One of the most important jobs of any newsroom in any city is to tell the stories of the people who shape and construct the narratives of the community.
But for many years, newsrooms, reporters and leaders did not reflect those communities as well as they should. Reporters and editors often served as interlopers — folks who worked in a location but were not a part of the vibrant fabric that makes each region unique.
It was shortly after the murder of George Floyd that diversity, equity and inclusion statements were made throughout America, including in journalism and newsrooms. While a communal reading of the proverbial room was the right thing to do by organizations that wield power, it was easy for citizens to remain skeptical as to whether these statements would lead to substantial and consequential change.
That skepticism was understandable.
In a study that took place between 2012 and 2016, the Pew Research Center found that more than three quarters of newsroom employees — reporters, editors, photographers and multimedia journalist, videographers, among other positions — were non-Hispanic white. Furthermore, all data points to journalism being predominantly white and male.
While this data, which was published in 2018, was not terribly surprising, the racial reckoning that major print publications and television news organizations engaged with since the seminal Floyd tragedy have reshaped the industry. Promising appointments throughout journalism have occurred since mid-2020 with a new group of diverse news professionals taking over not just as reporters, but as deputy and executive editors, editors-in-chief and other significant leadership roles.
Leona Allen has been in her position as the deputy publisher of the Dallas Morning News since August of 2020. As a longtime newsperson, Allen saw the winds of change starting to sway just months before she took her assignment, but it didn’t take long for her to understand that this moment in the industry felt different.
Allen has plied her trade as a journalist for more than three decades and has been part of “every diversity initiative you can imagine.” But one of the most powerful elements of this new wave of diversity and equity outreach is that she now was in a position to hold her company accountable. And she made it clear that she was only interested in making big moves toward equity of all types.
“One of the things that I talked to our publisher about was that if this was a one-anddone kind of thing, I wasn’t the one for the job,” Allen said. “You have to put sustained energy and effort behind these goals. What’s worked for us is that I made it clear that it can’t just be me: every leader of the company has to be working toward the same goal. It can’t be just one person paying attention to these things. It’s everyone’s responsibility.”
Marina Fang has worked at HuffPost since 2015 where she is now a culture and national reporter. She has had a huge hand in both union and diversity efforts at the publication, which has included how HuffPost engaged with populating their newsroom.
“Hiring is a big part of it, but you also can’t just hire a bunch of people from underrepresented communities without making sure your newsroom or your organization is an actual inclusive environment,” said Fang. “Newsroom leaders need to value everyone’s voice, give them career opportunities and support whatever ambitions they have.”
For all the progress news organizations have made in the past few years, ambitions often outpace reality. One high-profile example is National Public Radio, long considered a bastion of fair reporting, where multiple on-air talents of color recently left for various reasons. In September of 2021, Lulu Garcia-Navarro, the Latina host of “Weekend Edition,” left for a position as a podcaster at The New York Times’ opinion desk. Two Black females, Noel King of “Morning Edition” and Audie Cornish of “All Things Considered,” departed on Jan. 4 for Vox and CNN, respectively.
Kelly McBride, NPR Public Editor and Chair of the Craig Newmark Center for Ethics and Leadership at The Poynter Institute for Media Studies, filed a report for NPR presenting some sobering statistics a week after the Cornish departure. For positions such as hosts, correspondents, reporters and other bylined journalists, it was reported that 68 % of NPR’s talent is white.
NPR may not be the most egregious example of where a news organization has fallen short in its commitment to equity, but it’s the most recent and one that is highly visible. As McBride states in her piece, “If you can’t grow your way to a representative staff, other pathways must be forged.”
Available talent isn’t an issue, noted Robert Hernandez, professor of professional practice at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.
“There’s no shortage of talented women, women of color or people of color to do these jobs,” said Hernandez. “Where’s that bottleneck, then? It’s on the hiring side, but not just on that side. The other thing is retention. When you treat [these journalists] as outsiders or tokens and not really integrate them into the community and change the culture, they’re going to get burned out.”
While bringing in the right people is a critical element of filling any newsroom, those decisions can’t be made in a vacuum, said Doris Truong, director of training and diversity at Poynter. Understanding each component of how a narrative is crafted and disseminated needs to be examined thoroughly.
“They can reframe the issue by looking at who attends decision-making meetings,” said Truong. “Who is determining who leads the homepage, the section fronts, the A-block of the broadcast? How can they get people already in the news organization but who represent a variety of lived experiences to be fully engaged in helping to shape coverage? Having people with different ideas of what constitutes news — and people who see different things in their day-to-day lives — will help produce a news report that is more representative of more kinds of people in the coverage area.”
Understanding who populates a coverage area means that those who serve as the town criers know what stories need to be prioritized. What kinds of information are news organizations providing to their community? While social media can circulate lots of data quickly by anyone with a phone or tablet, there is great value in having vetted journalists who can speak to the nuance of a community. More still, it’s a huge assist when those same journalists belong to the community.
In an essay penned in December of 2021 by Jeanne Bourgault, the president and CEO of Internews, a powerful case is made that a diverse newsroom is not just good for coverage, but good for business.
“As Chief Executive of Internews,” says Bourgault in her column, “I’ve visited dozens of newsrooms in every inhabited continent. Across the board, I’ve noticed a commonality: having a diverse workforce bodes well for producing accurate and well-reported news content.”
She continues: “A diverse newsroom is essential for media institutions that pride themselves on providing well-researched, complex stories that explore different perspectives and voices. The news content the media provides should be an accurate reflection of the diverse society it serves. As such, to reflect this society, we need to make sure that journalists from different cultures, religions and genders are represented.”
