Recent years have seen much rallying around “traditional” journalism in the face of its supposedly imminent demise, including the mythologizing of pre-Internet news media as a force of social cohesion. Lamenting the “culture of observing events from ‘inside’ a community,” Washington Post columnist and associate editor David Ignatius (5/2/10) contended:
When the information landscape was dominated by three networks and a few major newspapers, journalists were trained to report for everyone. Now, niche audiences want more intimacy and connection—even if that means less old-school independence and objectivity.
Traditional outlets, of course, did not and do not report “for everyone,” but demonstrably exclude and marginalize many people and perspectives, particularly the less politically and economically powerful (Extra!, 5–6/02, 5–6/05). Progressive critics and activists, seeing corporate journalism’s “crisis” as an opportunity, hoped that newly emerging outlets would avoid repeating those myopic patterns, forging not just new pay structures, but a new definition of news as something more than what powerful people say and do.
To what extent have digital media lived up to these hopes? There are a number of ways one could assess this dimension of “new-school” media, but the question of how they’re doing at incorporating values of gender and racial/ethnic diversity seems a key one.
Anecdotal impressions about online diversity abound, but attempts to measure representation face methodological difficulties, starting with how to define the arena being mapped. The Gender Report’s nascent Gender Check project (genderreport.com) monitors “the lead articles from two websites—one associated with a newspaper and one considered online-only—in each of the four geographic regions as defined by the U.S. Census.” Just a snapshot, to be sure, but after examining some 354 articles in 2011, the picture for women was pretty dim.
Women bylined just 31 percent of articles in online-only outlets, slightly less than the 34 percent they wrote for newspaper sites. Web outlets did a little better than their counterparts when it came to sources, but both did poorly: Women were 29 percent of sources in online-only news stories, compared to 23 percent at newspaper sites.
An ongoing byline survey by the Op-Ed Project includes Salon and Huffington Post along with a handful of other outlets. The most recent snapshot (3/21–27/12) found 20 percent female writers at Salon, 31 percent at Huffington Post. (This compares with 35 percent female bylines at the L.A. Times, 15 percent at the Washington Post.) The Op-Ed Project plans research on what women write about, to see if their contribution is sought on a range of issues, or overwhelmingly on the smaller number of women-associated issues, like childcare, that the group calls “Pink Topics.”
The pattern isn’t new, or confined to the U.S. The Global Media Monitoring Project included online news (though not online-only) in its worldwide, volunteer-based research for the first time in 2010 (WhoMakesTheNews.org), studying a day’s news on 76 national news websites in 16 countries and eight international news websites (a total of 1,061 news items). Women reported just 36 percent of the news stories in their sample, and were 23 percent of the stories’ subjects.
When it comes to race, the first thing you notice is how few outlets want to talk about it. The American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) got 75 online-only news organizations to respond to their 2011 census—up from 27 in 2010, but still too few to say much about. Those who did respond included ProPublica, which reported 19 percent of newsroom staff were black, Hispanic, Asian American, American Indian or multi-racial, Factcheck.org (17 percent), Texas Tribune (35 percent), Sacramento Press (20 percent) and Connecticut Mirror (29 percent). Online outlets reporting no people of color in their newsrooms include the Madison, Wisc., Capital Times, State-line.org, MinnPost.com and the New England Center for Investigative Reporting.
Some outlets refuse to participate on principle. Yahoo! News, the most visited news site on the Web, claims divulging staff diversity data would threaten “trade secrets”; the website (along with Google and Apple) had earlier persuaded the Labor Department to endorse its argument that any public disclosure of such information would cause “significant competitive harm” (San Jose Mercury News,) 2/14/10. Talking Points Memo’s Josh Marshall (Journal-isms, 4/15/12) objected to the survey’s focus on editorial employees, leaving out the “tech and publishing parts of the company.” The Daily Beast didn’t remember being contacted; Huffington Post and Slate say they plan to take part next time around.
Though diversity in staffing is critical, news outlets have other ways to incorporate underrepresented perspectives. As with gender, there’s little by way of in-depth research on issues of story choice, but one yearlong look at the home pages of popular sites Huffington Post, the Daily Beast, Slate and Salon (Nieman Reports, Fall/11) described a dispiritingly familiar world in which African-Americans are usually celebrities or athletes, Latinos appear primarily in sporadic immigration stories, and Native Americans and Asian-Americans go missing.
“Mainstream online media,” concluded Jean Marie Brown, “are caught in the same loop that ensnared legacy outlets. Their view of minorities is limited and that in turn hinders their ability to broaden their coverage,” to “reflect people of color in all walks of life.”
