Podcast: Diversity in the Newsroom

Gene Policinski talks with the Women’s Media Center about their recent report on the status of women of color in the American media.


In this episode of The First Five, Gene Policinski spoke with journalist Katti Gray and Cristal Williams Chancellor, director of communications for the Women’s Media Center, about recent statistics around women of color in the American news media.


Gene Policinski is president and chief operating officer of the Newseum Institute.


Katti Gray, journalist and custom content producer
Cristal Williams Chancellor, director of communications, Women’s Media Center


Gene Policinski: Welcome to The First Five, a program of the Newseum Institute in Washington DC dedicated to the five freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment. The First Five is a podcast where we cut through the legal jargon and explain to you exactly how your First Amendment freedoms work and what you can do to protect them. I’m your host Gene Policinski.

Joining me today to talk about the Women’s Media Center Report, The Status of Women of Color in US News Media 2018, are two of the people who are most responsible for that report, journalist and custom content producer Katti Gray, and Cristal Williams Chancellor, the Women’s Media Center Director of Communications. Thank you both for joining us.

The statistics in the report are, I guess in some ways, disappointing. There is some progress being made in diversity for women of color, but as this happened so long, in my experience, since journalism groups, perhaps 40 years ago, began to really take diversity seriously, not enough progress, and also we know that some groups a few years ago sort of attempted to declare victory based on demographics alone, say over time we’ll be there.

So data that is at the top of report: women of color represent just under 8% of U.S. print newsroom staff, 12.6% of local TV news staff, and 6.2% of local radio staff. I know you mentioned in the report itself that it’s harder to measure online. Do you have a sense of online numbers?

Cristal: Gene, first of all, I want to thank you for the opportunity to share the findings of our Status of Women of Color in U.S. News and Media 2018. We appreciate the opportunity.

For online newsrooms, there is not any data that tracks how women of color, people of color are doing in online newsrooms. The online news association has indicated that that is something that they want to do in the future, moving forward, but right now they do not track gender and race.

The other organizations that do track in some way are the American Society of News Editors and RTDNA, Radio, Television, and Digital News Association. They have some limited data. Newsrooms, we are hoping, moving forward will require newsrooms to be more transparent in sharing that data.

Gene Policinski: One of the reoccurring themes that, I think, those of us who have an interest in this subject always come back to is that, and again, noted in your report, that by no later than 2050, perhaps earlier in other areas of the country, there will not be a majority ethnic or racial group. Everyone will be less than 50% of the population.

Obviously, we’ve had a white majority in the past, but we’ve long said at the Newseum that a free press will only survive, ultimately, if it reflects the people about which it reports. This lack of progress in really reaching and kind of parity, I think, again, the report notes what we all should know, but I’m glad you cite it through your president, I believe, Julie Burton. “Women are more than half the U.S. population. People of color are nearly 40%.”

It looks like the largest single area is local TV with 12.6% women of color. Are we bucking anything new other than, maybe it’s the good old boy network, maybe it’s prejudice just to say it out loud. Is there another reason we have not reached these numbers that approach anything like that population? Katti?

Katti: I’d say there are a number of factors at play. Certainly and quite obviously the old boys network exists still. That is not to suggest that there are not women in some key places both as decision makers and as on the ground rank and file journalists.

I think part of what we are up against these days, frankly, is the fact that our industry is … Some would call it upended. I would like to think we’ve sort of reached a bottom and are moving forward. Just the sheer changes in the industry, I think, in some places, has pushed diversity and the issue of diversity and hiring farther back on the list of priorities when making a dollar and staying afloat is sort of a main concern.

Nevertheless, that’s precisely one of the issues that almost all of the women that we spoke with raised. It should not be on the backburner if we’re talking practically about how to develop audience and retain audience. At the same time that news organizations are changing their financial construct, then [crosstalk 00:04:52] audience ought to be pivotal. It’s just a natural question to raise.

Gene Policinski: One of the things I found was fascinating was you interview … We get a number of reports, all of us, that have a lot statistics. You went out and interviewed … Is it close to 30 news professionals who all have some opinions and some perspective on this? What did you take away from those interviews? Both you and Cristal, the ones you present in this report. Is there a theme or a series of observations that seem to be a common understanding of why we are where we are?

