Does a “diversity orthodoxy” pollute newsgathering and cost the media credibility?
So says William McGowan, who charges that news companies, in their attempt to become more inclusive, have relied on sourcing quotas, pandered to minorities, and lowered hiring standards. These in turn have hardened into a bias against whites, he claims.
“Instead of expanding the bandwidth of opinion, experience, and perspectives that are acknowledged in news coverage and commentary, diversity-oriented journalism has actually allowed a narrow multicultural orthodoxy to restrict debate,” McGowan writes in “Coloring the News.”
Most journalists would agree that our changing national identity requires robust and challenging discourse. Look at the numbers, though, and it’s hard to blame diversity for dumbing down debate. Even though many news organizations claim to emphasize a range of voices and to reach out to underrepresented populations, the results seem to speak otherwise.
Witness the overwhelming whiteness of most print newsrooms. Just 12 percent of newspaper editorial employees last year were people of color, according to the American Society of Newspaper Editors’ latest survey.
Consider network news’ failure to use women and people of color as experts – even on issues related to gender and race. About 92 percent of all American sources on the big three U.S. network news shows last year were white, according to a new study by Media Tenor, an international media monitor. About 85 percent were male.
“It’s just the habit of thinking of white males as authority figures,” said Ina Howard, U.S. research director for Media Tenor. “They tend to be thought of as more valuable sources, as more neutral.”
To their credit, however, journalists working to further diversity in their craft aren’t willing simply to dismiss McGowan. They are troubled by the resistance to inclusive news practices and by vague claims that multiculturalism lowers news standards. Last month, a consortium of leaders in the diversity effort met in San Francisco to examine what it sees as a lack of progress and a looming backlash. But instead of attacking McGowan and his ilk, they urged advocates to look more closely at the ways existing programs may contribute to the problem.
That’s not to say they believe McGowan is right. His book falls far short of compelling. “Coloring the News” conveniently ignores the lack of diversity in newsrooms, painting them as overtaken by militant blacks and Latinos.
Signs of racial bias and a strong conservative perspective leak into his analysis. He blames immigrants for siphoning government funding of public services, trying to influence “American” institutions, and causing a decline in overall wages. He summarizes major problems in black America as “the realities of the black underclass: illegitimacy, welfare dependency, crime, drugs and other manifestations of antisocial behavior, pathology and dysfunction.”
Media workers have rightly rejected such stereotypes in favor of more nuanced coverage. But leaders in SPJ, the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association, the Bay Area Black Journalists Association, the National Center on Disability and Journalism and other organizations did agree that significant weaknesses trouble newsroom diversity efforts.
Instead of a blinding “diversity orthodoxy,” what these journalists described is a lack of coordination among programs and a failure to link recruitment, retention, content and audience. They questioned news organizations’ commitment to change, with diversity relegated to occasional initiatives while general hiring, promotion, assignments, and even access to coverage remains reliant on traditional relationships and networks.
“If we were more willing to critique our own efforts in diversity, we’d have more credibility among our colleagues,” said Linda Jue, director of the “New Voices in Independent Publishing” project of the Independent Press Association. “The news industry is not creating an infrastructure for people of color.”
Many diversity pitfalls reflect a narrowness of vision. Some editors rely on cultural events to tell the story of a varied population, instead of incorporating people from a range of backgrounds into all stories – be they about businesses, churches, growth debates, or what-have-you. You might call it the “all festivals, all the time” syndrome.
Then there’s “seen one (name the ethnicity or gender), seen ‘em all” – a tendency by reporters to rely on one person to represent the opinions of an entire community. This is not only an unreasonable expectation, but we often select the wrong person. We also can make poor assumptions: that all white people are of Western European descent; that all Midwesterners are conservative, white and heterosexual. No wonder readers and listeners accuse us of inaccuracy.
Although we aim to be unbiased, each of us carries a perception of the world built from our personal experience. The best defense is to acknowledge our frame of reference and correct for it with a tool such as the Maynard Institute’s faultlines analysis, which asks us to consider not just race, but also class, gender, generation and geography.
Still, even the most well-meaning efforts can go awry. The San Francisco journalists posed some provocative questions that don’t negate the need for improved diversity in news content, but do invite some self-examination.
• Are we skittish about covering things that might feed racial or sexual stereotypes? Should we be?
• Is there a tendency to dismiss what many reporters and editors view as extremely conservative perspectives, thus limiting our definition of “diversity”?
• Has the media contributed to a polarization on racial issues because of the pro and con approach to covering hot-button issues such as gay marriage, affirmative action, and immigration?
• Does coverage in the name of diversity ever slip toward “celebration” of a particular group?
• Do we assume that news about the white majority is of interest to everyone but hold stories about other ethnic groups to a higher standard of relevancy?
• Do those of us who believe in diversity fail to question our own theories and practices? What is the result?
When I report a story, I always try to make one last phone call – even when I think I’m finished. It’s usually the one that tells me whether I’ve missed something. By the same token, better journalism requires pushing outside of the usual demographic and asking one more question when we think we already know the answer. This is how we discover whether we’ve overlooked some version of truth regarding an event or issue.
If we want to report fully on all elements of society, we must take this effort even further. We must ask ourselves one last question – then another, and another – about our commitment to covering all the populations that make up this country. Women, people of color, gays and lesbians, and those with disabilities aren’t just a demographic slot to be filled in a story, an interesting exception requiring a special feature now and then or a cursory reference or two. We are all of society – the norm, if you will – just like you.
Sally Lehrman is a free-lance writer and chair of SPJ’s Diversity Committee.