Many news organizations have tried to tackle this issue by bringing in consultants that focus solely on diversity and inclusion at a news organization. While the effort is noble and well-intended, those efforts need to be the vehicle, not the destination.
“Not to dismiss the vast amounts of strategies of trying to do all this diversity and inclusion work, but the big problem I see is that it’s more symbolic and performative rather than woven into the culture and community,” said Hernandez. “These folks are labeled automatically when walking into a culture of the newsroom that they’re outsiders. It’s almost tokenism. It’s like these people didn’t come through the front door — we made a side door just for them.”
Hernandez believes the solution includes destroying that particular point of entry. “I do believe a lot of companies have their hearts in the right place, but to really do this correctly, that front door needs to be wider, and we need to be more thoughtful about how people are brought into the newsroom for permanent positions.”
The thoughtfulness required to fill a newsroom in this day and age means understanding a diverse community that goes beyond just covering crime and festivals, according to Maria Reeve, executive editor of the Houston Chronicle. Reeve, who has been in her position since November of 2019, has used her stature to attack a problem that has been in news circles for a very long time.
“There’s been decades of newsrooms not being fully willing to commit, but it’s a painstaking process to find people who have a similar mindset, in order to continue the mantra to be vigilant about what kinds of sourcing we do and what our hiring pools look like,” Reeve said. “We are looking at a deeper, more substantive reflection of what it means to be in the communities we say we are going to cover.”
While that vision may seem obvious in nature, the devil is in the details.
“For people who say it’s simple, it’s not. I think it’s doable, but not simple.”
What also isn’t simple are the extra burdens that BIPOC reporters may have to carry in the newsroom, often overseeing aspects of how a story is crafted that was not in their job description.
“We are often the explainers if another reporter doesn’t understand the nuance of something. We have to be the one to point out that maybe, ‘hey, that headline isn’t great,’ or ‘you should frame the story differently,’” Fang said. “For a long time, I was inclined to be very accommodating and would explain something because I care and I want to change things. I still feel that way, of course, but I also recognize that I’m doing this extra work when I shouldn’t have to.”
After many years of demoralizing statistics and excoriating reports like the one generated by the Pew Research Center, substantial and potentially sustained change may finally be closer than ever. A massive shift at some of the nation’s largest and most prestigious news institutions have made waves throughout the industry. Kevin Merida, who served as vice-president of ESPN and as editor-in-chief of The Undefeated, a publication that examines the intersection of sports and culture, was hired as executive editor of The Los Angeles Times in May of 2021. Two Black women, Kim Godwin and Rashida Jones, are presidents of ABC News and MSNBC, respectively.
Allen rattles off some names in her sphere as evidence that changes have gone past diversity statements: both Katrice Hardy of the Dallas Morning News and Monica Richardson of the Miami Herald are the first Black executive editors in the history of those papers. She also mentions Sewell Chan, editor-in-chief of the Texas Tribune and Manny García, editor and vice president of the Austin American-Statesman.
While diversity has strengthened each of these and other news organizations, the fact that each of these individuals is wildly talented is what these hires are all about.
“We have a talent-first mentality here,” said Allen. “I don’t have any interest in bringing in people of color who are not top-notch folks who can kill it. We have too much stuff to do here not to bring in top talent.
“The biggest challenge we have right now is that we have a lot of competition and people who are in high demand, and everyone is trying to do that. If you’re a big city newspaper, everybody’s trying to look for folks who are going to be representative of their community.”
That certainly includes diversifying the newsroom. But ethnic diversity is only one aspect of how to serve a community through journalism. Hernandez points out that diversity comes in many forms — gender, including non-binary, and journalists with disabilities, to name a few. But whatever the diversity makeup is in a newsroom, understanding the community that is being served is of the utmost importance for everyone.
“Newsrooms need to be hiring for people and communities they claim to serve,” said Hernandez. “If your newsroom is doing its job correctly, it will be reflective of the community being served.”
According to Hernandez, thinking outside the box when it comes to hiring is a large part of what needs to happen in order for these diverse newsrooms to be fully realized. “We don’t need to hire people who are perfect off the shelf. We need to hire people we can see grow in more ways than those who just fit nicely in a machine that’s made of very similar parts.” While approaching newsroom populations through a diversity, equity and inclusion lens has historically been fraught with fits and starts, there is much to be hopeful about.
Allen and Reeve are thrilled by the significant appointment of the many journalists of color leading major news organizations around the country. Hernandez is inspired by publications such as the 19th, a news organization founded in 2020 that amplifies underrepresented voices. Fang embraces opportunities to tell stories of all types on her national platform when it comes to culture and community. And Truong mentions multiple news organizations that have created positions at the top of their organizational charts to make diversity, equity and inclusion a top priority. She specifically points out a movement for transparency around staff demographics such as the Marshall Project, an initiative that states goals for the coming year.
Allen has been in the business for 35 years and is positively giddy about what is happening in journalism today. It’s taken a long time to arrive, and there are still many miles to go, but the road ahead is much clearer than it’s been in a long time. A statement is a statement. But action is the goal.
“I’m still super excited and renewed by the fact that companies are sustaining these efforts,” said Allen. “We’re now in 2022, and these consortiums are deep for two reasons: it’s the right thing to do, and your business suffers if you don’t have it.”
David John Chávez (he/him) is a Bay Area–based theatre critic and arts journalist. He has contributed to The Mercury News, American Theatre Magazine and KQED, as well as his own website, bayareaplays.com. Twitter: @davidjchavez