Dear Rita Skeeter: Newsrooms need to reflect the diversity of their communities

Ivy Tsang/Daily Trojan

In the past decade, “diversity” has become one of the media’s favorite buzzwords. Journalists love reporting on new diversity initiatives, and pundits will talk without end about the lack of diversity in American institutions from Congress to Hollywood. While keeping watch on inclusion is undoubtedly necessary, the media tends to turn a blind eye to diversity in one particular industry — its own. 

According to the 2018 American Society of News Editors Newspaper Diversity Survey, which analyzed the gender and race breakdowns of 292 newsrooms across America, newsrooms are 59 percent male on average. Furthermore, the survey found that when compared to the demographics of the cities they served, newsrooms were 25 percentage points more white than their audiences on average. 

These numbers have stayed largely static throughout the 21st century: Compared to 2001, only 39 percent of newsrooms saw an increase in racial diversity — but only by an average of 6.8 percentage points. Sixteen percent of newsrooms even saw a decrease in racial diversity.

Newsrooms need diversity for all the same reasons any workplace or institution does. Inclusion allows for a variety of perspectives in the workplace, which enables more effective problem solving. It encourages individuals to challenge each others’ viewpoints and ideas, fostering innovation and creativity. 

Inclusive hiring practices also help rectify systemic biases that have continually excluded women and people of color from workplaces in the past. Whether because of conscious or unconscious bias from the hiring level onward, minority individuals often struggle to make their way into their chosen career fields, even if they have comparable qualifications to their white, male peers. Often, minority individuals are even discouraged from pursuing careers that are dominated by white men. 

Newsrooms share all of these workplace issues, but diversity is more important in the news media because of the nature of the industry. Journalists are tasked with accurately informing and reporting on their community — among other responsibilities, this means painting a broad picture of the cultures and perspectives represented in one’s community. 

Technically, it’s possible to do this in an unrepresentative newsroom by sending reporters to cover cultures outside of their own backgrounds and experiences. But this poses myriad issues. 

First, it results in imbalanced and inaccurate coverage. Too often, news organizations have to apologize for insensitive reporting on cultures their journalists are unfamiliar with. 

One recent example was in The New York Times’ podcast, “The Daily.” On one episode, a reporter manufactured a border crossing from Mexico to the U.S., making an often dangerous immigrant journey seem like a short, easy trip across a river. The crossing lacked the voices of actual immigrants speaking about their experience crossing the border and instead gave voice to an American reporter. 

“Proper journalism gives subjects a voice, rather than reducing the voice of an entire minority to that of an American man with a microphone and background noises of splashing water,” Hugo Balta, the president of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, wrote in a statement NAHJ released after the episode aired. 

Second, a lack of diversity results in journalists failing to cover stories that are important to their community because their newsrooms don’t accurately represent the demographics they serve, and as a result, are unaware of these events. 

While the Daily Trojan is a majority-minority newsroom, it currently and historically lacks adequate black and Latino representation among its staff and editors. 

As a result, the newspaper sometimes fails to cover events put on by the Center for Black Cultural and Student Affairs or El Centro Chicano, if only because its editors simply aren’t always aware of their full presence on campus. Through meetings with leaders at these organizations, the Daily Trojan works to adequately report on these communities at USC, but it’s still an imperfect substitution for reporters and editors who actually represent those communities. 

The best news reporting is done when journalists develop relationships with leaders in the communities they cover. Readers are rightfully more likely to trust people who reflect their background and share details about the important stories they have to tell. When newsrooms reflect community diversity, marginalized populations are more likely to trust their local paper as a community resource rather than another powerful institution that doesn’t truly care to serve them. 

If news organizations want to claim they accurately report on the communities they cover, they must also show a commitment to accurately reflecting their communities in their newsrooms. 

Karan Nevatia is a sophomore writing about media ethics and literacy. He is also an associate managing editor of the Daily Trojan. His column, “Dear Rita Skeeter,” runs every other Thursday.