Katti: Sure, and I think they varied. The younger journalists in this age of online news start-ups, etc. particularly seized on the idea that many who have money to invest in online media, new media, the way forward tend to be white men. That in itself is problematic.

They cited lowered salaries, particularly for younger journalists, and the difficulty of bringing in women of color who, perhaps, disproportionately do not come from monied backgrounds. That’s part of it.

Among the veteran journalists, as Dana Kennedy, she says, “I should not be a sorority of one.” Sort of extrapolating from there, we should not be having this discussion still. Even the veterans say, “Yeah, we’ve been able to do some great things, and we’ve made some great progress, and we shouldn’t ignore that. But the same sort of systemic issues remain.”

Cristal: Yeah, I just wanted to add that one of the things that seemed to be a theme through the 30 or so journalists that Katti interviewed is that many of them, whether they were high powered more household names like Soledad O’Brien or Joy Reid or Ann Curry still encounter some of the same challenges that women who are lesser known still encountered. Whether that had been some of the things that Katti referenced or whether it was prejudice, racism, sexism that it still was uniform across the board.

That is one of the things that I think continues to be a struggle and continues to be a challenge for the industry and, frankly, for the nation as a whole.

Gene Policinski: I wonder if you could give us some context on one of the observations, I think from an assistant metro editor. Is it Romana, who’s saying of the struggles at times, she said there was a cap on people of color in newsrooms. Is that a cap on advancement? Is that just a sheer cap on numbers? Is it that idea or is it just another kind of cap?

Cristal: I think that Romana probably speak for many women of color, and one of the things she said, also, is whether it’s intentional or not the question of whether it’s intentional is up for debate. What we would like to see to be more intentional is that newsrooms think through more of their hiring, recruiting, and promoting purposes.

I think, as Katti mentioned, that newsrooms often have kind of defaulted to the things that they’ve done in the past that have not worked very well or there have been one or two journalists who have gone from one newsroom to the next newsroom instead of newsrooms looking for new voices and new opportunities for women of color and, frankly, for women as well.

Those numbers that you cited at the beginning of the report have not shifted. In some cases they’ve actually gone down a little bit. If you look at even more of the detail of the research that’s available, while women of color are less than 8% of newsrooms, print newsrooms, for black women, it’s only 2.6%. For Hispanic women it’s only 2.5%. We’re talking about really small numbers in an age where there’s a lot of tension [inaudible 00:08:35] and the [inaudible 00:08:38] report, looking at it 50 years later. The progress is still not where it should be.

Gene Policinski: This is gonna sound like a cop out, and I don’t mean it to be, but Joy Reid, I think, touched on this in the report and maybe some others. There was clearly a time, and I can go back and admit that I started in journalism in the late 1960’s, and I saw firsthand outright racism, outright hostility and a sort of not in my newsroom attitude.

Joy and others touch on what is maybe a more difficult opponent, which is sort of a benign ignorance that, “Is this still a problem?” Or, I think Katti, as you suggested, “That’s my sixth priority after keeping the doors open, the lights on, etc.”

Can you give, if you can, from the report, a sense of where that opponent of diversity really is today?

Katti: I think, in some instances, there is sort of a benign ignorance or neglect, but I’m not sure that that is always true. Nicole Hannah-Jones, in her very … Sort of trying to balance her fury with the sort of poignancy of it all, she said, “I talk to women of color all the time who think they had a really good interview, and they end up not getting the job.”

The concern becomes, are they not getting the proper references? At a time when we’ve perhaps, or some places pay lip service to diversity, but actually want people of color, for lack of a term, who are just, who are white-bread, who are just like them.

If you present these aspects of yourself that, frankly, serve good journalism well, which is difference, if you walk differently, if you come from a different place, it’s how much room do you give one to be who they are without being concerned that they are too different, too feisty, too black, too brown, too womanly, too whatever.

