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If you doubt that diversity is the key to journalism’s future, spend some time streaming. Diverse characters and storylines are powering the entertainment industry. Journalism should follow suit — or risk irrelevance.
In 1978, the American Society of News Editors, mostly made up of newspapers companies, pledged the percentage of minorities in newsrooms would match that of the population by the year 2000. By 2019, people of color represented 21.9% of newspaper and digital news site staff and 25.9% of television news, while the population of people of color in the U.S had reached 38.7%. More than half of those under 16, meanwhile, identified as a racial or ethnic minority.
During the same time period, newspaper advertising revenue more than tripled to a peak of $49.4 billion in 2005, then plunged to an estimated $9.6 billion in 2020. Furthermore, trust in mainstream news sank to all-time low.
Sure, we can blame journalism’s woes on the internet and omnivorous tech giants, but let’s also acknowledge that 44 years after ASNE’s pledge, the news industry’s failure to diversify has left it out of step with the country it covers, and with the people whose trust and support we need the most to survive. If we take lessons from industries that have embraced diversity, challenge traditional practices that marginalize underrepresented communities, and recognize that staff diversity is essential to good business, we can create journalism that’s relevant to the communities we cover, resonates with a new generation and paves a sustainable path into the future.
Let’s remember that the internet didn’t just disrupt the news industry; it also disrupted the entire media ecosystem, from music to television to film. For example, music industry revenue fell from $14.6 billion in 1999 to $6.7 billion in 2015.
Unlike the news business, though, music industry revenue rebounded to $12.2 billion in 2020, according to the Recording Industry Association of America. What else occurred during that time? The percentage of artists of color in the top tier of the Billboard Hot 100 year-end chart grew from 36% in 2014 to 56% in 2019, according to the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative. While music industry management still sorely lacks diversity, there’s no question that artists of color are driving sales.
In film, UCLA’s Center for Scholars & Storytellers researchers concluded films that showcase diverse characters and authentic stories financially outperformed those films that rank low in diversity based on an analysis of 100 films released from 2016 and 2019. This was also evident with box office successes such as “Black Panther,” “Shang-Chi” and “Coco.”
The trend is similar in streaming; shows with casts that were at least 21% minority enjoyed the highest online viewing ratings among all racial groups in the all-important 18-49 age category, according to UCLA’s latest Hollywood Diversity Report. “Squid Game” became the first Korean TV show and the first foreign language TV series to win three Screen Actors Guild Awards.
Journalism needs to take a cue from the entertainment industry, and embrace the fact that diversity is good for business. That means more than adding a few reporters of color to a newsroom — it means a cultural shift that changes the way newsrooms are run and journalism is done, to produce news that’s relevant and authentic for a multiracial and multigenerational audience.
At the Center for Public Integrity, one of the nation’s oldest investigative newsrooms, our staff was 85% white as recently as 2016. Now, more than half our staff are people of color. I’m the second non-white CEO, and I’m drawing on my personal experience to do things differently.
For example, reporters from underserved communities rarely make it into the elite ranks of investigative journalists, for a host of reasons detailed by Chantal Flores in her article, Who Gets to Investigate? It made me think of my own experience as an aspiring news leader, when I was repeatedly judged not for my potential but for the skills I hadn’t yet proven. I had to circumvent these alleged skills deficits by taking on leadership roles at groups like the Asian American Journalists Association. Now, in hiring reporters, I can give lived experience, potential and vision the value they deserve.
Journalism can come across as extractive, mining communities for good stories, rather than partnering to bring a community’s story to light. When I was growing up, the Chinese community was only on the news if there was a gang war or Chinese New Year, hardly an approach that made us trust the media. Now in a diverse newsroom, we start by asking hard questions of ourselves. Does our reporting center on the people affected by issues, or is it driven by the voices of experts and officials? Are we providing historical context, if the issue is the product of systemic inequality? And most importantly, are we driving toward solutions that will serve those affected?
To journalism and philanthropy’s credit, there have been recent efforts to improve inclusive storytelling and build a more diverse journalism ecosystem. For example, NBCUniversal News Group is pushing for 50% of its employees to be people of color and 50% to be women. Knight Foundation recently invested more than $4 million to help legacy publishers and startup networks to become more financially sustainable in order to better serve communities of color.
This is not enough. Journalism needs a culture shift that empowers journalists of color to bring their full, lived experience into their reporting and reflect the essence of the communities they serve.
Just like Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said to the U.S. when they offered him a flight out: “The fight is here; I need ammunition, not a ride.” The same is true for those of us fighting for journalism’s survival right now. We need agency to act and resources to sustain changes, not more diversity, equity and inclusion task-forces, fellowships, training or one-year grants. If the entertainment industry can win the loyalty of a diverse audience, so can journalism.