and consume news," before discussing the problems with relying on citizen voices and individual writers to solve this issue.
First of all, he draws a distinction between the capabilities of someone setting up their own web page and a full-on journalist:
"Very few people have had access or desire to have training as a reporter, journalist, critical thinker," says Danyel Smith, a writer, editor, and Knight Fellow at Stanford University. "Just because there's Tumblr, WordPress, and Twitter in terms of instant publishing, doesn't mean these populations are much better served to the degree they can and should be."
The second is the significance of the "filter bubble":
Search engines, for instance, have changed news consumption patterns in ways that can filter out these more diverse outlets. Customized news, [Journalist Sally Lehrman, a professor at Santa Clara University] says, "is a force against this kind of digital diversity." Google's algorithms, in her view, work against broadening the spectrum of voices people access and hear daily.
However, while the Internet has been a democratizing force, most people aren't getting their information from the Internet, but from cable news, according to a Gallup poll, and those newsrooms are suffering in the same way. It also doesn't specify where on the Internet people are getting their news, and it could still be mostly through mainstream outlets, which continues to exacerbate the problem.
Ultimately, people can seek out diverse voices on the Internet, if they so choose, but they mostly don't, instead relying on larger, mainstream outlets to dictate to them what they're interested in, and if those outlets aren't putting diverse voices in front of them, they're not going to hear them. So the fact that the Internet exists is not a solution to this.
I've written previously about internships, so maybe my focus on the issue colors my perspective here, but I was disappointed that the impact of internships on diversity wasn't explored in more detail. The New Republic did a great piece on it, which I would highly recommend and covers much of the issue, the biggest of which is the financial barrier working for free places on lower income individuals who can't afford it.
This isn't just a question of lamenting the individuals who are unable to get these jobs, but the valuable perspectives the individuals held back could bring to our national understanding of these issues. It's something every newsroom should be making an active effort to address, bad economy or not, for the good of society.