I think that that’s a challenge in some places is the expectation that you will come in and be just like the white guys. Or can you be yourself? And yourself is seen as an advantage to the journalism and not sort of some sort of detriment, that there’s a presumption that, perhaps, there are certain women who will not be team players.

Gene Policinski: I think about the newsrooms I’ve worked in from very small to U.S.A. Today, and that burden wasn’t put on white guys. In fact, sometimes your eccentricities, the feisty or the [inaudible 00:11:03] was considered to be a positive. You added to the rich tapestry of the newsroom. I don’t know if anybody ever put it that way. It’s probably a little too fancy for newsroom. But you weren’t isolated.

Some people were prized because, in my parlance, eccentric or off the standard white guy reporter mold. How do you approach that? It’s endemic in our business at times that we say we reach out to multiple sources, we have our own Rolodex of five or, I should say, our own Outlook list of five, that we don’t expand. We say we value diversity, and we write about the same communities in the same fashion.

I know this is asking the cosmic question, but taking the numbers in that report, if you’re appalled by them, what does one do?

Cristal: There are many things that one can do. In addition to being very intentional about looking for women who are talented, and there are many of them or many of us who are very talented and have leadership skills that can help to bring new voices and bring new stories to the newsroom because the lack of women, lack of women of color in newsrooms means that there are a lot of stories that are not being told and voices that aren’t being heard.

One of the missions of the Women’s Media Center is to make sure that women are visible and powerful in all media, including news media.

We would also challenge newsrooms to be more transparent, to report those gender and diversity numbers that, often, are kept within the organizations but are not shared more broadly or more publicly.

And that organizations need to look beyond the normal or usual or comfortable network of looking for talent for their news organizations, not to go to the same people who they may know of, but to reach beyond that to some people they may not know and to seek voices and input those who have much to say but have not been given the opportunity to do so.

Gene Policinski: Another difficult question, perhaps, is that the report touches on, particularly in the interview, several times, about having more women of color, for example, in the decision making area. It’s one thing for numbers, and that’s an important measure. It’s one thing to bring people in, but you wait a generation for them to come in, and today a lot of journalists don’t stay because of hours and pay and lucrative offers from PR and other places.

What’s the thinking in terms of the impact of having more women of color in decision making process? I don’t wanna turn to the so-called easy solution, but would that help fix a lot of what we’re talking about is just having women in management?

Cristal: Yes. Women are critical. In those critical decision making positions, as we know from being in the newsroom, makes all the difference as to what stories get covered, what stories don’t get covered, and what voices are included.

At the Women’s Media Center, we also have a list, a database, the Women’s Media Center Shesource, which is a database of 1,300 diverse women who could talk about a variety of topics that newsrooms often say that they can’t find someone to speak about.

I should also mention that, while the numbers are very dire, there are some success stories I think that are represented in the report. For example, Mindy Marquez, who’s the editor of the Miami Herald, but she is one of the few women of color who are in top management. She is the editor at the Miami Herald, and you don’t find many Mindy’s in the world.

We have found that women in the newsroom do make a difference because they do represent a part of media that often do not have a voice or are not given the opportunity to have a voice. That is even more so for women of color.

Gene Policinski: Katti, in the time that we have left, what do you want people to take away from this report?

Katti: That we’ve got a lot of work to do. That presumptions need to be laid down. That it is not difficult to hire for diversity. It never has been. It’s an intention and a decision. That diversity of voices, regions, gender, all of that simply makes for better journalism and an opportunity to build audience and to build a greater credibility for the craft.

Gene Policinski: Joining us today to talk about the Women’s Media Center report, The Status of Women of Color in the U.S. News Media 2018 are the reports writer, Katti Gray, and editor, Cristal Williams Chancellor, who is also Women’s Media Center Director of Communications.

Thank you both for joining us on First Five.

Cristal: Thank you, Gene. If I could just add that our report is available on womensmediacenter.com for those who want to access of learn more about the work that we do.

Gene Policinski: Thank you for being with us today for another episode of the First Five, a production of the Newseum Institute located in the Newseum in the heart of Washington D.C. The Newseum, where there’s more to every story.

For more information about the Newseum Institute go to newseuminstitute.org. I’m Gene Policinski.

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