Diversity in newsrooms continues to lack as experts advocate for more transparency

By Jazmyn Gray 
Boston University News Service

After graduating from Hampton University in 1999 with her degree in Journalism, Nafari Vanaski was excited about her future as a print journalist. However, a series of roles in different newsrooms across the country forced her to reconsider her dream job.

“Being the only person of color in a room over 17 years can definitely chip away,” she said. “It’s a lot to feel constantly like you’re the resident black person.”

Vanaski, a mom of two children, felt that the compensation did not match up to the work she did as a public service journalist, editor and columnist. 

“I knew that I loved journalism,” Vanaski said. “I had dedicated myself to it. But I had to ask myself, do I love it enough that if I walked into work tomorrow and got laid off that I would feel good about that.” 

In 2016, she became one of the many Black journalists across the country to leave journalism in the last few years due to newsroom diversity, equity and compensation issues. 

Nearly two years after the murder of George Floyd renewed interest in newsroom diversity, industry efforts to track and openly share diversity data have continued to lag. Most recently, the News Leaders Association has struggled to connect with newsrooms across the country in its mission to produce a comprehensive and statistically sound diversity survey. 

Through its precursor, the American Society of News Editors, the NLA conducted its first annual diversity survey in 1978 after the Kerner Commission Report was released. Since then, the survey has been distributed with the goal of helping news organizations better reflect their communities.

For the NLA’s 2021 survey — which would have been the first survey released since 2019 — the NLA said it reached out to thousands of news organizations across the country, planning to have 2,500 print and online organizations participate. However, in the end, NLA Executive Director Myriam Marquez told the Nieman Lab only 303 news organizations responded. 

Dr. Meredith Clark, a professor at Northeastern University who took over as the survey’s lead researcher in 2018, said the number of responses has been trending down for the past several years. The last finalized survey, in 2019, garnered 429 responses — over 100 more than the 2021 survey — and prompted the organization to pause the survey due to low participation. 

Some news organizations, according to Clark, failed to participate because they didn’t have the data readily available. Others, she said, didn’t have the resources to complete the spreadsheet-based survey that could take several hours. 

“You have to get the records. You have to organize the data in the way that we’re asking for it,” she said. “So even if you have this data readily available, it might not be very easy to report in the way that we’re asking.”

The spreadsheet-based survey includes questions on race, gender, ethnicity, disability and veteran status. As of 2019, the survey started to also collect data on LGBTQIA journalists who were protected by federal workplace mandates. 

Some newsrooms, according to the Nieman Lab article, said they wouldn’t participate in the survey because they didn’t legally have to collect demographic data, among other concerns.

NPR’s Chief Diversity Officer Keith Woods, who helped revamp the NLA survey a few years ago, said one of the biggest obstacles in creating a survey of this magnitude is incentivizing news organizations to complete the process. 

“The core question that was on the table then, and on the table today, is what do you do if people simply refuse to fill the survey out?” Woods said. “Frankly, at some point, if it’s really important, you say, you can’t be a member of our organization.”

Woods echoes a new effort rippling throughout the journalism industry calling for organizations to mandate their members be more transparent with diversity data. This year, for the first time, the NLA will require news organizations to complete the diversity survey before they can be considered for certain NLA awards. Next year, the NLA will require the survey to be completed for all NLA awards. 

Industry leaders have also begun to advocate for awards like the Pulitzers to do the same, incentivizing outlets to be more transparent with their diversity data. 

Many organizations have attempted to further create change by publishing their own diversity data. The New York Times published a diversity and inclusion report. NPR’s Public Editor published its staff diversity numbers. The Washington Post Guild and Black Caucus published a pay, diversity and retention report. 

“We have seen news organizations across the industry make progress,” said Sonia Rao, co-chair of the Washington Post Guild’s equity and diversity committee. “But there’s always so much room to do more.”

Although she has left journalism seeking better compensation and appreciation for her work, Vanaski — who currently works as a communications coordinator for a health care system in Florida — said she hopes the industry will improve for other journalists. 

Clark will step back from the NLA survey in future years to focus on developing her own research center at Northeastern University. She told the Nieman Lab, however, that she still believes an industry-wide survey is crucial to creating change in the journalism industry.

“There can be acknowledgements. There can be apologies. But there has to be actual, structural change that addresses the things that have been wrong,” Clark said. “For every newsroom, that’s gonna be different. But I have not seen a large-scale reckoning that has really addressed what we know to be problems in the journalism industry.”

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