Who’s Reporting the News?

In my first blog post, I shared some graphics illustrating the racial/ethnic composition of several major newspapers, some more diverse than others. What did you think looking at them? Did they seem diverse?

Maybe in comparison to other newspapers they are, but are they in absolute terms? Take the Sacramento Bee, roughly thirty percent of their newsroom is non-White. That’s much more diverse than other papers, but what about relative to the community they serve? In Sacramento, the opposite is true—just over thirty percent of their community is White.

Sacramento Bee Non-White Staff by Year as Percentage of Total Staff

Sacramento Bee Non-White Staff Relative to Community Served

In an absolute sense, the lack of newsroom diversity is striking. But it becomes even more eye-opening when newsroom diversity is viewed relative to the communities they serve. Sacramento is not the lone example of this. In fact, despite that startling lack of diversity, the Sacramento Bee is among the more representative newspapers.

For this part of the project, I collected census data for the communities in which each newspaper is headquartered. Although the census was last conducted in 2010, the census bureau provides estimates for some statistics through successive years. Unfortunately, local-level racial/ethnic composition statistics do not fall into that category. With census data from 2010 only, I focused my analysis on the 2010 and 2016 American Society of News Editors Surveys. The 2010 data shows the demographics of the community served and the demographics of the newsroom serving it at the same time. The 2016 ASNE data is suggestive of the trajectory of the newpaper’s staffing as we look towards the 2020 census. Over 400 newspapers completed both surveys and were based in communities with a total population above 5,000 people in 2010 (the Census Bureau doesn’t report race/ethnic demographics for communities that don’t meet that threshold).

The entire dataset (charts and values) can be explored here and doing so will provide more detailed depictions of the general trends I’m describing. Once again, just use the dropdown menu in cell A1 of the ‘Summary’ sheet to navigate the data and charts. I’ve included several charts of interest, but I’ve found looking at a larger collection of the data is really eye-opening. It’s amazing how many local newspapers there are in relatively small communities all across the country. Time-and-again, I’d discover another surprisingly diverse new town only to find that the newspaper fails to embody that diversity. (On a personal note, this research has really changed the way I visualize the racial/ethnic composition of the United States.)

That disparity between newspaper and community is present across newspapers of all sizes and most resoundingly reflected in the averages. The chart below compares 2010 and 2016 census data (at the national level, the Census Bureau does provide race/ethnicity estimates) with the 2010 and 2016 ASNE data. What we see is a wholesale misrepresentation of what America looks like in our newspapers. Despite increasing attention being paid to the issue, diversity targets have repeatedly gone unmet. ASNE’s latest goal is to double the percentage of minorities in newspaper newsrooms by 2025. The trends are not encouraging, but recognizing who is responsible for producing our news and how their experiences shape the reporting we read is an important step towards building a representative media.

Average Non-White Staff Relative to National PopulationAverage Staff Race/Ethnicity Relative to National Population

Compared to the national averages, even the New York Times, which gets regularly panned for its lack of diversity, looks diverse.

New York Times Staff Race/Ethnicity Relative to Community Served New York Times Non-White Staff Relative to Community Served

What does that say about the state of newsroom diversity in the United States that the New York Times is decidedly not diverse in absolute terms, but relative to other organizations seems remarkably diverse? We need to ask ourselves: “What are our expectations for newsroom diversity and how much of a priority is it to realize them?” Until it becomes enough of a priority to break out, ASNE diversity targets will continue to go unmet. Regrets alone aren’t enough for change.