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June 16, 2015, 10:39 a.m.
Reporting & Production

From Nieman Reports: Newsrooms find a diverse masthead means better coverage and new audiences

“Until the mastheads at the top of organizations understand how critical this reporting is for our democracy, it’s not going to change.”

Editor’s note: Our sister publication Nieman Reports is out with its new issue, including a cover package focused on race and reporting in America today. Here 2015 Nieman Fellow Alicia W. Stewart writes about the strategies newsrooms — from Vox to The Washington Post, BuzzFeed to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution — are employing to diversify.

diversity-newsrooms-stewartThe news industry has been talking about diversity for decades, but the talk, many say, often has not been followed by action. “The needles never really seem to move,” says Nikole Hannah-Jones, a reporter covering racial injustice for The New York Times Magazine. In 1968, when President Lyndon B. Johnson’s National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders published what’s known as the Kerner Report, it concluded that America was “moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.”

The commission, tasked with determining the causes of and finding solutions for the riots that had been scarring the country for much of the decade, singled out the media for their inadequate coverage of African-Americans. “It would be a contribution of inestimable importance to race relations in the United States simply to treat ordinary news about Negroes as news of other groups is now treated,” the report stated.

The Kerner Report also criticized newsrooms for the disproportionately low percentage of minorities employed in the industry. Today, with attention turned to race relations in cities like Ferguson, Baltimore, and Cleveland, the needle on inclusion in mainstream newsrooms seems stubbornly stuck in place. The number of journalists of color has slowly climbed since the Kerner Report’s release, peaking around 2008, but that hasn’t necessarily translated into more equitable coverage. In a 2014 study by the American Press Institute and the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, only 25 percent of African-Americans and 33 percent of Hispanics said the news media accurately portrayed their communities.

That could have something to do with who’s making the coverage decisions. The 2014 Newsroom Census conducted by the American Society of News Editors (ASNE) found that only 15 percent of daily newspapers surveyed in 2013 had a person of color in one of their top three newsroom leadership positions. “Unfortunately, the ASNE census shows the industry isn’t making much progress,” says Karen Magnuson, who chairs ASNE’s diversity committee. “In fact, we’re losing significant ground as minority populations continue to grow.”

“I have been hearing ever since I got into this business, ‘We’ve got to adapt. Our country is changing. If we don’t start telling those stories and reaching those communities, we’re going to oversee our own demise,’” says Hannah-Jones, hired by The New York Times Magazine this spring after covering racial injustice for ProPublica. “I’m going to call bullshit on that, because we’ve been hearing the same thing for decades. Newsrooms have not really changed. Until the mastheads at the top of organizations understand how critical this reporting is for our democracy, it’s not going to change. Why do we not cover [race] with the same intensity and skepticism and, really, doggedness that we cover everything else?”

Keep reading at Nieman Reports »

POSTED     June 16, 2015, 10:39 a.m.
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