Who’s in the News?

For the final portion of my project, I hoped to analyze the levels of racial/ethnic diversity of people mentioned in news articles and look for a relationship between the newsroom diversity and the representativeness of their reporting. Regrettably, doing so isn’t a viable option for both procedural and substantive reasons. I quickly discovered that it’s very difficult to consistently discern the racial/ethnic identity of people in news articles with a reasonable level of confidence. The name and title usually given in an article are often insufficient. Prominent individuals can be researched further, but I had hoped to take a macro look at all mentions, especially “regular” people. Instead, I was only able to get a sense of the general penumbras of racial/ethnic representation in the media.

Substantively, I thought that by charting increases in the degree of representation and looking for a relationship between that and changes in the racial composition of newsrooms, trends would emerge. How naive. Instead, I found that racial minorities are quoted in the news disproportionately infrequently. I was taken aback by how much I’ve read the news before without noticing the demographic disparity. The society presented in the news is incredibly influential in shaping my sense of society around me, but too frequently the people in the news aren’t representative of the people in the society I use the news to try to understand. Not only are the people creating the news decidedly unrepresentative, so too, it seems, are the people in the news. Rather than identifying potential solutions, I found the underlying problem to be even greater than originally imagined.

Maybe in the distant future, the original, scope of this project will be viable. Until then, we must pay attention to who is making the news and who is in it. Whose voices and perspectives are shaping our understanding of the world around us? Or perhaps more importantly, who isn’t reporting the news and who isn’t a part of it. Research in the immediate future is perhaps best directed towards highlighting the dearth of racial minorities covering and covered by the news along with identifying means of opening routes to inclusion.

The lack of representation isn’t the result of disagreements over the value of diversity so much as it’s a product of a lack of prioritization and awareness. It’s too easy to be complicit in media intake rather than critically considering how information is being presented to us. In a September 1999 statement explaining its diversity parity goals, the American Society of News Editors (ASNE) noted that “… lack of diversity in newspapers equates to inaccurate newspapers. Minority editors and reporters are key to ensuring credible coverage of the entire community.” September 1999—nearly 18 years ago! And yet the average American newspaper is only marginally more racially/ethnically diverse than the Mayflower (averages from the ASNE survey show that 9.54% of newsrooms were non-White in 2016, barely up from the 7.98% of 2010). Newspapers have installed countless updates in that time period, including overwhelming digitization efforts, but diversification still remains largely elusive.

A 2016 New York Times article calling out the hypocrisy of the insufficiently-diverse New York Times proffers an explanation for the stagnation:

Ernesto Londoño, who sits on The Times’s editorial board—and on an Opinion staff lacking both gender and racial diversity—believes the problem lies in a failure of editors to step outside their white-knows-white circles. “It takes a concerted effort to break out of that habit and tap talent pools that are more diverse,” Londoño said.

It’s easy to make come up with excuses for why newsrooms aren’t as diverse as most believe they should be. But do they really matter? Newspapers will achieve any goal if it’s enough of a priority. The failure here is not indicative of inability, so much as insufficient initiative. Until we realize the depth and cost of the problem it’s hard to muster that initiative. Conducting this research has definitely opened my eyes to the extent of the media underrepresentation and the importance of remedying it. As the news industry creeps towards diversification, we must all remain conscious of potential inaccuracies and misrepresentations installed by the lack of newsroom diversity.

Comments

  1. Hi Alexander!
    I’ve found your posts to be very interesting; I don’t think first of newspapers when it comes to the issue of racial diversity, but they are clearly an important area to consider. I think that prioritizing diversity and making institutions representative of the people they purportedly represent is incredibly important. Were you able to identify any potential solutions? Did the data you found include any newspapers that were made up of predominantly nonwhite reporters or were representative of their community’s demographics? If so, do you think that non-diverse newspapers could change their models of recruitment and hiring based on the practices of such a newspaper?

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