Things as they are, one might be heartened by an outlet like Huffington Post’s announcement of a news section dedicated specifically to the voices and stories of African-Americans. “Our goal is to cover more stories of importance to the black community,” site founder Arianna Huffington stated (AP, 1/20/11), even if, as the site’s 27th section (somewhere between HuffPost Travel and HuffPost High School), HuffPost GlobalBlack might’ve sounded like something of an afterthought.
Rebecca Carroll ran GlobalBlack and oversaw its relaunch as “Black Voices” after Huffington Post’s merger with AOL. She had hopes of fomenting “a nuanced narrative about race” (New York Observer, 6/29/11) that would be “authentic” (“It’s not black voices if it’s not black”) and also of interest to a broad audience; “it’s really hard to accomplish that.”
It doesn’t sound like she got much chance. Asking a (white) supervisor how to respond to inquiries about GlobalBlack after the relaunch, Carroll reported (Daily Beast, 3/30/12): “She said: ‘Ignore them! No one cares!’”
It came to sum up my experience to a large extent. Although we did assemble a great team of black writers and editors, the more I tried to guide the mission forward—proposing thought-provoking stories and headlines that countered stereotypes and truly represented black voices—the more clear it became that this was bad for business. An in-depth multimedia profile of Anita Hill to mark the 20th anniversary of the landmark case was deemed not buzzy enough. A provocative black media figure I suggested as a regular contributor was dismissed as “gross.” My idea of ignoring Black History Month, which many black Americans feel has become nothing more than a diluted and packaged ritual, was deemed unacceptable, given the advertising dollars it generates.
I’m not saying this is racist—a business needs to stay in business. As Erica Kennedy points out, “A corporation exists to make money, not to solve societal ills.” But still.
In the days leading up to the relaunch of Black Voices, an executive decision was made to have white journalists at the Huffington Post write most of the stories featured on the first day.
It’s doubtful that Carroll’s is the only experience that suggests that without explicit recognition of how sponsors and owners narrow the range of acceptable content (in ways and for reasons that can, in fact, be racist), and without honest reckoning with the differing definitions we all carry about what news matters, covering “stories of importance” to underrepresented communities will remain an “on paper” priority.
Even done well, the “special section” model invites questions. Are they places for those generally marginalized to speak authentically, without filter? Or do they unnaturally barricade perspectives, like the Women’s Pages of old, with their implication that the rest of the paper, the “real” news, concerns only men? Writ larger, the question applies to what Ignatius derides as “niche” outlets: What some denounce as “blogger apartheid” is celebrated with equal vigor by others as an advance over deferential (and fruitless) appeals for inclusion.
The answer might be that spaces created by and for people of color, or women, or any community can be a vital part of a healthy, varied media landscape, but are not a substitute for forums where these perspectives intersect and interact, as they do in life. Contrary to Ignatius’ suggestion, most people don’t want to talk only to themselves, or to never be challenged. They do want to participate in arenas where they, and the issues they care about, are respected, not devalued or erased.
It should be uncontroversial that media outlets should not be allowed to discriminate, any more than insurance companies or realtors. But media diversity has never been only an end in itself; it has been a way to expand public debate as a means toward social change.
And if influencing the public conversation is the aim, we can perhaps be encouraged by the success emerging media have had pushing stories affecting communities of color (and illuminating race and class inequities) out to a wider world, as when ProPublica (with local New Orleans media) brought a spotlight to police violence in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, or when the loose network of bloggers some call the Afrosphere brought the Jena Six story to national attention. The story of Georgia’s Scott sisters, black women serving life sentences for the (disputed) theft of $11, found its way to the New York Times et al. through minority-focused sites like Richard Prince’s Journal-isms.
Journal-isms was itself a response to online media’s limited vision. The Maynard Institute for Journalism Education’s Dori Maynard took veteran journalist Prince’s column online in 2002 out of frustration, she says (Journal-isms, 11/11/11), with the lack of attention to people of color in Jim Romenesko’s widely read industry website. She cited the resignation letter of L.A. Times reporter Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez, which blasted that paper’s diversity efforts.
Valdes-Rodriguez’s letter “went all around” the Latino and black online communities, Maynard said, while “it took Romenesko a month to six weeks to catch up.” She thought the story “showed how many people are being left out of the coverage. Then it turns out that the person who was critiquing the coverage was leaving out the same people.”
To include those who have been left out is a baseline requirement for media producers who want to work not just in new formats, but in a new way.