DIVERSITY IS KEY
Why modern newsrooms need more diversity and how they can achieve it
The publishing industry has faced several pitfalls in its fight for a seat at the table in the digital age. There are challenges of monetization, advertising, increasing subscriptions, not to mention navigating the ethical terrain of journalism in an era of fake news, Facebook Live and globalization.
By and large, the publishing industry giants have made great efforts to overcome these challenges. There is one aspect however where motivation for growth has withered: tackling the lack of diversity in newsrooms.
According to a 2018 survey on newsroom diversity, 82% of newsroom leaders in the United States are white. Of the overall workforce, 78% are white. Moreover, 58% of the average newsroom is male. These statistics do not present a picture of democratic representation despite the fact many publishers have been outspoken about increasing diversity in their offices.
Although it appears newsrooms in the US are getting better at including female and diverse racial perspectives in their workforce, the pace of change is quite slow. The same survey reported that since 2001, 40% of newsrooms have improved their racial diversity and 33% have improved on gender diversity. These numbers may exhibit positive change but the perspectives of minorities are still largely absent from newsrooms.
Sabrina Siddiqui, a political reporter for The Guardian US who covered the 2016 Trump campaign, has echoed these findings.
“Although I’m a reporter first, I’ve spoken often about the lack of diversity in the US media, which is especially glaring in political reporting. There are so many times when I look around – whether it’s in the White House briefing room, on the campaign trail, or at the Capitol – and realize I’m the only Muslim there.”
When we founded @sajaHQ 25 years ago, we couldn’t have imagined this scene: Two South Asians, @SabrinaSiddiqui and @anitakumar01, discussing presidential politics on CNN w/ @jimsciutto.🙌🏾— sree sreenivasan (@sree) August 28, 2019
Come celebrate our progress at #SAJA25 conf and gala on Sat, Oct 5: https://t.co/L18CnAHwK7 pic.twitter.com/aSXt1Nfns6
American newsrooms are not the only ones afflicted by a lack of diversity. Newsrooms in the United Kingdom and Germany are also not representative of their populations, and as a result journalism has suffered.
Do you remember when British radio host Danny Baker tweeted out a picture comparing the new Royal Baby to a chimpanzee? Or when the Daily Mail called Meghan Markle’s genes “exotic” and referred to her mother as a “dreadlocked African-American lady from the wrong side of the tracks”?
Clearly the British press was stirred into a racial frenzy at the idea of a non-white individual becoming a part of the Royal family. Some of the rhetoric was deliberately racist while some was coming from a place of ignorance. One wonders, why didn’t the staff at these newspapers catch these deeply problematic comments? The probable answers are that the newsrooms did not know they were producing racialized discourse and there were not enough people of color in the room to pick up on the problem.
Ugh. Dear England and English press, just say you hate her because she’s black, and him for marrying a black woman and be done with it God dammit. Your bullying is so embarrassing and obvious. You’ve all lost your marbles. It’s 2019. Grow up. https://t.co/OMwwRU31p9— Jameela Jamil 🌈 (@jameelajamil) August 20, 2019
Despite a flurry of apologies from publishers, racist and sexist coverage of Meghan Markle continues to blemish newsstands and our news feeds. It is alarming that Markle, a prominent TV personality, activist and member of the British Royal family, in all her embodiments of power, has repeatedly been a victim of racist coverage.
How then can we expect an average individual to escape it?
The coverage of refugees and asylum-seekers in Germany is an important example in this regard. News stories about refugees in the recent past have been mostly about crime and terrorism with an emphasis on their ethnic backgrounds. According to media analyst and communications researcher Kai Hafez, since the attacks in Cologne in 2016 the media is not merely following the right-wing trend but also creating it.
“Even liberal-leaning newspapers in the days afterward reflected about so-called ‘evil intentions’ of Arabic men. One of the headlines read: ‘Who is the Arabic man?’ It’s implying that Arabic men are more likely to be rapists, of which there’s no proof at all.”
What can newspapers do to prevent such racist coverage? Simple answer: hire candidates from diverse backgrounds.
There is an observable systemic issue here. Naturally, it is fed by a multitude of factors such as polarized political rhetoric, increase in far-right support, ignorance and a misguided idea of what “sells”. But would having a reporter from a different background prevent these kinds of headlines? Sabrina Siddiqui thinks so.
“As a Muslim American born to Pakistani parents, I do believe there is a certain perspective I can bring to conversations around what is and isn’t covered, or how certain stories perhaps should be covered,” she said.
At this point in time, we are confronted with the problem of people writing stories about people who they do not or cannot relate to, and hence cannot write about with nuance. This is the very reason why publishers need diverse perspectives in their newsrooms and benefit greatly from having diverse staff. Leaders in the publishing industry seem to agree.
“All the German newsrooms I know are very homogeneous. The only woman who wears a headscarf in the dpa offices is the cleaner. I once said I’d prefer to have more Marzahn [a mostly working-class district in Berlin] and less Mitte [an upper-middle-class district of Berlin] in my staff. What I meant was, I wish we had more people who don’t view spending 3000 euros for one week of skiing as an ordinary thing but rather discuss this within their families, maybe save for it. This kind of experience is missing. That means we are removed from a number of societal debates.”
According to Margaret Sullivan, fifth public editor of The New York Times and the first woman to hold the position, “My experience leading a newsroom showed me, time and time again, that staff diversity results in better and different coverage… When the group is truly diverse, the nefarious groupthink that makes a publication predictable and, at times, unintentionally biased, is much more likely to be diminished. And that’s a good thing.”
Naturally this begs one to question: If diversity is such a great thing, why aren’t publishers hiring more diverse candidates and solving the problem?
In Germany, according to one report, the number one impediment for hiring ethnic minorities and people from lower economic backgrounds has been language. Editors, especially in text-based enterprises, require candidates to have excellent German skills. In the report, journalism students cited “journalistische Wissensarroganz” or “journalistic habitus” as a deterrent.
A student who was raised by an Arab father said that because he did not learn German proverbs in his childhood or read Goethe, he does not have “journalistic habitus” in the eyes of the publishers.
“There are so many invisible hurdles,” another student added. “Including for people from less affluent households and non-university-educated households. It is not just a question of money; it’s also a question of habitus, other resources, networks.”
“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.’ We’ve been hearing the same thing for decades. Newsrooms have not really changed.”
In the search for a more diverse journalism industry, the effort must come from within. Speaking to Opinary co-founder Pia Frey on her Online Marketing Rockstars podcast, ze.tt editor Marieke Reimann said her editorial team’s diversity (one-third have a migrant background) is essential to reporting on a wide range of topics. That means leading the fight from within to ensure her needs are met.
“My demands for the diversity in my team is to display what’s happening in the world as best as I can through the staff I have got here. And that can only work if you hire people with different backgrounds and experiences, not only white ‘naturdeutsche’.
“Saying ‘they don’t apply’ or ‘it’s not possible because they don’t exist’ is the easiest way to just stick with hiring the same kind of people that you’ve hired for 50 years. In my opinion, if you really claim to want more diversity in your newsroom, you also have to do something for it.”