Over the past two days, publishers across the media industry have responded to protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd by issuing statements of solidarity with demonstrators calling for equality before the law and an end to racial injustice. Here’s another response they ought to consider: a firmer commitment to diversity and representation in their own ranks.
In many communities, protests this week have remained civil. But in others, demonstrations were met with violent force by police, or hijacked by others more interested in rioting and vandalism than peaceful expression. All of this played out as news outlets scrambled to cover the chaos unfolding before them faithfully and accurately, while in many cases reporters themselves were targets of pepper spray, tear gas, rubber bullets or other projectiles. Observers, including the President, have been quick to assign blame. Spin is everywhere. How is the public to make sense of it all?
Inevitably, much of the TV news coverage has emphasized destruction—images and footage of businesses engulfed in flames, smashed storefronts and burning vehicles—rather than the reasons people had taken to the streets to begin with. As they always have, magazines and other outlets that prioritize long-form journalism provide the necessary real estate for more nuanced discussions that can reset popular narratives when they begin to stray too far from the truth, but they can only do so effectively if their staffs and leadership accurately represent the communities they cover.
If America is to heal, the collective outrage that is now boiling over must accelerate a national conversation about implicit bias: not overt racism that requires little courage to reject, but that which lies deeper below the surface. The blind spots. The failures of understanding. The disparities in the benefit of the doubt.
A 2018 study from Pew Research Center found that newsroom employees in the U.S. are significantly more likely to be white and male than U.S. workers overall, and indications suggest that this disconnect was only exacerbated by layoffs that have ravaged the industry over the past two years.
“A lot of times, those people tend to be the last ones hired and the first ones to be laid off,” said Gregory Moore, editor of The Denver Post from 2002 to 2016, in an interview with Democracy Now last month. “And so, one of the things you begin to see is the whitening of the media.”
The phenomenon described by Moore has already been borne out at Sports Illustrated, where layoffs have unbelievably left the publication with no black writers, according to a May 29 statement from the magazine’s union.
“Newsrooms must amplify voices of color to better cover the systemic racism that led to George Floyd’s death,” the statement reads. “The layoffs of the last year have left SI with no black staff writers—we are part of the problem. We will bargain for practices to improve our diversity and inclusion.”
For emphasis: a national publication devoted to covering sports, so often the venue in which the most visible challenges to society’s status quo have played out, has no black writers on staff.
As the COVID-19 pandemic has ravaged the media industry, it’s also disproportionately impacted black communities, an economic and public health crisis that has laid bare systemic inequality and can’t be ignored as the backdrop to demonstrations across the country.
“The obstacle course black business owners have to navigate to get federal aid—compounded with climbing unemployment rates—foreshadows an economic depression in black communities,” wrote Patrice Peck, founder of the weekly newsletter, “Coronavirus News For Black Folks,” in a New York Times op-ed this week.
The diversity reports that a few historically white publications release each year show that black writers, data journalists, editors, designers, illustrators, photographers, and audience and social media strategists are wildly outnumbered by their white peers. So we often become the go-to person when our colleagues need “sensitivity checks,” an invisible labor that typically goes unpaid, even though outside consultants charge exorbitant fees for it.
We are celebrated for our contributions during heritage months and given leadership positions in employee resource groups. But we are still glaringly underrepresented in management roles. All of this in a workplace where microaggressions, biases and discrimination occur as often in conference rooms, in Slack groups and even during happy hours as on sidewalks patrolled by police officers and in hospitals where black patients exhibiting Covid-19 symptoms are sent home.
One solution for helping ensure a better, more just future for all Americans could be other outlets following the lead of SI staffers and auditing themselves, a practice still extremely rare in the industry despite the consistent lip service paid by executives to the importance of diversity and inclusion.
Asked for tangible results, magazine publishers will often point to success at reducing or eliminating gender-based pay gaps, or broader representation among cover stars and speakers at conference panels—all important, admirable and necessary considerations, but the road shouldn’t end there.
“The common solutions to the failures in diversity follow a well-worn path,” wrote LaSharah S. Bunting, director of journalism at the non-profit Knight Foundation in August. “Convene a diversity committee to provide a set of recommendations for its leadership to choose from; focus on hiring more journalists of color, but essentially disregard why others can’t be retained; or appoint a leader to address diversity and inclusion, but in a role that often lacks true power and resources. While these approaches can have some positive impact, they rarely address the institutional racism and unconscious biases that pervade many news organizations.”
If one of the few national outlets that willingly provides a glimpse into the makeup of its newsroom and management, The New York Times, indicates that it still has work to do in assembling a staff that reflects the diversity of the communities it covers, what does it suggest about the rest of the industry?
I recognize that this column is published on a website whose full-time editorial staff consists of two white men. To date, our efforts with regard to inclusion have largely focused on equal representation of men and women as sources in our coverage and speakers at our events. That isn’t enough, and we pledge to do our part to make sure our coverage better represents the broad industry we serve.
As arbiters of narrative and gatekeepers of information, more publishers with large national platforms should join The New York Times, as well as others like NPR and Buzzfeed, in providing transparency and assuming accountability for the makeup of their editorial teams and executive leadership. If nothing else, added pressure to think proactively about why existing policies often fail would be a good start. Diversity and inclusion aren’t blue sky ideas that can be abandoned when times get tough; they are an imperative that the industry needs to prioritize in order to ensure its future.