The journalism industry is letting a vital resource wither on the vine.
The News Leaders Association has — through its precursor, the American Society of News Editors — conducted an annual diversity survey since 1978. The resulting report is a basic but indispensable tool for gauging diversity efforts in journalism and helps newsrooms see larger trends about hiring, retaining, and promoting underrepresented journalists. Back in 2020, NLA announced it was pausing the survey over disappointingly low participation rates from news organizations.
For this year’s report, which will be the first released since 2019, NLA said it reached out to thousands of news organizations and planned to have 2,500 print and online organizations participate. Meredith Clark, a professor at Northeastern University who has been the survey’s lead researcher since 2018, told the Associated Press in October that her goal was to reach at least 1,500 responses in order to produce a statistically solid report.
In the end, just 303 news organizations responded, NLA executive director Myriam Marquez said. That was down from the 429 orgs that responded in 2019 and prompted the survey to “pause” due to low participation. (The 2018 survey — the historic low-water mark for participation — had 293 news organizations respond, a response rate around 17%.)
The report is expected to be released this week, after several delays, and will count 12,781 journalists from the 303 participating newsrooms. Even without this year’s final report in hand, it’s hard not to question the future of the survey.
The two-year long “pause” to retool the survey didn’t help. Pushing the deadline to participate back again and again didn’t work. Historic protests and an industry-wide conversation about race and representation did not spontaneously prompt many more news organizations to respond.
Clark, who told NLA this year that she plans to step away from the diversity survey, was candid about where she thinks the project falls down.
“What has become abundantly clear to me is that diversity can never be a measure of goodwill. You don’t get to transparency about diversity by relying on people’s goodwill,” Clark said. “Ultimately, that’s what the design of the newsroom diversity survey at the organizational level does. It’s driven by relationships. It’s driven by political will. It’s driven by those journalists, and leaders within journalism, who are willing to withstand criticism about the progress that they may have not made, and willing to do some introspection about where they need to improve. That is not tenable and that is the reason that we continue to see declining numbers of participation.”
For Clark, being transparent is the least newsrooms can do, especially as outlets often ask businesses and other organizations to do the same.
“It feels like supreme hypocrisy on the part of the journalism industry,” Clark said. “Transparency and doing the digging and the reporting — all of that is so germane to what we understand journalism to be. And we are absolutely unwilling to do it among ourselves.”
There are some bright spots, based on what we know so far about the unpublished survey. The Associated Press participated for the first time. There was strong participation from newspaper chains including McClatchy and Gannett, which has pledged to “make its workforce as diverse the country by 2025.” NLA is also linking to the handful of newsrooms that have decided to self-publish their diversity stats — including The New York Times and The Washington Post — even though they declined to contribute to NLA’s survey that seeks to paint a more comprehensive picture about print and online journalism.
The survey includes questions on race, gender, ethnicity, disability, and veteran status and not every organization has the necessary data readily available. Small and resource-strapped outlets may have a difficult time finding someone available to fill out the spreadsheet-based survey, which Clark acknowledged could take multiple hours depending on the organization. A few newsrooms told NLA that they didn’t have the requested information on hand, but instead of failing to respond entirely, they passed along what they did have and added a voluntary self-report within their existing HR system to collect more.
What about the vast majority of outlets that did not respond, though? Marquez cited “many” out-of-date emails on the list that NLA purchased from Editor and Publisher (potentially due to layoffs and other turnover within the industry) and some outreach going to spam folders as two contributing factors.
Marquez — who joined NLA as interim executive editor in May 2021, and whose previous experience includes serving as executive editor at El Nuevo Herald and editorial page editor for the Miami Herald — also pointed, more obliquely, to newsrooms knowing they were not meeting diversity expectations as a reason for non-participation.
“I can tell you that frustration,” she said. “If you don’t have any possibility of hiring anyone, how can you diversify your staff?”
Other reasons newsrooms gave NLA for not participating were that they were not legally required to collect the demographic data NLA was asking for, that timing of the survey was not ideal (the original deadline was in October and some preferred a first-quarter deadline), and that they were worried that the information would be used against them in labor negotiations, among other concerns.
Clark characterized reasons for non-participation as ranging from “benign neglect to passive aggressive resistance to outright hostility.”
Some survey feedback was openly unfriendly to the ideals of diversity and inclusion. Clark recalled that one newsroom sent a response along the lines of, “We’re not participating in your woke diversity exercises, you snowflakes.” Another emailed response, when Clark was testing out language for a gender nonbinary question, stood out to her too.
“I got a response from an editor-in-chief who asked, ‘Well, what am I supposed to do, check between the legs of everyone who works for me?’” Clark said. “It echoes the same sort of nasty emails that journalists of color, that women in journalism, that people who are at all different in journalism, get from the general public. But these are coming from the people who are supposed to be upholding values of journalism as a part of democracy.”
One of the solutions that Clark has advocated for, and that NLA has been slow to adopt, is implementing stronger incentives for outlets to submit their data.
This year, for the first time, NLA will require news organizations to complete their diversity survey to be considered for some NLA awards. (That’s one reason why the survey, though the official report is imminent, remains open right now.) Next year, it will be required for all NLA awards. But why stop there? Why not reach out to major funders like Knight and MacArthur and awards committees from regional SPJ honors to the Pulitzers and ask them to include a participation clause?
Clark says she’ll be devoting more time to developing her own research center at Northeastern, but underscored she believes having an industry-wide diversity survey is critically important. (NLA, for their part, said they want to continue working with Clark.) Other organizations look at slices of the industry, such as diversity in nonprofit newsrooms, but no other survey seeks to be as comprehensive.
“This is the tool that the industry, that researchers, that journalism needs,” Clark said.
As a master’s student in journalism, Clark used the NLA survey — then the ASNE Newsroom Diversity Survey — to learn what the journalism landscape looks like, specifically for Black journalists.
“Over the years, I was critical of the way the data were collected, the way they were reported, and I thought, with great hubris, ‘I can do a better job of it,’” she said. “I learned that this project is not just about the person who’s leading it, and it’s definitely about the association and the relationships that the association values.”
“I’ve been met with the kind of crushing resistance that you would expect when you’re trying to do things that contribute to structural and systemic change,” she added. “I just did not expect to meet with that among leaders in journalism.”