Lack of Diversity in Online Executive Offices

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Bob Butler
June 2, 2011

A recent story on the lack of diversity on workshop panels at new media conferences highlight a problem that journalists of color have known about for a long time: the people who call the shots in our various newsrooms often do not look like us.

In the story, senior editor Cord Jefferson suggested that White men should refuse to sit on workshop panels that included only White men.

The point he made is that all too often workshops to discuss the “future of journalism” or the “future of media” include panelists who run online news sites who are mostly White males.

The people who sit at the top of media companies – online, print and broadcast – are the ones who determine what news you see, read and hear.

If there is no diversity around the table when decisions about news coverage are made, it is easy to run stories that include stereotypes and reflect negatively on boys and men of color.

In his background paper for the 2006 Dellums Commission Report on “Public Policy Reform to Expand Life Path of Young Men of Color, Robert M. Entman writes that media images have a major effect on Blacks and Whites.

“One area of particular interest arises from the heavy representation of blacks and Latinos in crime news. Researchers have probed the effects on whites’ fearfulness of crime and their tendencies to support punitive public policies such as capital punishment and mandatory long sentences.

Other studies show an interaction between media exposure and the ethnic composition of the community: in areas where whites perceive that significant proportions of their neighbors are Black or Hispanic, heavy viewers of news, “reality,” and/or fictional crime shows are markedly more fearful of crime.”

In 2009, Bryan Monroe, visiting professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and former president of the National Association of Black Journalists, wrote a column in Huffington Post noting that the management of new media looked a lot like the management of old media.

While the lack of diversity is being decried in new media, traditional media still has its challenges.

In March 2009, at a conference on the future of investigative journalism, Huffington Post writer Sara Catania noted that the vast majority of the panelists were White males over 40.

White males comprise approximately one-third of the United States population, but they still occupy the vast of the leadership positions in the media.

Journalists of color have worked in the mainstream media since the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 that outlawed discrimination in, among other things, employment. Thanks to the efforts of journalism associations representing Blacks, Hispanics, Asians and Native Americans many of these people were eventually promoted into management positions.

But, like new media, the majority of people at the top in most traditional media companies are White men.

The American Society of Newspaper Editors began conducting a diversity survey of newspapers in 1978 with the goal of having all newspapers reflect the diversity of the nation by 2025. The latest report shows the number of minorities plunged for the third straight year.

When asked about their diversity numbers, broadcast and online media companies are reluctant, or in some cases, refuse release them.

The National Association of Black Journalists conducts its own annual census of television newsroom managers. The 2010 report found only 13 percent of the managers were people of color.

Faced with the results of the numbers in the report, some of the broadcast companies have reached out to NABJ and taken steps to increase the diversity of their management teams.

Following the Columbia University investigative journalism conference, organizer Charles Lewis expressed disappointment that he’d never had a student of color apply for his internship program at the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University.

He reached out to NABJ, which sent several students from Howard University. Both did very well in the program.

In 2007 ASNE began surveying online companies. Several companies felt so strongly about being asked about the data they asked the federal government to intervene.

The Labor Department agreed that Yahoo, Google and three other Silicon Valley companies did not have to disclose the information because to do so would be “revealing trade secrets.”

Given that reality, what will it take to make progress with the online companies?

“It’s going to take a major online media company to take a bold step and say ‘we are not going to hide, we’re going to release our numbers,’” said Kathy Times, president of the National Association of Black Journalists.

“Until a company steps and says ‘we are really excited about diversity and the additional revenue and exposure it brings’ things tend to stay the same.”

A 2010 ASNE study found online company newsrooms tend to be more diverse than mainstream newspapers. But there is no way to know if that diversity extends into management. More than half of the online news sites queried, including Huffington Post and Yahoo, failed to respond.

Those online media companies' executives who tend to show up at these “future of journalism” conferences should be looking at ways they can increase the diversity in their pipelines to leadership, if they haven’t already.

Conference organizers should do the same, according to Joseph Grimm, visiting editor in residence at the Michigan State University School of Journalism. Grimm spent 18 years as a recruiter for the Detroit Free Press.

“When setting up a panel, group or project team, make it a policy to have a diverse team,” said Grimm. “Whenever I produce a book, put on a conference or plan a project, I build diversity in at the beginning because more perspectives make everything work better. I do not set up teams that lack diversity.”

Times supports the notion that White men should refuse to participate on panels that lack diversity.

She recalled a gentleman she met recently on an airplane to Jackson, Mississippi.

The man was one of the original Freedom Riders, a group of Black and White men and women who rode segregated buses through the South in the 1960’s.

“People like him, who marched and rode the buses, took great chances. He told me the last time he’d been on a plane in Jackson he’d been escorted by the FBI for his own safety,” said Times.

“That was a white gentleman who did it in the 60’s, why not do it in the digital age?” asks Times. These guys (online executives) can be part of the new freedom riders of the digital age if they just say no to being on a panel with no diversity.”



This subject has been written

This subject has been written about before, but I'll say it again. The problem with "future of journalism" conferences are their fairly strict definitions of journalism, i.e.  as straight mainstream hard news. And since many of those once "edgy" digital newsrooms were eventually bum-rushed by the print management and "integrated", now the digital newsrooms are the very same as the print ones. So what's changed? Nothing.

As I've told my colleagues at the Online News Association, their ranks will change when they broaden their definition of news and incorporate those who represent the real future — entrepreneurs who have embraced niches in digital that don't quite fit the old model. That's where you'll find the color, in lifestyle, music, culture.  In the things people of culture create themselves, not the mainstream newsroom.

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