- Does the diversity of a news staff affect the diversity of issues, topics and people depicted in news coverage?
- What efforts should a news organization make to reflect the diversity of its community?
Many journalists see diversity as an issue that overlaps with journalism ethics. It may be a social issue and/or a business issue, but they say it is an ethical issue because failure to reflect the diversity of a community is a matter of accuracy. If you cover a diverse community, a news report that reflects mostly the views, work and words of one group does not accurately reflect life and activity in the community.
Diversity goes beyond questions of race, ethnicity and sexual orientation. News organizations should seek out the perspectives of urban and rural residents, religious believers and atheists, political conservatives and liberals. Diverse opinion on specific issues will vary from country to country. In the United States, it may be important to hear from gun owners and non-owners; in Europe, from people with a variety of perspectives on immigration policy or the value of the EU.
Diversity of news staff
One of the best ways to increase diversity in your news coverage is to increase diversity in your news staff. Of course, journalists write about people who are not like themselves, and we should never pigeonhole staff members who increase our diversity by assigning them to beats such as minority affairs or women’s issues. But newsrooms have found that diversifying their staffs and leadership results in more diversity in story ideas, approaches to stories, sources, and people depicted in visual content. However hard people try to pursue stories and sources beyond their own experience, diversity brings more and different views to a newsroom and to the discussions that guide news coverage.
Some argue for hiring quotas in diversifying the staff, setting goals for the numbers of women and/or racial or ethnic minorities. Quotas might involve eventual goals such as percentages of total staff or leadership that reflect the demographic makeup of the community. Or they might involve percentages of hires in a year, either of a particular underrepresented group or a general percentage of hires that increase diversity in some way.
Other approaches to hiring diversity avoid quotas but require aggressive recruiting to ensure diversity in the field of candidates considered for each opening. As long as you’ve considered a diverse pool of applicants, you should still hire the best candidate, according to this school of thought.
Improving diversity also requires reassessing how we view the qualifications of candidates. If a profession has historically discriminated against a particular group, hiring people based heavily on experience perpetuates that discrimination because people in the excluded groups lack experience. Also experience is often used selectively in discriminatory hiring. Many straight, white male media managers in the United States got opportunities when they were young based on their hard work and potential (and possibly their connections). You should examine whether your organization is providing similar opportunities to other candidates who lack experience and connections but work hard and show potential.
If you identify groups that are underrepresented in your total workforce or in your management ranks, one way to increase diversity is to develop internships or leadership-development programs that are exclusively or heavily targeted to prospects in the groups that are underrepresented. While this feels to some like institutional reverse discrimination, others argue that it is an effort to provide opportunities and training to people who haven’t benefited from the traditional discrimination.
Retention is as important as recruitment in increasing diversity in a newsroom. Leaders need to touch base periodically with managers and staff members from underrepresented groups to identify and address any issues in the workplace environment that they find offensive or inappropriate. These conversations can also ensure that managers and staff members from underrepresented groups understand their contributions are valued and see opportunities to advance.
Diversity in content
Any news organization can benefit from periodic audits of its content, checking the diversity of news subjects and sources as well as the people in photographs and videos. If your content doesn’t reflect your community well, you should consider whether you are reflecting life and news in the community accurately. As well as looking at overall percentages, you should consider whether coverage of a particular group is skewed by topic. For instance, do African Americans only show up in stories involving crime, sports or entertainment? Are women well represented in feature stories but underrepresented in news coverage?
If your coverage does not reflect the diversity of your community, you can address the problem in a variety of ways, in addition to increasing staff diversity (which can take a long time):
Compile lists of knowledgeable sources in various areas you cover who are from the underrepresented groups. Distribute the list to the staff and be sure that you call on these people’s expertise where appropriate. Most reporters have lists of “usual suspects” they call frequently for expertise on their beats. These are not always the most knowledgeable people, just smart people the reporter knows who answer calls or emails quickly and like being in the news. In diversifying the list of “usual suspects,” you should never call a particular person simply because, for example, she is female or Hispanic. You call people for their expertise, but you want to make a specific effort to learn about the expertise of a wider circle of people in the community.
Some news organizations require that each story cite at least one source from underrepresented groups. Others more informally ask whether more diverse sources have expertise or interest in the issue and should be included.
If specific staff members’ work reflects a lack of diversity, managers can discuss the issue with them and determine whether the problem is a narrow circle of sources used by the reporter or a lack of diversity among the people on that beat. In that case, you might discuss whether that lack of diversity merits examination in your news coverage.
Stories don’t necessarily have to identify people by their demographic characteristics; in fact, they probably should not unless the story deals with diversity. For instance, in a tax story an American news organization might quote a female African American accountant, but someone reading the story wouldn’t know that because you identify her only as an accountant, her name does not immediately identify her by race or gender, and you don’t publish photos of any of the accountants mentioned. It’s not a matter of calling attention to your effort to diversify your coverage. But for that story, people who know the accountant will see more diversity in your coverage. And over time, as people do start showing up in photos, and some people’s names indicate race or gender, the diversity of your coverage becomes more evident. Of course, in stories where gender, race, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation or disability are relevant, you do mention those factors.
You might invite representatives of diverse groups into the newsroom to address your staff. They could tell the staff more about the group and its issues, and critique your coverage.
You can’t perfectly reflect the diversity of the community in your workforce. For instance, you are unlikely to have children or retired people working for your news organization. Your news staff is likely to have a higher percentage of college graduates than the community at large (or be less educated than your community if you are covering a niche such as medicine, law or higher education). Unless your pay is shamefully low, your staff is unlikely to reflect either end of the economic spectrum. In these areas and in areas where you don’t reflect the community because of past discrimination or because you have not yet succeeded in efforts to diversify your staff, make conscious efforts to seek out story ideas and sources from segments of the community that aren’t represented in the community.
Be sure to include the underrepresented staff members in discussions of news coverage and story ideas. Seek out their opinions, of course, on stories that deal with issues where their perspective is relevant, such as race, women’s issues or gay rights. But don’t pigeonhole them. Seek their opinions on other areas. They will feel more valued and you will find that their diversity contributes to your coverage in ways you didn’t anticipate.
Efforts to improve diversity of the staff and of news coverage should be focused on improving the accuracy of your overall news coverage and how it reflects community life. You should not use these efforts as an excuse for inaccurate news coverage. However much you diversify your story ideas and sources, your coverage of these segments of the community will be a mix of positive and negative. You should especially avoid getting locked into a preconceived notion of a story dealing with a topic related to diversity. Stereotypes and inaccurate stories are not good journalism, whether they are rooted in traditional discrimination or well-meaning advocacy for victims of discrimination.
The primary author of this section was Steve Buttry of Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communication.
See also the separate section on “Racial, Ethnic, Religious, Gender and Sexual Orientation References”
Fault Lines: Cultural Diversity Training in the Workplace
Advice for editors: Work and hire to reflect your community’s diversity, Steve Buttry
Gender has been an advantage for most of my career, Steve Buttry